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Artist’s Choice: Rene Marie on Protest Music

Today’s top jazz performers pick 10 favorite tracks by the players, singers and styles that helped define them.

Nina Simone
Gil Scott-Heron
Gil Scott-Heron
Charles Mingus

The role of the jazz musician who composes and performs protest music is an important one. Doing so automatically give others the courage to compose, play and sing his or her own. It is, however, becoming more difficult to find jazz musicians in general and jazz vocalists in particular who boldly give voice to social ills through their music-an unusual and unfortunate turn of affairs considering that jazz itself began as a form of protest music.

When the topic of jazz protest music is raised, there are some musicians who immediately come to mind: Oscar Brown Jr., Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron. We think of them as fearless as they put to music and offer to the public what the rest of us will talk about only in private-if we dare talk about it at all.

Some of these tracks are tough to listen to, like the Abbey Lincoln/Max Roach “Triptych,” Roy Campbell’s “Amadou Diallo” and Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit.” Powerful stuff. But that is what protest music is meant to be: powerful. It is meant to move the listener to action, even if that action is simply re-thinking one’s firmly held beliefs.

“Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace”

Max Roach We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite

(Candid, 1960)

A brilliant, painfully haunting piece done by two musicians who obviously have complete trust in one another’s musicality, thereby allowing the tune its full expressions of emotion. Abbey Lincoln’s vocalese blends so perfectly with Roach’s percussion, it’s easy to forget you’re listening to a singer. But be warned: The second piece in the triptych is excruciating to listen to.

“Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)”

Nina Simone ‘Nuff Said! (RCA Victor, 1968)

Most folks would expect “Mississippi Goddam” when they see Nina Simone’s name listed here. But her quieter, more poignant offerings can also grab one around the throat. Gene Taylor was Simone’s bass player and he composed this three days after Dr. Martin Luther King’s death, performing it live the same night in New York. When Nina whispers “mountain top” and yells/sings “violent man,” the presence of vocal genius is overwhelming.

“Forty Acres and a Mule”

Oscar Brown Jr.
Mr. Oscar Brown, Jr. Goes to Washington

(Verve, 1965)

Protest music is by nature serious and thought provoking. But when humor or sarcasm is included it possesses an extra bite. Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Forty Acres and a Mule” provides the necessary bit of truthful levity that helps maintain one’s sanity in the face of promises broken.

“Winter in America”

Gil Scott-Heron Winter in America (Strata-East, 1974)

In general I prefer Scott-Heron’s spoken-word pieces, but this man never failed to evoke stark imagery with his lyrics, regardless of how they came out of his mouth, as exemplified in this excerpt from a 2009 interview: “We felt as though we had come across something that people did not understand or did not recognize … the season that we were going into, not for three months, but for an extended period of time. A lot of the folks who represented summer and spring and fall had been killed and assassinated. The only season left was winter.” (Track available on 1998 TVT reissue.)

“Original Faubus Fables”

Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus

(Candid, 1960)

Mingus was one of the baddest motherfuckers, with scary-deep insight and an inimitable way of seeing and stating things. Here is another example of perfectly executed musical protest and sarcasm against Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who sent out the National Guard to prevent nine black students from integrating Little Rock Central High School in 1957. His first release of this tune (“Fables of Faubus”) didn’t include lyrics due to Columbia’s refusal. Mingus later released it on the Candid label as “Original Faubus Fables” with lyrics.

“I Have a Dream”

Mary Lou Williams Mary Lou’s Mass (Mary, 1975)

Mary Lou Williams once said she is praying through her fingers when she plays in an attempt to touch people’s spirits. Though this song, written in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and recorded the following year, isn’t blatantly protest music, it does nibble at the edges of social issues by quoting and paraphrasing portions of Dr. King’s speech. (Smithsonian Folkways reissued the album in 2005.)

“Strange Fruit”

Nina Simone Pastel Blues (Philips, 1965)

Though Billie Holiday implied in her autobiography that she’d co-written this song, Abel Meeropol is the real composer. I tried to use another version other than Nina Simone’s, but it was pointless. The stark chord accompaniment and understated horror of Simone’s quiet, sad voice leave me nothing less than traumatized by the time the song is over. But … is it ever over?

“Amadou Diallo”

Roy Campbell Ethnic Stew and Brew (Delmark, 2001)

Roy Campbell’s work is always visceral, and this selection is particularly captivating. Though this is an instrumental, it is more than a jazz-inflected selection named for the 21-year-old devout Muslim from Liberia who was shot dead in the doorway of his home in the Bronx. The 41 shots fired at the unarmed Diallo by four policemen-along with the tension, anger and unanswered questions incidents like this inevitably raise-are sonically captured all the way to the end of this piece.

“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”

Ruthie Ristich Carefully Taught (Skydancer, 2002)

Who woulda thunk that this lovely song written by Rodgers and Hammerstein about racial prejudice could be snuck into South Pacific? Rodgers and Hammerstein were repeatedly pressured to remove the song from the musical, with lawmakers in Georgia actually going so far as to introduce legislation that would make illegal the performance of any creative works with ideas that stemmed from “Communist” thinking. According to James Michener (author of the book that inspired the musical), “The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they wanted to do the play in the first place. … [E]ven if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in.”

“(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue”

Ethel Waters Ethel Waters 1929-1939 (Timeless, 1998)

“All the race fellows crave ‘high-yellows’/Gentlemen prefer them light/I’m just another spade who can’t make the grade/Looks like there’s nothing but dark days in sight.” Originally one of the songs in the musical Hot Chocolates, these are the opening lyrics of “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.” Lyricist Andy Razaf (the music was written by Fats Waller) sussed out the painful realities of racism and self-hatred within one’s own race, as the black girl continues to sing, “I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case/’Cause I can’t hide what is on my face.” This agonizing reality continues to be expressed via the song’s inclusion in the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’.

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

Andy Bey Ain’t Necessarily So (12th Street, 2007)

Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was probably the first protest song I learned, before I was 10. Written by Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney, it’s one of the songs from Peter, Paul and Mary’s album See What Tomorrow Brings. A few years ago, I heard Andy Bey do his bad-ass version of it and immediately thought of him as a kindred spirit. This song’s message competes aggressively as one of the most outspoken protest songs ever written: How can a country send its young men to war and have so little for them if they are lucky enough to come back alive? How can a government depend on the backbreaking work of young men and then discard them, allowing them to end up homeless or standing in breadlines? Written in the 1930s, it was an anthem for the Depression and continues to be, like most protest songs, applicable today.

Originally Published