Civil Rights Era Protest Songs

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  • John Coltrane
  • The Staple Singers
  • Grant Green
  • Billie Holiday
  • Bob Dylan
  • Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Sam Cooke
  • Nina Simone
  • Otis Redding
  • Aretha Franklin
  • James Brown
  • Marvin Gaye
  • Gil Scott Heron

Billie Holiday – "Strange Fruit" (1939) 

Jazz singer Billie Holiday's 1939 song "Strange Fruit" is one of the most famous and powerful protest songs in the history of America. The song expressed the horror of the lynchings of blacks in the country by using the extended metaphor of fruit growing from the trees, i.e. "Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root." Although the song preceded the civil rights movement by many years, it had a major influence on numerous artists who chose to express their resistance to prejudice and racism on record during the civil rights era and was most recently sampled up by Kanye West for his Yeezus album.

(Photo:  Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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