Monday, March 10, 2008

10 Songs That REALLY Changed The World

I normally have an aversion for lists such as this one:

Rolling Stone's 40 Songs That Changed The World

This seems like a typically shallow survey to me. Like most "culture lists", this one assumes that songs, and human history, began with the birth of Rock & Roll, and that our mind altering experiences and taste epiphanies were more important than they really were. What this Rolling Stone Magazine list really represents is how songs shaped pop culture more than how they made any real difference to the planet or our history.

But are there songs that really changed the world?

It's much harder to find them. There may be a fine line between cultural shift and historical change, and I welcome debate. I thought it might be fun to have a little group participation to see if we really can generate a list of songs that helped to cause significant and lasting change in the world. I'll start this off with a few contributions just so you can see what I'm looking for :

"We Shall (Will) Overcome"

When Martin Luther King heard Pete Seeger sing this song he immediately adopted it for his civil rights movement. Originally an old spiritual that Seeger added a couple of verses to, his version became a song of solidarity during many violent months of protest marching in the south. It was an anthem for a movement that eventually changed the status of African Americans. While the change may yet be incomplete, no one can argue that it wasn't a new window on our world view, and not merely some new drapery. This may well be one of the most important songs in American history.

"Helter Skelter"

This song changed the world in a negative way, but who says change has to be positive? In Charles Manson's psychotic mind, this was the Beatles personal message to him to begin his plan of destabilizing society. The Tate-LaBianca murders were meant to be blamed on radical blacks and were supposed to spark revolution in the streets. While Manson never accomplished this goal, he did change forever the innocent facade of the hippie movement and injected fear and mistrust into the hearts of millions. The last remnants of the "peace and love" demeanor of the late 1960s ended with Manson's August 1969 crimes, and "Helter Skelter" played a significant role ushering in an era of disillusion. Manson also caused a much closer scrutiny of cults and cult leaders, a trend that was previously all but ignored.

"I Like Ike"

Yes, the campaign song from 1952:

I Like Ike, You Like Ike
In America's "Winter Of Discontent" Eisenhower emerged as an unlikely leader and candidate for change. The popularity of this very simple clever campaign jingle sounded the optimistic note America was looking for. The results of Eisenhower's election need not be chronicled, but his was the era of McCarthyism, blacklisting, the dawn of the Cold War, Vietnam, and the continued stalemate in Korea. And folks, we are still technically in a state of war with North Korea. "I Like Ike" lingers as a very creepy reminder of a dark era and the power of propaganda. It was hugely influential on voters everywhere.


For months in the summer of 1970 this song pounded over the airwaves, blasting from car speakers in cities across America. I recall the fear in the streets as Neil Young reminded us over and over that we couldn't trust our leaders. This song not only helped to fuel the anti-war movement (it was often played at anti-war rallies) it even played a small role in the eventual resignation of Richard Nixon. Nixon became more and more paranoid of the outspoken pop music culture, seeking to deport John Lennon and finally breaking into the Democratic headquarters at Watergate to sabotage the counterculture's anti-war candidate George McGovern. Jimmy McDonough writes about "Ohio" in the Neil Young Biography "Shakey" : "In ten lines, Young captured the fear, frustration and anger felt by the youth across the country and set it to a lumbering D-modal death march that hammered home the dread."


Millions have been fed by UNICEF as a result of the royalties generated by this song and the concert that featured it in 1971. Although controversial because some of the funds were never properly accounted for ($250,000 was raised initially, millions since), it's undeniable that tremendous good was done in this seminal fund raising event. This was really the song that set the precedent for future fund raising musical events such as "Do They Know It's Christmas" and "We Are The World". Previous to the release of Harrison's record, music was an inspirational
agent of change only. With Harrison's and other superstars' magnanimous gesture towards the starving citizens of Bangladesh, music finally became a financial partner in change. I certainly commend Bob Geldof and Michael Jackson for their significant roles in raising money for similar causes, but the real world changing song, the one that raised the consciousness of all musicians, was written by George Harrison.

"The Ballad Of John Henry"

The story song that pitted the heroic black man against the white industrialist is still considered by many to be true. Various sources conclude that John Henry was a real figure who died in a contest with a steam drill at Oak Mountain in 1887. The Railroads were once the quintessential symbol of labor abuse in America. In 1893 alone, over 18,343 railroad workers were injured and 1,657 were killed. Through the 1920s and 30s laws such as The Railway Labor Act and The Wagner Act were passed requiring railroad employers to bargain collectively and fairly with union workers for improved conditions, hours, safety and wages. This was the peak period of popularity for "The Ballad Of John Henry". It was a motivational and inspirational message for union workers everywhere, as well as a song of Black pride. It resonated well into the 1960s, becoming a staple in the elementary school educational program, the labor movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the folk revival movement.

"Battle Hymn Of The Republic"

Julia Ward Howe's poem set to music was the most popular song of the Civil War era. It was sung in churches, encampments, and on the battlefield. General Robert E. Lee wrote in 1864, "I don't believe we can have an army without music". In the words of Lieutenant W. J Kinchelos of the 49th Virginia Regiment, "We are on one side of the Rappahannock, the enemy on the other.... Our boys will sing a Southern song, the Yankees will reply by
singing the same tune to Yankee words." When dispirited union troops needed rallying, the Battle Hymn was often employed. The words instilled a sense of religious might, right, and purpose in the troops causing them to fight on to victory in bloody campaigns.

In 1994 Nelson Mandela called the death of Stephen Bantu Biko the first nail in the coffin of apartheid. Biko was the honorary President of the Black People's Convention in South Africa. He was arrested in 1973 and held without charge for five years, eventually dying of a brain hemorrhage after being beaten by police in his jail cell. The death photo of Biko's bruised body was printed around the world. When Peter Gabriel saw the image he wrote his tribute song. Time magazine's Jay Cocks said of Gabriel's song, "[there is] no resisting either [the song's] heat or its true moral force. Biko is .. . full of ghosts that will haunt any political present." "Biko" led to Gabriel's involvement with the Nelson Mandela concerts, which were watched by over a billion people in 60 countries in spite of an injunction to stop coverage. "Biko" is considered the first song that shed light and raised awareness on apartheid.

"The Star Spangled Banner"

Perhaps a too-obvious choice, my reasons for including this song aren't quite so obvious. Francis Scott Key's poem "The Defense of Ft. McHenry" was set to a popular British drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heav'n". It became the National anthem in 1931. While the song has inspired patriotism for many decades and has been sung at schools, state events, political rallies, and sports games, its more recent controversial uses have probably cause more change than it's traditional uses. Modern interpretations by everyone from Jose Feliciano and Jimi Hendrix, to Whitney Huston and Rosanne Barr have often sparked heated debate and tested free speech in America. While it's hard to find one significant event where the song directly caused change, it has been the soundtrack for many world changing events such as the 1968 Olympic "black fist" protest and the recent New York Philharmonic Orchestra's performance of it in North Korea-- a nationally televised event that some believe has eased tensions between the US and the people of North Korea.

Bob Marley performed this song in Zimbabwe on the day of independence at the actual state ceremony. Marley is considered by many to be the artist of the twentieth century because his music embodied values virtually non-existent in other entertainers. He is an icon of cultural change and grounded spiritual beliefs. No other artist's likeness looks more at home on an armband or t-shirt because he was a movement unto himself. I could nominate a few Marley songs for this list, but the one I've chosen has special significance in light of the current disintegration of Zimbabwe. The song is now a call to action and revolution and it may be in the process of helping to transform the world for a second time.

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You can take it from here... Thanks for participating (or not) !


Anonymous said...

On December 26,1963 Capitol Records released "I Want to Hold Your Hand," their first single after the asassination of JFK. The song was released after a month of mourning and during a holiday season, two factors that made it the first Beatles' song to capture the full attention of the US music market. The nation needed a boost, and 'Hand' certainly provided it. Beatlemania, US style, gave the country something positive to celebrate - at least until John Lennon muttere something about Jesus ...

Anonymous said...

Single songs can have an impact, but more often, songs come in spurts and work together to bring about real musical and social change. I offer the following examples:

Wildwood Flower (Maud Irving/Joseph Philbrick Webster)
Will the Circle Be Unbroken (Ada R. Habershon/Charles H. Gabriel) both sung by the Carter Family
In the Jailhouse Now & Waiting for A Train (Jimmie Rodgers)
Hallelujah, I’m a Bum & Big Rock Candy Mountain” (Harry McClintock)
•Created the various sides of country: the rural and the road; the spiritual and the topical.

Rock Around the Clock (James E. Myers/Max Freedman)—John Lennon, in a Playboy interview (January 1981), stated, "I had no idea about doing music as a way of life until rock and roll hit me. Interviewer: "Do you recall what specifically hit you? Lennon: It was "Rock Around The Clock." As cited in
Whole Lotta Shakin’ (Dave Williams/James Hall) and Great Balls of Fire (Otis Blackwell/Jack Hammer)
Good Golly, Miss Molly (Robert "Bumps" Blackwell/John Marascalco)
Maybelline, Roll Over, Beethoven, School Days (Chuck Berry)
•Targeted teenagers as the crucial musical audience—we’ve never looked back…

Surfin’ and Surfin’ Safari (Love/Wilson) bolstered the west coast craze
I Want to Hold Your Hand and She Loves You (Lennon/McCartney)
Don’t Think Twice and A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall (Bob Dylan)
•Surprise! Kids could write their own songs; bands could sing and play their own music.

We Shall Not Be Moved (Traditional) Used as a rallying song for many movements (Unions, Civil Rights)
Strange Fruit (Billie Holiday)
Mississippi Goddamn and Four Women (Nina Simone)
Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life? (Guy and Candy Carawan)
Blowin’ in the Wind and Ballad of Medgar Evers (Bob Dylan)
Birmingham Sunday (Richard FariƱa)
Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney (Tom Paxton)
•Raised consciousness about Civil Rights; bolstered a movement.

Universal Soldier (Buffy Sainte Marie)
What Did You Learn in School Today? and Willing Conscript (Tom Paxton)
My Son John (Tom Paxton)
I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore and Talking Vietnam(Phil Ochs)
Masters of War (Dylan)
•Inspired protest against the Vietnam War

Get Together (Jesse Colin Young)
San Francisco (Scott McKenzie)
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Lennon/McCartney)
Good Vibrations (Wilson/Love)
Light My Fire (Robby Krieger with John Densmore, Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek)
For What It’s Worth (Stephen Stills)
•Brought on and celebrated the Summer of Love & Psychedelia

Lots of great songs since then, but not much meaningful impact...except maybe Rap/Hip Hop and the gangsta' persona...

Tim McMullen

Anonymous said...

I was privileged to see Peter Gabriel sing Biko in Africa - the energy was absolutely incredible! Yes, it changed the world.

Anonymous said...

"The Times They Are a Changin'"
I watched my father's face turn white when he heard it - he didn't know what was happening, but he knew sonething was happening.