Protest, Rebellion and Subversion in Song: May 1968

This week marks the fifty-year point after ‘May 1968’, with student demonstrations in Parisian universities sparking off youth protests all over the world. They expanded from the cries of angry French students and trade union workers to a sharp increase in clashes over civil rights injustices and calls to end the Vietnam war in the United States.

Although it might be slightly difficult to envision students here tearing out the paving stones in front of RadCam and throwing them at police officers in protest as they did in Paris half a century ago, I want to believe that this does not that mean that students today are just apathetic or do not care at all about the world around them. These songs capture a specific spirit of the late 60s and early 70s, taking us back to a time when students in universities all over the world were leading cries for change. These are songs that capture this feeling of being wronged, of wanting to march and yell and feel passionately about injustice, songs that express a general sense of a desire to protest ‘the man’, that elusive presence preventing young people from instigating change.

A Change is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke

Originally written and performed by Sam Cooke, A Change Is Gonna Come quickly became an anthem for Civil Rights struggles throughout the sixties, sung by many other soul artists such as Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Al Green and Solomon Burke. The year 1968 was especially key in the struggle for civil rights as it was marked by the death of Martin Luther King Jr, as well as the raised fists of protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the October Olympic Games in Mexico. Cooke’s call for change is instantly recognisable from the soaring violins at the start, setting the tone of a certain poignant hope and optimism. The vague and broad lyrics such as the line ‘it’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come’ give this ballad its timeless nature, and is the reason why it remains a resonating call to action.

Give Peace a Chance, Plastic Ono Band

This classic anti-war song written by John Lennon quickly became the anthem of the American anti-war movement in 70s. Give Peace a Chance was written during Lennon and Ono’s ‘bed-in’ honeymoon in Montreal – allegedly when a reporter asked what Lennon was attempting to accomplish by sitting in bed, he answered ‘just give peace a chance’ (secretly wishing my excuses for spending whole days in bed led to world renown songs). The song feels instantly inspiring due to the chorus of voices singing it, and the combination of repetition and tambourine rhythms makes it sound like it was recorded at live demonstrations. It was eventually sung by half a million people at an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in November 1969 in Washington.

Ohio, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young               

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young wrote this song in protest of the Ohio National Guardsmen shooting and killing four unarmed students at Kent state university, during a massive student protest of the American bombing of Cambodia in May 1970. The daring line ‘Tin soldiers and Nixon coming’ led to the song being banned from many AM radio stations. It represents a somewhat more sombre call to action, with the repetition of the line ‘four dead in Ohio’ and the question ‘how can you run when you know’ combined with a kind of heavy drum line, conveying a darker more dogged sense of purpose.

The Times They Are A-Changin’, Bob Dylan

Dylan’s song may seem like a bit of an obvious choice, but out of all of these I would say it is the most timeless and relevant, touching on so many fears of uncertainty and change (sound familiar?). Dylan is calling all to act, claiming the worst thing one could do would be to remain passive in the face of change – ‘for he that gets hurt/will be he who has stalled’. The Times They Are A-Changin remains an expression of a confused twenty-year old feeling misunderstood ‘your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your old road is rapidly ageing’ – Mum and Dad you don’t understand me, let me be free.

Although the specific vaguely mythical spirit of the year 1968 and the 70s cannot quite be recaptured, these songs provide little window into the possibilities of what you could do for something you care about, if you could only get up from that library seat, spread your wings and use your voice.