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Theatre and Music as Protest in the 20th Century

By Julia Mann

In my research of the Federal Theatre Project, I observed a connection between the use of protest theater in the 1930s and protest music of the 1960s and 1970s. Examining the art of these decades shows that, though the methods may change, the issues people deal with and speak out about stay the same. The need to speak truth to power through art has always existed and always will.

Below are three plays from the Federal Theatre Project that we studied in class. I connect each play to two different protest songs from the 1960s and 1970s to show how they relate.

The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein (1937)

The Cradle Will Rock is a story about a town owned and ran by a corrupt man named Mr. Mister. It deals with issues like authoritarianism, governmental corruption, and greed. In this musical, there is a scene where Mr. Mister forces the president of a university to instate a compulsory military service for its students. This scene, which shows the increasing force of the military industrial complex, has similar themes to protest music of the 1960s and 1970s.

“Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young

“Ohio” is about the 1970 Kent State shooting, where the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a group of students protesting the Vietnam War (“Kent State Shooting”). The song includes the lyric “tin soldiers and Nixon coming”. While “tin soldiers” refers to the Ohio National Guard, “Nixon coming” implies that Nixon, though not physically there, was the person ultimately responsible, similar to how Mr. Mister was the person driving the increased militarization behind closed doors in The Cradle Will Rock.

“Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival

This Vietnam War protest song similarly speaks out against authority. The song includes the lyrics “I ain’t no senator’s son” and “I ain’t no military son” to show that the senators and military officials who were voting to prolong the war were not the ones sending their children off to fight. Instead, they employed the draft to send poor children like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty. “Fortunate Son” inspired protest against war operations like the draft. One could interpret that Blitzstein also meant to invoke protest against the military, specifically a compulsory service or draft, with this specific scene in The Cradle Will Rock.

Big White Fog by Theodore Ward (1938)

   Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog is about a Black family living in Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s. As they experience racism and the effects of the Great Depression, the family members support different beliefs from Garveyism and the Back-to-Africa movement to the American Dream. The play is titled after a thought Ward had as a child, “I was a descendant of the slaves who had built this country, yet I was still deprived of the patriotic joy felt by those who claimed the land as their own. In my bewilderment that late afternoon, it suddenly occurred to me that we as a people were engulfed by a pack of lies, surrounded, in fact, by one big white fog through which we could see no light anywhere” (Attenborough).

“Is it Because I’m Black” by Syl Johnson

In this song, Syl Johnson asks “Looking back over my false dreams, that I once knew/ Wondering why my dreams never came true/ Is it because I’m Black?” He later answers that yes, he is being held back because he is Black. This song parallels the moment in Big White Fog when the family’s son Lester loses his college scholarship because he is Black. The song’s constant repetition of the lyric “you keep holding me back” reflects the feeling of the “big white fog” that Ward described he felt as a child.

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gill Scott-Heron

After Lester loses his scholarship, he turns to a socialist, “power to the people” belief system, that shows a glimpse of the 1960s youth’s beliefs (Simons). “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron could be read with these socialist values, as it references many advertisements and television shows and states that the revolution will not be those things. This could be interpreted to mean that the revolution will not be found through or in capitalism. The song also states that “The revolution will not be right back/ After a message about a white tornado/ White lighting, or white people.” This lyric also reflects the “big white fog” image, as it shows how engulfed by whiteness everything in the media is. The television references Scott-Heron makes are not just results of capitalism, but results of capitalism ruled by the oppressive white class.

One Third of a Nation by Arthur Arent (1938)

One-Third of a Nation by Arthur Arent is a living newspaper play that functions as protest for fair housing. The play shows the dynamic between the landlord and the working-class people that have to fight each other to get a chance at housing, particularly one man named Angus Buttonkooper, who is referred to as “Little Man.” The following songs reflect this play’s themes, such as unequal housing and the exploitation of the working class.

“Dead End Street” by The Kinks

“Dead End Street” by The Kinks is a song about poor housing that reflects themes from One-Third of a Nation. The opening lyrics are “There’s a crack up in the ceiling/ And the kitchen sink is leaking/ Out of work and got no money.” These lyrics describe the kind of conditions that the people in One-Third of a Nation were dealing with. The song later states “We are strictly second class/ We don’t understand/ Why we should be on a dead end street?/ People are living on a dead end street/ Gonna die on dead end street”. Here, The Kinks are asking why they should be subjected to being treated as a second-class citizen and having to live and die in poor conditions. This idea of the “little man” questioning why things are the way they are and speaking out in protest directly correlates to One-Third of a Nation.

“Pirate Jenny” by Nina Simone (1964)

“Pirate Jenny” is from the point of view of a maid at a decrepit hotel that tells her revenge fantasy of destroying the town and killing its people with a ship called The Black Freighter, and then sailing away on it. The song is originally from the 1928 musical The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, with the English translation done by The Cradle Will Rock’s Marc Blitzstein (The Threepenny Opera). The song’s theme of standing up to those in power parallels the end of One-Third of a Nation where Mrs. Buttonkooper says “You know what we’re going to do- you and me? We’re going to holler. And we’re going to keep on hollering until they admit in Washington it’s just as important to keep a man alive as it is to kill him!” (Arent 2-5-9). Though “Pirate Jenny” takes this idea a step further in its murderousness, the need to do drastic things to finally be heard rings true in both this song and One-Third of a Nation.