‘Sing, Goddess, of the anger of Achilles’ opens the Iliad; one of the two texts that make up the foundation of Western literary tradition. Singing, telling stories about anger, about passion, about that which we wish to change is so deeply embedded in our culture that it’s almost impossible to imagine a world without it. The protest song forms a subset of this tradition.

The protest song, however, is not just a song about not liking something – by that metric, every breakup song, every diss track, even “I Don’t Like Mondays” would form part of the tradition. Unfortunately, Mondays seem to be a fairly immovable object. Protest songs ultimately serve as a vehicle to communicate the writer’s views on what should – nay, must – change. They can be direct and razor-sharp, leaving the listener in no doubt as to what’s going wrong, like Neil Young’s civil rights epic “Alabama” – “Alabama/You got the rest of the union/To help you along/What’s going wrong?” In the other direction, they can be the kind of vague, ephemeral song that makes you say “It’s about THAT?” after your muso friend brings it up – see the Stones’ Vietnam masterpiece (one of them, at least), “Gimme Shelter”.

The protest song, in its modern form, emerged from two traditions that evolved simultaneously, from two different downtrodden groups in the American South at the turn of the 20th century, that later came together like petrol and an open flame. In Appalachia, groups of European immigrants brought the folk music traditions of Western Europe to the New World, with the infectious fiddle-guitar-bass-drums combination evolving into country music. At the same time, Black communities in the Mississippi Delta combined the African 6/8 rhythm with the European two-step march to create swing, the relaxed but gripping backbeat of the blues.

Both of these communities had a lot to be angry about, and it came out in their music. Out of the country tradition came the most well-known protest singer of the pre-Dylan era, Woody Guthrie. With his beat-up acoustic guitar, with “This Machine Kills Fascists” written across it, he railed simultaneously against the evils of the Nazi regime in “Tear the Fascists Down”, and against home-grown tyranny and class oppression in his most famous work, “This Land is Your Land”. Out of the blues came an anger against the horrific racism of the American South, and with it records from Big Bill Broonzy’s eternally catchy “Black, Brown and White” to Billie Holiday’s heartbreaking “Strange Fruit”.

However, both traditions were fuelled by the same instrument – the guitar. A bit of hollowed-out wood with six nylon strings attached made protest songs, in their early days, possible. Moving away from the 200-kilo piano, the guitar could be slung across the back, whipped out in a bar, speakeasy, fishmarket, riot, anywhere that could get people moving. People no longer had to come to the music – the music could come to them.

And just as the sixties started picking up pace, in Chicago, in Nashville, and above all in Greenwich Village, right in the heart of Manhattan, white folkies began rubbing shoulders with Black bluesmen – Bob Dylan famously got his start opening for John Lee Hooker. It was in the centre of this melting pot, laid out against the backdrop of Vietnam, that the protest song exploded, spearheaded by artists like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Marvin Gaye, and Sly Stone. There are too many great protest songs to name from this period, but one stands out as an underrated classic of the genre. B.B. King’s “Why I Sing the Blues” closes out his 1969 live album Live & Well, his rich voice pleading with the listener at every turn, interspersed with some of his best guitar work ever put to tape.

The sixties also saw an important development in the protest song genre – the emergence of the universal protest song. Rather than fighting on a single issue, with your song the one thing that could make a difference, the universal protest song instead has a very clear message – things are changing, and you can either get with it, or get the hell out of the way: “Don’t stand in the corner, don’t block up the hall” as Dylan put it. “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke and the aforementioned “The Times They Are a-Changin” are both incredible examples of the genre, but the world had to wait until 1984 for the greatest universal protest song ever recorded – “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister. Even Dylan and Cooke were almost too precise, too specific about the change they hoped to see. But there is no situation that you can’t apply Twisted Sister’s masterpiece to.

What won’t you take anymore? It. Genius.

As the furious, political ’60s drifted into the introspective ’70s, the protest song waned a little, when the starry-eyed hippies began to abandon their dreams of worldwide free love and cheap drugs, and look inwards instead. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, in the sixties, we wanted to change the world. When we realised we couldn’t change the world in the seventies, we wanted to change ourselves. And it might have stayed that way, had it not been for the most important thing that happened to popular music in the last 50 years – punk. In the last three years of the seventies, the protest song saw a renaissance, with leather-clad revolutionaries producing protest anthems that swung between nihilism and revolutionary rage at breakneck speed. Obvious highlights include the Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK”, “Spanish Bombs” by the Clash and “Holiday in Cambodia” by the Dead Kennedys, but again the era had its classics that haven’t achieved the mythological status of the big hits – X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” served as a template for the later Riot Grrrl movement, and has a killer saxophone solo to boot. But, like with the sixties that preceded it, punk eventually faded into the materialistic eighties, and the protest song once again took a back seat.

There seems to be a formula for the protest song, in a way – a five-to-seven year burst of creativity, followed by a regression, after which the protest song returns guns blazing. And true to form, it was in the late eighties that rap, as a vehicle for protest, reached its height. Starting with N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back in 1988, the era of politically charged rap, and therefore the protest song, was back with a vengeance. Later, Rage Against the Machine’s perfect 3-album run, from their self-titled debut to The Battle of Los Angeles, would combine the (mostly) white guitar-based punk of the late seventies with the rap music of the late eighties, with pyrotechnic results. And that, really, was the last time the protest song was at its height. The Iraq War saw a brief resurgence – a mention has to go to OutKast’s “B.O.B. (Bombs over Baghdad)” and Green Day’s opus American Idiot, but the early 2000s were really the last time we saw true protest dominate the charts.

That’s not to say the protest song has died out as a genre – Childish Gambino’s much-imitated “This is America” was a protest song through and through – but unlike some of the eras that preceded us, there’s been very little anger in the Hot 100 for the last fifteen years. And I can’t speak for everyone, but it breaks my heart to see it go. In the words of one of the best to ever do it, “Big Yellow Taxi”, “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you got til it’s gone?” Never a truer word, Joni.