They’ll Never Keep Us Down

Songs of Protest, 1913–2018

Aaron Smithers (Music Editor), with illustrations by Bill Thelen

“Oh yes we can, I know we can can, yes we can can, why can’t we? If we wanna, yes we can can.”

Hazel Dickens wrote “They’ll Never Keep Us Down” in 1976 for the soundtrack to Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County, USA. In Dickens’s lyrics, “they” are the rich men who prioritize profits over people, who “rob, steal, and kill” to maintain their power. Songs of protest have been around as long as humans have made music, and the “they” in these songs is not exclusively rich men but shifts according to the socio-historical context of the singer, or the needs of a community organizing around a common cause for whom the song provides a rallying cry. “They” can be any people, institutions, or structures that would oppress or otherwise subjugate another’s human rights. While protest songs are often communiqués for a specific audience, the power of the medium allows for transcendence of the subject and can lead to greater understanding of our shared humanity. We may not know who “they” are, but when we listen, we are energized, outraged, and connected.

We may not know who “they” are, but when we listen, we are energized, outraged, and connected.

The songs collected here span over a century, and the emotions and issues distilled in the music intersect constructs of race, class, sexuality, and politics: workers demand decent wages; farmers struggle against industrial agriculture; African Americans stand up for equal rights; prisoners lament the corruption of the criminal justice system; gender-nonconforming persons affirm their identities; artists reject the strictures of genre; immigrants and “others” have names. Not just a vehicle for airing grievances, protest songs act as focal points for engagement, catalysts for change, and inspiration for action. They offer hope and a vision of a better world. Like Allen Toussaint, we can hold Lee Dorsey’s words close, a mantra: “Oh yes we can, I know we can can, yes we can can, why can’t we? If we wanna, yes we can can.”

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Track List

1. “There Is Power in a Union (1913),” Entertainment Workers IU 630 with Utah Phillips

Don’t Mourn—Organize! Songs of Labor Songwriter Joe Hill (1984)

2. “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues,” Skip James (1931)

3. “Weave Room Blues,” The Dixon Brothers (1936)

4. “Aragon Mill,” Si Kahn

In My Heart (1994)

5. “Tom Moore Blues,” Lightnin’ Hopkins

The Texas Bluesman (1968)

6. “Heartland,” Willie Nelson with Bob Dylan

Across the Borderline (1993)

7. “Campesino,” Piñata Protest

Plethora (2010)

8. “9 to 5,” Dolly Parton

9 to 5 and Odd Jobs (1980)

9. “Hamlet Chicken Plant Disaster,” Jello Biafra with Mojo Nixon & the Toadliquors

Prairie Home Invasion (1994)

10. “I Hate the Capitalist System,” Barbara Dane

I Hate the Capitalist System (1973)

11. “Genocide,” Link Wray

Yesterday—Today (1969)

12. “Los Deportados (Deportee),” Tish Hinojosa

After the Fair (2013)

13. “Alabama,” John Coltrane

Live at Birdland (1963)

14. “Freedom Day,” Max Roach with Abbey Lincoln

We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (1960)

15. “Let Freedom Ring,” Terry Allen and the Panhandle Mystery Band with Surachai Janitmatorn & Caravan

Amerasia (1987)

16. “The Freedom Rider,” Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers

The Freedom Rider (1964)

17. “Birmingham Sunday,” Joan Baez

5 (1964)

18. “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” Phil Ochs

I Ain’t Marching Anymore (1965)

19. “Backlash Blues,” Nina Simone

Sings the Blues (1967)

20. “How Much Can I Stand?” Gladys Bentley (1928)

21. “Any Other Way,” Jackie Shane

Any Other Way (1967)

22. “Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” Roberta Flack

First Take (1969)

23. “Up Against The Wall, Red Neck,” Jerry Jeff Walker and The Lost Gonzo Band

¡Viva Terlingua! (1973)

24. “Hard Out Here (2011 Edition),” Casby & Colby

Welcome to Rob Co. (2011)

25. “Backstreets of Downtown Augusta,” Anne Romaine

Broadside Ballads, Vol. 5: Time Is Running Out (1970)

26. “I Got Too Much Time for the Crime I Done,” J. B. Smith

Ever Since I Have Been a Man Full Grown (1965)

27. “Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again?” Hazel Dickens

By the Sweat of My Brow (1983)

28. “Crooked Officer,” Geto Boys

Till Death Do Us Part (1993)

29. “Pardon Denied Again,” Robert Pete Williams

Those Prison Blues (1959)

30. “God Bless America—For What,” Swamp Dogg

Rat On! (1971)

31. “Wasteland of the Free,” Iris DeMent

The Way I Should (1996)

32. “The Bourgeois Blues,” Lead Belly

Negro Sinful Songs (1939)

33. “La Granja,” Los Tigres Del Norte

La Granja (2009)

34. “The Riddle,” Ornette Coleman Trio

At the Golden Circle, Stockholm (1965)

35. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke

Ain’t That Good News (1964)

36. “We Rise,” Rhiannon Giddens, with Pura Fe and Charly Lowry

We Rise (2014)

37. “Take This Hammer,” Toumani Diabaté and Taj Mahal

Kulanjan (1999)

38. “Take This Job and Shove It,” David Allan Coe

Family Album (1978)

39. “Lavender Country,” Lavender Country

Lavender Country (1973)

40. “Chicano,” Rumel Fuentes with Los Pingüinos Del Norte

Del Mero Corazon (1978)

41. “Say It Loud—I’m Black And I’m Proud,” James Brown

Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud (1969)

42. “You Don’t Know Me,” Mykki Blanco

Mykki (2016)

43. “Caddo Revival,” Jim Pepper

The Path (1988)

44. “Mi Gente,” J Balvin & Willy William, featuring Beyoncé (2017)

45. “Idle No More,” Pura Fé

Sacred Seed (2015)

46. “Corrido De Gregorio Cortez,” Ramon Ayala Y Sus Bravos Del Norte

Corridos Famosos – Contrabando y Traicion (1975)

47. “Red Revolution,” StenJoddi, featuring Thomas X

The 7th Generation Prophecy (2016)

48. “Human Garbage,” MAKE

Pilgrimage of Loathing (2016)

49. “Impeach the President,” The Honey Drippers

45 rpm single (1973)

50. “Freedom of Choice,” Earth, Wind & Fire

Powerlight (1983)

51. “Yes We Can Can,” Allen Toussaint

Our New Orleans (2005)

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