The death of Pete Seeger in January 2014 set me thinking. What a powerful impact the popularity and worldwide scope of modern music has had on society over the last 50+ years. And I believe it will undoubtedly continue.
Many musicians have raised awareness and/or championed causes to alleviate human suffering from social problems caused by famine, natural disasters, war, civil rights violations, environmental abuse and others. Some have achieved it through their music, some by using their fame as musicians and others using both.
Whichever way, the list is long and we will all have differing opinions as to which of them have been the most influential in bringing about social change and raising awareness of serious social issues? And which of their many songs are the most memorable?
Choosing 10 out of the many deserving of the accolade is not easy. I have gone for longevity, passion, sincerity and musicianship as my main criteria.
Here is my top 10 (in chronological order by birth date).
Civil Rights activist Pete Seeger who died in January 2014 was a prime mover in the folk revival that transformed popular music in the 1950s and a mentor to many young musicians including Bob Dylan. He sang for the labour movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond.
My song for Pete is “We shall overcome”
Environmentalist Willie Nelson is one of the great songwriters. He has written some of the most popular country songs of all time, including hits like “Crazy.” A multiple award winner he has a staggering 2500 songs and 300 albums to his name. He is well-known for his activism and for his compassion. Along with Neil Young and John Mellencamp he organised the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 in an effort to help family farmers. To date, the Farm Aid organization has raised more than $30 million and continues to work to keep family farmers on their land. Choosing one from 2500 songs wasn’t easy.
My song for Willie is “You were always on my mind”
John Lennon (1940 – 1980)
John promoted World peace and social change throughout his music career, particularly during the solo years after the Beatles finished, in almost everything he did. His wife Yoko Ono has continued his work ever since he was murdered in 1980. His song-writing partnership with Paul McCartney was prolific and his impact on music and his generation was unparalleled. Who knows what he would have achieved by now had he lived on after that fateful day.
My song for John could only be “Imagine”
Bob Dylan (1941 – )
Bob Dylan has supported many causes and is arguably the most influential music icon of his age. They say everyone gets round to listening to Dylan eventually. He was involved in civil rights in the 1960s, and joined protest rallies and concerts. But he was mostly a genius at reflecting the times in his poetry and music rather than being involved in any cultural revolution. In his eyes he was just a guitar player who wrote over 1000 songs. He performed at George Harrison’s concert for Bangladesh in 1971 – the first big rock concert organised by a musician to aid a cause.
For me his most powerful among many great songs is “The Times they are a changing”
Joan Baez ( 1941 – )
Joan Baez unlike Dylan is an Idealist committed to champion a cause, so they are very different. But like Dylan she had a profound effect on the young generation of the 1960’s. She has had a life-long commitment to political and social activism in the fields of nonviolence, civil rights, human rights and the environment. Baez’s distinctive vocal style and political activism had a significant impact on popular music.
She shared a close relationship with Bob Dylan and I have chosen her rendition of Dylan’s “Blowing in the wind” as my song for her.
Roger Waters (1943 – )
“The Wall is still relevant today: The loss of a father is the central prop on which ‘The Wall’ stands. As the years go by, children lose their fathers again and again, for nothing. You see it now with all these fathers, good men and true, who lost their lives and limbs in Iraq for no reason at all. I’ve done Bring The Boys Back Home in my encore on recent tours. It feels more relevant and poignant to be singing that song now than it did in 1979.” (Source, Wikipedia)
Much of Roger Waters music is based on an anti-war message to the world driven by being haunted by the death of a father he never met in World War Two. It took him years to come to terms with the tragedy but through his powerful music and outspoken views he has moved and influenced many people. He has been and still is, without doubt, one of the great rock musicians, songwriters and stage performers.
My song for Roger is the incredibly powerful song “The tide is turning” here performed at the amazing concert “The Wall live in Berlin 1990)
Bob Marley (1945 -1981)
Bob preached ‘Peace and love’ – “We got to realise we are one people, or there will never be no love at all.” Bob died of cancer aged 36. He was immensely influential during his lifetime and probably even more so since his death. His son Ziggy and wife Rita have carried Bobs torch since his death through performing and the family charity.
My song for Bob is “No woman no cry”
Neil Young is an environmentalist and outspoken advocate for the welfare of small farmers, having co-founded in 1985 the benefit concert Farm Aid. In 1986, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website described him as “one of rock and roll’s greatest songwriters and performers” and he has been compared to Bob Dylan in that regard. He, modestly, refers to himself as a ‘B’ student of Dylan. Nevertheless he had a monumental influence over his generation musically.
My song for Neil is “Heart of Gold”
Nominated for two Nobel Peace Prizes and Knighted in 1986, Bob Geldof was the lead singer in the punk band the Boomtown Rats. But since those days he has become widely known for his political activism, particularly his anti-poverty efforts in Africa with the organisations Band Aid and Live Aid which have raised countless $millions to alleviate human suffering. He has masterminded some of the biggest rock concerts the world has ever seen since 1984 in raising awareness and funds for famine relief.
Without hesitation Bob’s song must be “Do they know it’s Christmas?” which in its first week of release became the UK’s fastest selling single of all time, entering the chart at number one and going on to sell over three million copies, making it the biggest-selling single in UK history up to that point, a title it held for almost 13 years.
Apart from his music with U2 his humanitarian work has brought him considerable commendations from his peers and the public alike. Live Aid brought him to prominence and like Bob Geldof his contribution to raising awareness and funds for famine relief has been immense. His passion for social activism has also led him to raise awareness through his songs, using politics and religion in many of them. He has used his celebrity status to raise awareness about many global problems such as apartheid, and aids and was a favourite of Nelson Mandela for whom he worked and worked with since he was a teenager.
On Sunday, January 30th 1972 British army troops, unjustifiably, opened fire on unarmed peaceful civilians at a Civil Rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland. 14 people were killed and 14 injured.
My song for Bono is “Sunday bloody Sunday”