Margaret Mead once said, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” These artists represent a personal and political courage that has contributed to social justice.
Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” (1939)
“Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze / strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” This lament was a call to end racial inequality at a time when lynchings were commonplace. The song laid a path for future African American musicians to push for civil and human rights, including Nina Simone (“Mississippi Goddam,” 1964), Aretha Franklin (“Think,” 1968), Edwin Starr (“War,” 1969), Jimi Hendrix (the cacophonous antiwar version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” 1969), and Public Enemy (“Fight the Power,” 1975).
Pete Seeger, “Which Side Are You On?” (1967)
In the 1960s singers like Bob Dylan (“Masters of War”) and John Lennon (“Give Peace a Chance”) called for social change. Folksinger Pete Seeger recorded “Which Side Are You On?” more than three decades after it was penned by Florence Reece, the wife of a Kentucky union organizer. The song’s message to end financial control by a rich minority still rings true and has been rerecorded by numerous artists.
Brian Eno, “Discreet Music” (1975)
Modern ambient music was developed by Brian Eno, who’s also had a hand in recording David Bowie, Talking Heads, and U2, among other innovative rock acts. What does quiet, slowly changing music have to do with social change? Perhaps a perfect antidote to a culture spiraling faster and faster out of control is music that says, “Don’t just do something―sit there!”
Choying Drolma and Steve Tibbets, “Song of Realization” (1997)
In a musical meeting of East and West, guitarist Steve Tibbets, percussionist Mark Anderson (a Zen priest), and Tibetan Buddhist nun Choying Drolma produced two albums based on traditional chants: Cho (1997) and Selwa (2004). As Gary Snyder’s 1961 poem “Buddhist Anarchism” says: “The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.” Tibbets’s latest CD is Natural Causes (2010).
The Pretenders, “Break Up the Concrete” (2008)
Chrissie Hynde formed the Pretenders in 1978 during the birth of punk rock, which gave rise to a plethora of politically astute bands like the Clash, Dead Kennedys, and Rage against the Machine. The up-tempo title song, “Break Up the Concrete,” beckons us to loosen our spiritual and political dogmas and question authority: “Don’t tell me it’s progress ’cause that’s just a lie.” Another song on the album, “Boots of Chinese Plastic,” has Hynde singing Buddhist and Hindu chants.
Ani DiFranco, “Which Side Are You On?” (2012)
Ani DiFranco electrified and funkified this classic. She updated the lyrics to be contemporary (“Lord knows the free market / is anything but free / it costs dearly to the planet / and the likes of you and me”) yet harks back to “Strange Fruit” (“Are we living in the shadow of slavery / or are we moving on?”). “Which Side Are You On?,” one of 12 songs on the CD, features Pete Seeger on banjo and backing vocals.