A protest song is a song which is associated with a movement for social change and hence part of the broader category of topical songs (or songs connected to current events). It may be folk, classical, or commercial in genre. Among social movements that have an associated body of songs are the abolition movement, women’s suffrage, the labour movement, civil rights, the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, animal rights movement, vegetarianism and veganism, and environmentalism.
Protest songs are frequently situational, having been associated with a social movement through context. “Goodnight Irene”, for example, acquired the aura of a protest song because it was written by Lead Belly, a black convict and social outcast, although on its face it is a love song. Or they may be abstract, expressing, in more general terms, opposition to injustice and support for peace, or free thought, but audiences usually know what is being referred to.
Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, a song in support of universal brotherhood, is a song of this kind. It is a setting of a poem by Schiller celebrating the continuum of living beings (who are united in their capacity for feeling pain and pleasure and hence for empathy), to which Beethoven himself added the lines that all men are brothers. Songs which support the status quo do not qualify as protest songs.
Phil Ochs once explained, “A protest song is a song that’s so specific that you cannot mistake it for shit”.
An 18th-century example of topical song intended as a feminist protest song is “Rights of Woman” (1795), sung to the tune of “God Save the King”, written anonymously by “A Lady”, and published in the Philadelphia Minerva, October 17, 1795. There is no evidence that it was ever sung as a movement song, however. A more recent song advocating sexual liberation is “Sexo” (1985) by Los Prisioneros.
Types of protest song: The sociologist R. Serge Denisoff saw protest songs rather narrowly in terms of their function, as forms of persuasion or propaganda. Denisoff saw the protest song tradition as originating in the “psalms” or songs of grass-roots Protestant religious revival movements, terming these hymns “protest-propaganda”, as well.
Denisoff subdivided protest songs as either “magnetic” or “rhetorical”. “Magnetic” protest songs were aimed at attracting people to the movement and promoting group solidarity and commitment, as for example, “Eyes on the Prize” and “We Shall Overcome”. “Rhetorical” protest songs, on the other hand, are often characterized by individual indignation and offer a straightforward political message designed to change political opinion. Denisoff argued that although “rhetorical” songs often are not overtly connected to building a larger movement, they should nevertheless be considered as “protest-propaganda”. Examples include Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” (which contains the lines “I hope that you die / And your death’ll come soon”) and “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye.
Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison, in Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Tradition in the Twentieth Century (1998), take issue with what they consider Denisoff’s reductive approach to the history and function of song (and particularly traditional song) in social movements. They point out that Denisoff had paid little attention to the song tunes of protest music, considered them strictly subordinate to the texts, a means to the message. It is true that in the highly text-oriented western European song tradition, tunes can be subordinate, interchangeable, and even limited in number (as in Portuguese fado, which only has 64 tunes), nevertheless, Eyerman and Jamison point out that some of the most effective protest songs gain power through their appropriation of tunes that are bearers of strong cultural traditions. They also note that:
There is more to music and movements than can be captured within a functional perspective, such as Denisoff’s, which focuses on the use made of music within already-existing movements. Music, and song, we suggest, can maintain a movement even when it no longer has a visible presence in the form of organizations, leaders, and demonstrations, and can be a vital force in preparing the emergence of a new movement. Here the role and place of music needs to be interpreted through a broader framework in which tradition and ritual are understood as processes of identity and identification, as encoded and embodied forms of collective meaning and memory.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described the freedom songs this way: “They invigorate the movement in a most significant way […] these freedom songs serve to give unity to a movement.”
Source & more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protest_song