25 Greatest Protest Songs
VH1 Music Studio
Cable in the Classroom
Lesson for Social Studies & Humanities
Lesson 3 - Freedom, Power and the People
The 25 Greatest Protest Songs video is both informative and enjoyable for students to watch. Few things excite
students more than music and music videos in the classroom. Each song is, in a short small way, a reflection of
a much deeper issue that it represents. These lessons are presented as a way to go “in depth” with three of the
issues represented by many of the 25 songs. As such, they also represent a template for taking a deeper look at
any of these 25 songs (or any other protest song of the teachers choosing). The major goals of all three lessons
First, an appreciation of the use of music to bring a concept (peace, civil rights, freedom) to the forefront of
public debate by an individual artist or group. Music is often seen as a simple medium of expression, but
in reality it is perhaps it’s primal nature, or our own, which allows a tune, or a musically expressed idea, to
resonate with the public. Each person or group brings a certain set of circumstances to their music.
• Second, it is hoped that each lesson will bring historical reality of a particular time period to the songs.
Many students are too young to remember the events of these lessons, so historical research is necessary
to fully understand the words and the particular impact of the songs. These lessons are not meant to be the
total coverage of an historical period, merely an introducation (or supplemental lesson) of the pertinent his
torical issues to help students better understand the music and it’s roots.
Third, music is not only a tune, but is words. Word choice, phraseology, syntax and all the things that are
studied when analyzing the written word will also be approached.
• VHS VCR Player
• Audio playback equipment
• VH1’s 25 Greatest Protest Songs
• Web-based lesson materials
• Pencils/pens and paper (students)
• Internet Access (library or home) - If Internet access is not available, teachers can print out the lyrics to songs
and the historical information. Students could then have access to the information needed.
• Students do not need any prior knowledge for these lessons
Day 1 - Students watch the video 25 Greatest Protest Songs (approximately 45 minutes) As they watch the video
students will make note of the songs and lyrics or themes that appear. Teachers could print out the list
from the web site above to make it easier for students to tabulate the main “protest ideas” of the 25
songs. This Excel spreadsheet [http://www.phs.princeton.k12.oh.us/vh1/music25list.xls] is also provided
as a preliminary guide for teachers which students may be given.
Day 2 - On this day students will need access to an internet lab (unless materials are printed out on each topic
before hand). Students should use the links below to begin research on their topic. The links are meant
as a starting point and could be added to by the students. Give students a day to review the websites and
to research on their own. Students should bring their notes back to class. In this lesson, the songs are
related to civil and individual rights.
Students should use a search engine to find information in three areas. Start with the song itself (good
introductory information and the lyrics of many songs can be found at this site www.songfacts.com)
Then, search for biographical information on the artists. VH1 has biographical information on most per
formers at this site: www.vh1.com/artists/. Finally, the issues covered in this lesson are freedom and
power. All of the songs on this list below represent one facet of the struggle for human/civil rights. Each
Standard 2D - The student understands contemporary American culture. Therefore, the student is able to
• Grade 9-12 Analyze how social change has affected artistic expression and popular culture. [Analyze cause-
• Grade 7-12 Explain the influence of media on contemporary American culture. [Explain historical continuity
song is also linked to biographical information on the artist and one internet site related to the artist/
song/issue. Students should be encouraged to find others. These links are meant as a starting point for
their research (or in the event internet access is not available, this material could be printed out.
Selected Starting Points on the Internet
1. The Song (info/lyrics) 2. The Performers (VH1 site - click
3. The Issues
People Have the Power
Get up, Stand Up
Fight the Power
This Land Is Your Land
Strange Fruit [#2]
Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m
Blowin’ in the Wind [Live]
Day 3 - Have students, individually or in groups, prepare a list of questions and responses for each topic. Sug
gested questions to start with (which may or may not be shared with students before they begin) are
listed here. Students should develop and answer their own questions in preparation of reporting back
to the class on their findings. Students may be given these questions below to answer in general form to
demonstrate mastery of all three areas (lyrics, artists, issues).
Topic 1 - The Songs and their lyrics
1. Select 5 key terms in the song lyrics and define them . Relate your definition to the time period and
the topic of protest. Are some songs more literate than others (music that is sung versus spoken slang
2. Select any of the people/images/events listed in your lyrics and identify them by relating them to the
protest movement. If there are no people mentioned, are there clues to the topic?
3. Are the lyrics always about a single issue or can they cover multiple issues? (e.g. activism, civil rights,
4. Some of the lyrics to these songs may be restricted on your school website. Why would lyrics of protest
be restricted by schools? Do you consider this censorship? How effective is censorship in the age of the
5. There are songs dated from 1939, into the 1950’s and closer to the present. Find the date each song was
originally published. Is there any major change in how the song is written? Do you notice any change
Topic 2 - The Artists
1. Select 5 key or significant events in the artist’s life or background that would lead you to suspect he/they
will eventually become a “protest” artist.
2. Some of these songs (e.g. “This Land is Your Land”) are perceived as “folk” songs. Others are considered
more radical like “Say it Loud”. How does the way a song is portrayed change your view of the song and/
or artist? Does the age of a song change the perception of a song (in other words, is the fact that a song
is forty years old make it less threatening?)
3. Specifically from the video, what do the artists say that would give you an indication as to their personal
motivations for their song? Be specific to your artist.
Topic 3 - The Issue
1. Patti Smith’s article (http://www.innerself.com/Transformations/activism.htm) is from a speech given on a
college campus. Why do many protests originate on college campuses?
2. In the Bob Marley article (http://wrt-intertext.syr.edu/ii1/stephenson.html), dreadlocks are seen as a sign
of individualism and protest. Give four other examples of where something (fashion, hair style, jewelry),
in conjunction with the music, was part of the protest. Cite these examples from the VH1 video.
3. In the third article (http://www.b-boys.com/hip_hop_1.html), about Hip Hop, the author says, “We are
confusing popularity and record sales for innovation and creativity”. In your opinion can a protest song
be popular and still represent change (or as the author indicates revolution/evolution?)
4. In the fourth article (http://www.marshall.edu/pat/journal/newman.htm), an historical pattern is depict
ed in protest music. The author indicates that the music reflects the time period it’s written in. Do you
think music follows society or leads it? Give examples from the list of 25 protest songs that support your
5. After reading the fifth article (http://www.jazzitude.com/strange_fruit.htm), explain the importance of
“Strange Fruit” to the civil rights movement. The author indicates that Billie Holiday didn’t know the
meaning of the words of the song at first. Is this significant to the performance of a song? Can a song
mean something (more than) the artist doesn’t intend for it to mean?
6. In the sixth article (http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=370), on Civil
Rights, the author discusses “Black Power” as an uplifting and almost spiritual phrase. In the biography
of James Brown his music is sometimes described as soul, jazz, rock, and others. Do you think it matters
what the “name” of the music is? Will some people only listen to certain types of music? What “type” of
music are most of the songs on this list of 25?
7. Bob Dylan write the song “Blowin in the Wind” to the tune of “No More Auction Block,” and old slave
song. What is the significance of using that tune for this song? See information at http://www.songfacts.
This lesson plan was created by Tim Dugan, Cable in the Classroom National Teacher Advisor, Princeton High School, Cincinnati, OH
Day 4 - Check student work. Students should, in their small groups, present to the class what information they
have found. Leave time for questions by other students. Questions from Day three may be used to direct
1. Students may also expand their knowledge of protest music with the other lessons attached to this docu
2. Students can also expand their research of protest music with additional websites below:
Websites related to Protest Music
WebQuests on Protest Songs
http://www.sbgmusic.com Music of the Civil Rights Movement
Lesson on Protest Music
Lesson on Protest songs with lyrics