songs for peace and protest.

November 15, 2016

peace and protest songs for families | reading my tea leavesAs a kid, my parents regularly packed me and my sisters into our navy blue minivan and carted us to music festivals and outdoor concerts. We’d pack a picnic and spin in the grass in our bare feet and eat plums slick with condensation out of Igloo coolers. We’d doze on quilts that went soggy once the sun went down. We’d sing songs together with hundreds of strangers and go home sleepy, often far past our bedtimes.

Many of the first songs that my sisters and I learned at those concerts were protest songs and spirituals. They were songs meant to be sung with rousing choruses of voices. They were songs that if you didn’t know when someone started singing them, you knew by the time they were finished; songs meant to get heartstrings thrumming. 

James and I took Faye to a candlelight vigil in Brooklyn this weekend and the moment when the crowd around us sang along to a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, was the moment when my heart rose to my throat. Of course it was.

I’m not sure we have all the right songs for this particular moment yet. But I thought it might be nice to share a few of traditional albums that have songs still worth singing. All of the songs on these albums aren’t protest songs, but a lot of them still make a nice starting place for getting little guys to sing with gusto and embrace a tradition of resistance and strength through song—something that’s a part of this country’s culture we can be proud of. 

Yesterday morning I was singing “This Land is Your Land” in the shower and Faye came into the bathroom. She pulled back the shower curtain and asked, as she always does, “What are you doing?” She knew of course, but she wanted to be a part of it. Here’s to giving kids the resources to feel included and to spread a message of justice and peace. 

We Are America’s Children | Ella Jenkins

Lead Belly Sings for Children

Precious Friend |  Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger

Sonny & Brownie | Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee

We Shall Overcome, The Seeger Sessions | Bruce Springsteen

Do any of you have favorites to add? I’d love to hear them!

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  • Reply Erin November 15, 2016 at 9:41 am

    I am a lover of all things Harry Chapin, a noted singer/songwriter and social activist.

    • Reply Alix November 15, 2016 at 1:47 pm

      We sang “We Will Not Stop Singing” by the Chapin sisters (Harry’s nieces) at First Unitarian Brooklyn this past week and it was magical. They wrote it for the People’s Climate March last year, but I find it applicable for all types of marches and protests.

  • Reply Jakki November 15, 2016 at 9:41 am

    I love this so much! Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply Sophia November 15, 2016 at 9:42 am

    Love love love love LOVE. Thanks for sharing. Will keep on singing.

  • Reply Erin H. November 15, 2016 at 9:47 am

    “Let It Be Me” by The Indigo Girls

  • Reply Connie Matisse November 15, 2016 at 9:51 am

    I remember being so moved when I heard One Tin Soldier for the first time. I must have been about 5 or 6. It was the first song I taught myself to play when I got a guitar for my 13th birthday. It still makes my heart swell to hear it. And- Raffi! That man is so radical. The Songs of Our World and Communion albums have such beautiful, powerful messages for kids and grownups, too. Never too early to get babies singing about social and environmental justice.

    • Reply Deb November 15, 2016 at 10:52 am

      Yes!! Raffi!

  • Reply andrea November 15, 2016 at 10:58 am

    The album “Free To Be You and Me by .Marlo Thomas and friends. My mom played this over and over when I was a kid growing up in the 70s….not exactly protest songs but the messages are THE BEST. My little boys listen to it all the time now.

    • Reply Erin Boyle November 15, 2016 at 11:00 am

      We loved this one growing up, too!

  • Reply Kerry November 15, 2016 at 11:18 am

    Peace like a river – Elizabeth Mitchell

    • Reply Erin Boyle November 15, 2016 at 11:19 am

      Good one! We love this, too!

  • Reply Sadey November 15, 2016 at 11:21 am

    Hammer and a Nail, also the Indigo Girls

  • Reply Marie November 15, 2016 at 11:51 am

    This morning, my 2-year-old son asked me to sing Raffi’s “Thanks a Lot” at breakfast. My heart just about burst.

    A few other favorites of his right now, and mine from forever:
    Blowin’ in the Wind
    The Garden Song from Peter, Paul, and Mary’s kids’ album
    Three Little Birds

    • Reply Erin November 15, 2016 at 4:38 pm

      When I was a freshman in college, I had a psychology professor who sang Blackbird to us before our final!

  • Reply Ariana November 15, 2016 at 11:53 am

    “If I Had A Hammer” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” Peter Paul and Mary

  • Reply Rebecca November 15, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen can be heard playing in my little shoebox these days. A shuffle of their albums seem to be striking a healthy balance of melancholy and stubborn hope that just feels so good right now.

    • Reply Katia November 16, 2016 at 10:11 am

      Yes, Rebecca, you’re so right. As a Canadian, Mitchell and Cohen are often in the rotation, and with grey November days creeping slowly and sadness still tugging at my heart, these are perfect songs to fit the mood.

  • Reply Alyse (J.X.L.) November 15, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    “Imagine” John Lennon!

  • Reply Emily C November 15, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    My almost three-year-old daughter loves Pete Seeger and Odetta – for a year now that’s all she wants to listen to in the car, switching back and forth. We have a copy of Pete Seeger’s children’s concert at town hall, and there are some good protest songs in there (hearing her sing along to “it could be a wonderful world” definitely made me cry last week). We listen to Odetta’s Ballads and Blues all the time, too, and “Oh freedom/Come and go with me/I’m on my way” is so poingnant right now.

    Last night, at bedtime, she was talking with my husband about how she hoped to have a powerful voice like Odetta one day. She said she hoped she would grow up to be a woman – when he asked her what she meant, she said it meant being a protester.


    • Reply Erin Boyle November 15, 2016 at 1:17 pm

      Oh, god yes! I love Odetta and Pete Seeger! We saw them both in concert growing up!

  • Reply Kim November 15, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    Not a protest song but one that strikes me as fitting for the times is “The Great Divide” by the Okee Dokee Brothers. My daughter loves all their albums and I appreciate the get outdoors and marvel at nature message that they inspire in both of us.

  • Reply Gina November 15, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Arlo Guthrie singing Alice’s Restaurant and telling his audience they have to sing louder if they want to win the war. Also, anything by Woody Guthrie and Neil Young. We are all going to have to sing louder now!

  • Reply Jess November 15, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    Love this. I was just speaking to a music historian about protests that involve song, as opposed to chant.

    I heard an acoustic version of this song recently and can’t get it out of my head: Love needs Love by Stevie Wonder. His version is here:

  • Reply Rebecca N November 15, 2016 at 3:03 pm

    You should make a spotify playlist with all these suggestions and share it with your readers! Love the suggestions!

  • Reply Erin November 15, 2016 at 3:12 pm

    I was noticing the lyrics of the song that had come on my playlist (a song unknown to me) just as I was reading this post – must have been fate.! It was Kevin Morby, Beautiful Strangers (lyrics here: Another one I discovered a few weeks ago was BYWR by Shovels and Rope (a favorite band of mine). A bit dark, very poignant.

  • Reply Gina November 15, 2016 at 4:06 pm

    No protest song list would be complete without “Singing for Our Lives,” by Holly Near. The Lifeline album (Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert in concert) was a staple of my childhood – so many beautiful songs!
    Other great ones I remember singing in elementary school: “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Common Thread,” and “We’re All a Family Under One Sky.” The latter is call-and-response, which makes it great to sing with kids who might not be up to memorizing long lyrics.

  • Reply Jess November 15, 2016 at 5:42 pm

    The latest episode of On Being (podcast) was uplifting in itself, but I especially loved how the interview with civil rights elder Vincent Harding wove in music and discussed the role of gospel and collective song in protest — from “this little light of mine” to the origins & importance of ‘Kumbaya’
    On a lighter note, the SF Chronicle posted a post-election playlist “for all the feels”

  • Reply Tracey November 15, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    Proud Like A Mountain by Peter Puffin is a lovely kids song.

  • Reply Kaitlyn November 15, 2016 at 6:49 pm

    A few political favorites I would sing with my dad at the top of our lungs in the early 90’s (oh what a wonderful era to have a young dad in! sort of wild it was over 20 years ago) and that he would narrate age-appropriate histories and analyses around:

    Zombie by The Cranberries
    Sunday Bloody Sunday by U2
    Fast Car by Tracy Chapman
    Bridge over Troubled Water — the whole album — by Simon and Garfunkle
    and anything/everything by Cat Stevens!

    Oh, and glad to see others have included versions of anti-war anthem One Tin Soldier by Coven!

  • Reply Amy November 15, 2016 at 7:38 pm

    If you don’t have a copy of Rise Up Singing, I would highly suggest it. So many songs in there!

  • Reply Laura November 15, 2016 at 7:49 pm

    We love the Leadbelly Sings for Children album. Thank you for sharing these resources.

  • Reply Amelia November 15, 2016 at 8:09 pm

    Oh, I second Stevie Wonder. Songs in the Key of Life! And John Denver’s Poems Prayers and Promises album can only do good.

  • Reply Barbara November 15, 2016 at 9:40 pm

    I love all these suggestions and would add a few Bob Marley songs to the mix. Part protest part celebration of life … Redemption Song … Three Little Birds ( my students live to sing …”cuz every little thing, gonna be alright”) and No Woman No Cry come to mind. Also James Taylor. .. the song he sung at 9/11 anniversary (Close Your Eyes) brought me somewhere else … hopeful and honest and sweet. Any Hanes Taylor, really. Mudslide Slim was the first album I knew how to sing start to finish when I was a little girl.

  • Reply Hilary November 15, 2016 at 10:13 pm

    Sounds like we had musically similar childhoods. I grew up going to see Pete and Arlo concerts, and I’ve passed those songs (and so many others) down to my own children. I second the Rise Up Singing songbook. It’s a classic.

    • Reply Erin Boyle November 16, 2016 at 7:04 am

      It is! Was always on our piano growing up!

  • Reply SM November 15, 2016 at 11:14 pm

    This Land Is Your Land

  • Reply Katia November 16, 2016 at 10:34 am

    Erin, thanks for your constant attention and mindfulness of the world around you. Your approach to life, to the simple things that get us all through the day, is refreshing and admirable.
    Music is so much part of the fabric of our lives — there are many good ones on this list! Here are a few others, perhaps more appropriate for older children/teens, although you could no doubt simplify the message for a younger audience.
    Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changin’
    Joni Mitchell – Woodstock (Although not a protest song for say, this song is a rallying cry to people to join together and be the change they want to see)
    Pete Seeger or the Byrds – Turn, Turn, Turn
    Buffy Sainte-Marie – Universal Solider
    Sam Cooke – A Change is Gonna Come
    Country Joe and the Fish – The “Fish” Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag (Depending on the version you listen to, this entry is decidedly NOT for young kids or those who disapprove of swearing. That noted, I think there is plenty of fodder for conversation about how protest, satire, anti-military sentiment, and community spirit intersect that could make for a very interesting conversation with older kids or teens)
    Nina Simone – Mississippi Goddamn
    Barry McGuire – Eve of Destruction
    Jefferson Airplane – Volunteers
    Bob Marley – Redemption Song
    CSNY – Ohio
    Marvin Gaye – What’s Goin’ On?
    Dixie Chicks – Not Ready to Make Nice

  • Reply Kate November 16, 2016 at 7:26 pm

    I thought of your Instagram post from the vigil this weekend when Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton character opened SNL with “Hallelujah.” ( Definitely a broken hallelujah heart-tugging moment. Courage.

    I’ve always liked “War” by Edwin Starr: something to throw out an unrestrained cathartic grunt to.

  • Reply viky Fisher November 16, 2016 at 10:35 pm

    Love this! I’ve been a fan of the old folk protesters for many years- It’s great to see many favorites here. While NSFW or for children, Phil Ochs had a few great ones during his day as well… and I love anything by Joan Baez.

  • Reply Melissa November 17, 2016 at 10:09 pm

    I also grew up going to festivals. Very thankful that my parents instilled a love of (good) music in me.

    Give Yourself to Love by Kate Wolf, not a protest song, but a great one to sing with thousands of others you don’t know, or by yourself in the kitchen.

    Keep on Rockin in the Free World by Neil Young. Or anything by CSN(&Y)

  • Reply Angy November 17, 2016 at 10:25 pm

    I can’t say that Folk songs and Protest songs are as much a part of Australian History as they are Americas. In fact we have more of a European Influence to the tunes that made their way across the seas – and embedded themselves with our collective psyche. Having said that, the songs you have all suggested are familiar worldwide and certainly invoke a stirring of the soul and deep emotional responses. I haven’t been able to listen to Hallelujah (just yet) – my fandom of the late great Mr Cohen has me avoiding most of his tunes for fear of a truly messy mascara meltdown – It’s Friday afternoon as I type this and I have a bottle of wine cooling in the fridge – so tonight may just be the night ♥

    I’ve been bopping to this since your election though … seems apt … love to all in the US – your struggles are real and we applaude you for coming together to help and include your fellow man.

    Here’s my contribution . . .

    The Avett Brothers

    “There ain’t no man-can’t save me
    There ain’t no man-can’t enslave me
    Ain’t no man, a man that can change the shape my soul is in
    There ain’t nobody here who can cause me pain or raise my fear
    Cause I got only love to share
    If you’re looking for truth I’m proof you’ll find it there”


    • Reply Angy November 17, 2016 at 10:48 pm

      Aaaargh – apologies but the lyrics I posted above are NOT accurate!
      (I lazily copied and pasted from a different site and they have it wrong!)
      As we all know … words are important so here is the amended version!
      (note to self …. read before pressing ENTER!)

      “There ain’t no man can save me
      There ain’t no man can enslave me
      Ain’t no man or men that can change the shape my soul is in
      There ain’t nobody here who can cause me pain or raise my fear
      Cause I got only love to share
      If you’re looking for truth I’m proof you’ll find it there”


  • Reply Nicole November 19, 2016 at 11:30 am

    Ben Harper “With My Own Two Hands”
    I sing this with my children, and all the kids that have come through my classroom throughout the years.

  • Reply Darla November 19, 2016 at 8:49 pm

    I so enjoyed this post and all of the comments! It brought back memories when Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger were mentioned. In the 1970s they played together live at Wolf Trap Theater and it was aired on PBS. I made a DIY cassette recording of this and played it for years. My kids grew up with these songs. Written on the perimeter of Pete’s banjo ” This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender “. They played several protest songs…where have all the flowers gone, if I had a hammer, this land is your land and many others. You can catch glimpses of the concert on youtube.

  • Reply Kate November 28, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    I really recommend all of Daisy May Erlewine’s music, specifically The People’s Song and Shine On for this purpose. Gorgeous woman and tunes.

  • Reply Alanna January 1, 2017 at 11:59 pm

    we have been listening to a lot of old folk music in our household for the past 2.5 years (so since my LO) and that includes Seeger and Guthrie but also American Primitive music.; one can get really into shape notes and Appalachian balladry. however, one of my favorite songs ever is the Black National Anthem a.k.a. Lift Every Voice and Sing. i had the good — and perhaps unusual — luck of being taught the first couple verses of this song as a child in elementary school. (i mean, we were CPS, but that still seems a little avant for grade school.) anyway, i cry pretty much every time i hear it, and i love to sing it. it is So righteous and moving. i haven’t heard anyone sing it at any of the demonstrations we’ve gone to this year, but i’m always ready.

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