The Power of Protest Music

Have you ever wondered about the lyrics and origin of seemingly patriotic popular songs like “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen? Or perhaps you’re aware of the deeper purpose of songs like “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival protesting the Vietnam War and find yourself wondering if your students have any clue the catchy tune provides a meaningful glimpse into the past.

These songs, along with hundreds of others throughout American and world history, can be a rich source of opportunity to engage students in studying significant historical events, examining the cultural and political settings therein, as well as providing cross-over with language arts and English curriculum.

Consider the rich and long-standing tradition of protest music in the United States. Protests songs sung by enslaved people in the 18th and 19th century served as a unifying cry against the oppression they faced. The influence and history of many of these tunes has been passed down through generations and preserved as the tradition of protest continues today in the Black community, as Black artists write tracks highlighting the injustices of poverty, racism, police brutality and more.

During the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, protest music played an important role, serving as a rallying cry, and on some occasions, a means of getting around restrictions on speaking about the suffrage movement.

These movements and so many more can be examined through protest music.


Given the massive and diverse history of protest music, how can educators incorporate the power of these tracks into their teaching? The applications are endless, but a few ideas include:

  • Introducing students to a particular topic or event through song
  • Tracing modern songs back to their historical roots
  • Helping students identify primary sources, like songs, versus secondary sources
  • Discussing current unrest through the lens of protest music


Resources on Protest Songs

  • Lesson Plans from Teach Rock
  • Lesson Plan on Songs of Protest from the National Women’s History Museum
  • Lesson from Learning for Justice
  • American Anthem series by NPR, investigating 50 songs that have changed American culture
  • A brief primer on American protest music history, along with a collection of primary and secondary sources on eras of protest music.

Vietnam War

Civil Rights

Women’s Suffrage


Blog image citation: Mahalia Jackson, three-quarter length portrait, with her arms raised, singing before microphone. , None. [Between 1960 and 1972] Photograph.

Posted May 9, 2023

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