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  • They’ll Never Keep Us DownSongs of Protest, 1913–2018
  • Aaron Smithers, Music Editor

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Illustration by Bill Thelen.

[End Page 165]

Hazel Dickens wrote “They’ll Never Keep Us Down” in 1976 for the soundtrack to Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County, USA. In Dickens’s lyrics, “they” are the rich men who prioritize profits over people, who “rob, steal, and kill” to maintain their power. Songs of protest have been around as long as humans have made music, and the “they” in these songs is not exclusively rich men but shifts according to the socio-historical context of the singer, or the needs of a community organizing around a common cause for whom the song provides a rallying cry. “They” can be any people, institutions, or structures that would oppress or otherwise subjugate another’s human rights. While protest songs are often communiqués for a specific audience, the power of the medium allows for transcendence of the subject and can lead to greater understanding of our shared humanity. We may not know who “they” are, but when we listen, we are energized, outraged, and connected.

The songs collected here span over a century, and the emotions and issues distilled in the music intersect constructs of race, class, sexuality, and politics: workers demand decent wages; farmers struggle against industrial agriculture; African Americans stand up for equal rights; prisoners lament the corruption of the criminal justice system; gender-nonconforming persons affirm their identities; artists reject the strictures of genre; immigrants and “others” have names. Not just a vehicle for airing grievances, protest songs act as focal points for engagement, catalysts for change, and inspiration for action. They offer hope and a vision of a better world. Like Allen Toussaint, we can hold Lee Dorsey’s words close, a mantra: “Oh yes we can, I know we can can, yes we can can, why can’t we? If we wanna, yes we can can.”


Playlist streaming at

  1. 1. “There Is Power in a Union (1913)” entertainment workers iu 630 with utah phillips

    Don’t Mourn—Organize! Songs of Labor Songwriter Joe Hill (1984)

  2. 2. “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” skip james (1931)

  3. 3. “Weave Room Blues” the dixon brothers (1936)

  4. 4. “Aragon Mill” si kahn

    In My Heart (1994)

  5. 5. “Tom Moore Blues” lightnin’ hopkins

    The Texas Bluesman (1968)

  6. 6. “Heartland” willie nelson with bob dylan

    Across the Borderline (1993)

  7. 7. “Campesino” piñata protest

    Plethora (2010)

  8. 8. “9 to 5” dolly parton

    9 to 5 and Odd Jobs (1980)

  9. 9. “Hamlet Chicken Plant Disaster” jello biafra with mojo nixon & the toadliquors

    Prairie Home Invasion (1994)

  10. 10. “I Hate the Capitalist System” barbara dane

    I Hate the Capitalist System (1973)

  11. 11. “Genocide” link wray

    Yesterday—Today (1969)

  12. 12. “Los Deportados (Deportee)” tish hinojosa

    After the Fair (2013)

  13. 13. “Alabama” john coltrane

    Live at Birdland (1963)

  14. 14. “Freedom Day” max roach with abbey lincoln

    We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (1960)

  15. 15. “Let Freedom Ring” terry allen and the panhandle mystery band with surachai janitmatorn & caravan

    Amerasia (1987) [End Page 166]

  16. 16. “The Freedom Rider” art blakey & the jazz messengers

    The Freedom Rider (1964)

  17. 17. “Birmingham Sunday” joan baez

    5 (1964)

  18. 18. “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” phil ochs

    I Ain’t Marching Anymore (1965)

  19. 19. “Backlash Blues” nina simone

    Sings the Blues (1967)

  20. 20. “How Much Can I Stand?” gladys bentley (1928)

  21. 21. “Any Other Way” jackie shane

    Any Other Way (1967)

  22. 22. “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” roberta flack

    First Take (1969)

  23. 23. “Up Against The Wall, Red Neck” jerry jeff walker and the lost gonzo band

    ¡Viva Terlingua! (1973)

  24. 24. “Hard Out Here (2011 Edition)” casby & colby

    Welcome to Rob Co. (2011)

  25. 25. “Backstreets of Downtown Augusta” anne romaine

    Broadside Ballads, Vol. 5: Time Is Running Out (1970)

  26. 26. “I Got Too Much Time for the Crime I Done” j. b. smith

    Ever Since I Have Been a Man Full Grown (1965)

  27. 27. “Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again?” hazel dickens

    By the Sweat of My Brow (1983)

  28. 28. “Crooked Officer” geto boys

    Till Death Do Us...