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music that inspired but also had the power to entertain.
With just a few days to Christmas we offer you something completely unseasonal! We were all set to give you the Johnny Cash Christmas album but the link we had for it went down so maybe next year for that one. Instead here’s an album of classic protest songs from the early part of the last century. You can get a free download of the album by clicking the link below.
The dictionary definition of protest is
an expression or declaration of objection, disapproval, or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid”
This is something that we seem to have forgotten in this day and age. In the first part of the 20th Century, it was a different story, with protest songs coming in all guises and musical genres. Civil Rights, the atomic bomb, being poor, homeless and unemployed, prostitution, war and at times all the wrongs of our society. Never easy listening but music and song writing is not just entertainment! It should enlighten and if not directly change the world, at least point out a few home truths about the society we have created. Music can be used as an incredibly effective weapon… Listen and learn.
Although it wasn’t until the folk revival and folk-rock movements of the 1960s that the protest song was a widely recognized wing of popular music in the USA, there had been socially conscious protest songs of sorts since the dawn of the recording age. This excellent compilation assembles twenty of them, and refreshingly, it doesn’t emphasize material from the roots of the folk revival (though there’s certainly some of that). Instead, this comes from all over the roots music map, from country-blues and old-timey folk/country artists to gospel, hillbilly, and Western swing. There are certainly a number of famous artists and classic songs here, including the Sons of the Pioneers ‘Old Man Atom’, Bessie Smith’s ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’, Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘Black, Brown and White’, Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ and Woody Guthrie’s ‘1913 Massacre’. There are, too, sides by Bill Monroe (as part of the Monroe Brothers), Uncle Dave Macon, Memphis Minnie and even Gene Autry, who shows a surprising and little-known side of his repertoire with ‘The Death of Mother Jones’, inspired by the working class Irish born labour activist Mary Harris Jones who was born in Cork and emigrated to North America as a teenager.
“She was fearless of every danger,
She hated that which was wrong;
She never gave up fighting
Until her breath was gone.
This noble leader of labor
Has gone to a better land;
While the hard-working miners,
They miss her guiding hand”
Many of these tracks are not ‘protest’ songs in the angry and earnest sense that many listeners associate with the style; they often take a more lightly satirical, even a congenial approach. The enjoyable novelty tinged pieces on the then-new threat of atomic energy (‘Old Man Atom’, the Golden Gate Quartet’s alternately somber and swinging gospel number ‘Atom and Evil’, Billy Hughes and His Rhythm Buckeroos ‘Atomic Sermon’) remind us of how ambivalently the nuclear threat was viewed when it was a new thing, and how songs commenting on it sounded rather like they were whistling in the dark.

If you do want songs that were more audible ancestors of the folk revival, however, they’re here in cuts like Josh White, Millard Lampbell, and the Almanac Singers ‘Billy Boy’ and Lee Hayes with the Almanac Singers ‘The Dodger Song’, the Almanac Singers being a huge influence in getting said folk revival off the ground in the middle of the 20th century. Whatever your political perspective, this is impressive on purely musical and lyrical grounds, and can be enjoyed for those qualities alone. This isn’t the most extensive anthology constructed along this theme: Bear Family’s massive ten-CD box ‘Songs for Political Action: Folk Music, Topical Songs, and the American Left, 1926-1953’ obviously has more. But as a single-disc overview of some notable entries in the genre, this is fine, with informative historical liner notes.

Within the confines of this album, we have tried to represent great examples of each strand. They range from the incredibly emotional and heart breaking to the light hearted and humorous but all still come with a serious message. The music may be decades old but it demands to be heard by each generation that has come since .
1. The Sons Of The Pioneers – Old Man Atom (1947)
2. Texas Jim Robertson – The Last Page of Mein Kampf (1942)
3. Lee Hays + The Almanac Singers – The Dodger Song (1941)
4. Bessie Smith- Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out’ (19290
5. Uncle Dave Macon – ‘We’re Up Against It Now’ (1926)
6. Big Bill Broonzy – ‘Black,Brown And White’ (1951)
7. Slim Smith – ‘Breadlines Blues’ (1931)
8. Golden Gate Quartet- ‘Atom And Evil’ (1946)
9. The Monroe Brothers – ‘The Forgotten Soldier Boy’ (1936)
10. Memphis Minnie – ‘Husslin Blues Women’ (1945)
11. Harry McClintock – ‘Fifty Years From Now’ (1931)
12. Mississippi Sheiks – ‘Sales Tax’ (1934)
13. Josh White/Millard Lampell The Almanac Singers – ‘Billy Boy’ (1941)
14. Billy Hughes And His Buckaroos – ‘Atomic Sermon’ (1953)
15. Dave McCarn – ‘Poor Man, Rich Man’ (1930)
16. Gene Autry – ‘The Death Of Mother Jones’ (1931)
17. Billie Holiday – ‘Strange Fruit’ (1939)
18. Furry Lewis – ‘Judge Harsh Blues’ (1928)
19. Ernest V. Stoneman – ‘All I’ve Got Is Gone’ (1928)
20. Woody Guthrie – ‘1913 Massacre’ (1945)


Part of the ‘Classic Album Reviews’ series (click here for the entire series) where we bring you something a little bit different to what you’re use to. Lost gems that have inspired and provoked folk music and musicians right up to modern celtic-punk music. Usually out of print so we can provide a free download link for you.
“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living”- Mary Harris Jones (1837-1930)
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