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8 March 2010

The greatest political songs of all time

Do you agree with the Political Studies Association's list?

By Daniel Trilling

To mark its 60th birthday, the Political Studies Association is compiling a list of the greatest ever political songs.

As you can see below, its longlist is a varied beast, ranging from Verdi’s opera Aida, to the righteous Afrobeat of Fela Kuti, to Woody Guthrie’s folky “This Land is Your Land” — the latter a favourite of US progressives in the 1950s and 1960s that had a brief resurgence in 2009 when it was performed (including the “communist” verses) at Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony.

But what to make of the choices? You’ll notice that the politics of these songs are overwhelmingly right-on — the Italian anti-Fascist staple “Bella Ciao”, the utopian “Imagine” — or infused with a campaigning spirit — the Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela”, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”.

But are these the only kind of political songs? How about a song that actively supports the status quo, for example?

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Here‘s the blogger Tom Ewing on Chris de Burgh’s “The Lady in Red”, not only one of the most cringeworthy number-one singles of all time, but also, according to Ewing, an encapsulation of market values: “the actual identity of the Lady In Red is quite irrelevant: what matters is her value, not her self”.

Or, further still, perhaps the politics of a song are not only carried in its lyrics. J S Bach allegedy wrote a coded attack on his patron Frederick the Great into one of his final works, “The Musical Offering”, but how about the tinny, repetitive beats carried over the PA of a high-street chain store? Is their insistence on shopping as a mechanical, compulsive activity a political message, too?

We’ll be podcasting the PSA’s top 20 on 25 March, but for now tell us what you think. What songs would make your top ten? Which ones have been missed?

Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin: “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves”

Anon: “Bella Ciao”

Barry McGuire: “Eve of Destruction”

Billie Holiday: “Strange Fruit”

Billy Bragg: “Which Side Are You On?”

Bob Dylan: “The Times They Are a-Changin'”

Bob Marley: “Redemption Song”

Bruce Springsteen: “Born in the USA”

Carl Bean: “I Was Born This Way”

Cecil A Spring-Rice: “I vow to thee my country”

Charles A Tindley: “We Shall Overcome”

Charly García: “Nos siguen pegando abajo”

Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle: “La Marseillaise”

Donovan: “Universal Soldier”

Edwin Starr: “War”

Elvis Costello: “Tramp the Dirt Down”

Enoch Sontonga: “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”

Eugène Pottier: “The Internationale”

Fela Kuti: “Zombie”

Gil Scott Heron: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

Horst Wessel: “Die Fahne hoch”

Jim Connell: “The Red Flag”

John Lennon: “Imagine”

Joni Mitchell: “Big Yellow Taxi”

Leonard Cohen: “The Partisan”

Li Youyuan: “The East is Red (东方红)”

Marvin Gaye: “What’s Going on?”

Midnight Oil: “Beds Are Burning”

Nena: “99 Luftballons”

Nina Simone: “Mississippi Goddam”

Pete Seeger: “Where have all the flowers gone?”

Peter Gabriel: “Biko”

Plastic Ono Band: “Give Peace a Chance”

Public Enemy: “Fight the Power”

Randy Newman: “Political Science”

Rage Against the Machine: “Killing in the Name”

Robert Wyatt: “Shipbuilding”

Rolling Stones: “Gimme Shelter”

Sex Pistols: “God Save the Queen”

The Beatles: “Revolution”

The Clash: “Know Your Rights”

The Cranberries: “Zombie”

The Jam: “Eton Rifles”

The Police: “Invisible Sun”

The Special AKA: “Free Nelson Mandela”

The Strawbs: “Part of the Union”

Tracy Chapman: “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution”

U2: “Sunday Bloody Sunday”

UB40: “1 in 10”

Verdi: “Chorus of Hebrew Slaves”

Victor Jara: “Te Recuerdo Amanda”

William Blake: “Jerusalem”

Woody Guthrie: “This Land Is Your Land”