The legendary folk singer Pete Seeger left behind a powerful legacy of political music. But who nowadays is left to continue the tradition? Greg Kot takes a look.

Seeger went down swinging. Even in his 90s, one of the godfathers of contemporary protest music was still working the crowd at an Occupy movement rally in New York City while turning We Shall Overcome into one big, righteous sing-along. 

Seeger, who died recently at 94, leaves behind a formidable legacy. He was a controversial, outspoken figure who sang hit songs and children’s songs, but mostly songs that called for change. He walked it like he sang it; he was once indicted for contempt by the same government he so frequently called out in his music (the charges were later overturned). He and Woody Guthrie sang together in the early 1940s, and he helped launch the folk-protest movement later on in that decade with his group, the Weavers. “We all owe our careers to him,” Joan Baez said of herself and fellow guitar-strumming rabble-rousers like Bob Dylan, Odetta and Phil Ochs.

But where is Seeger’s voice of dissent today? Steve Earle, one of Seeger’s foremost disciples, once defined his job in a way that would make the master proud: “The original function of songwriting is to tell a story that might otherwise die.” Many casual observers of popular music might say that it is the protest song that is dying. Where is the indignation of Seeger’s I Ain’t Scared of Your Jail, Dylan’s Masters of War, the Staple Singers’ Freedom Highway or Gil Scott-Heron’s Johannesburg today?

–There was certainly no sign of it in the recent spectacle of the Grammy Awards, which presented a sanitised version of American popular culture. But there is plenty happening on the margins that suggests the protest song is still very much alive, if not widely popular in the commercial, big-media sense of the term.

Off the wall

Mike Watt, bassist of the groundbreaking post-punk band The Minutemen, has written and performed more than a few protest songs over the last few decades. “Music comes and goes in cycles,” he told me. “And it gets good only when the people making it can feel the wall against their shoulder.”

In recent years, the walls have been closing in: wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, revolutions throughout the Middle East, chronically high unemployment and a lingering recession. There’s plenty to get riled up about, and some musicians have responded. There is Tom Morello’s Seeger-like Nightwatchman solo project and his collaborations with Bruce Springsteen on a recent re-recording of the protest songs The Ghost of Tom Joad and American Skin (41 Shots). There is Springsteen himself, who in 2012 released his most pointed set of musical political commentaries yet, Wrecking Ball. There is Oakland’s ever funky, ever ticked-off agit-rap group The Coup, touring the songs behind the inflammatory Sorry to Bother You, in which Boots Riley and company set state-of-the-classroom messages about the education system and corporate corruption to insidious dance beats. And there are The Roots, most famous these days for being the house band on US talk show, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, who have strung together a series of politically conscious albums, including Wake Up!, a 2010 collection of protest music recorded with John Legend.

Much of this music hasn’t seeped into the popular vernacular the way, say, Seeger’s version of We Shall Overcome did. Commercial radio stations and TV networks generally don’t provide much exposure to music with a political agenda. Seeger was once prevented from performing the anti-Vietnam War song Waist Deep in the Deep Muddy on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour but when the hosts criticised their network for censoring the folk icon, Seeger returned to the show a few months later in early 1968 to perform the song. Some said the performance was a turning point in shaping public perception about the war. But when was the last time anyone heard or saw a musical performance in a comparable forum – a big-market Top 40 radio station, a national TV show – that called into question US government policy?

Who dares wins

In 2005, Kanye West’s impassioned comments on US network TV about the Bush administration’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans stirred outrage, much of it directed at West. The remark did inspire a great piece of protest music, the track George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People by the Houston hip-hop group The Legendary KO. Though the song was downloaded more than a million times and finished in the top 20 of the Village Voice’s annual critics poll, it was never heard on commercial radio.

But isn’t protest music a tough sell by design? As that noted music scholar, President Bill Clinton once remarked about Seeger, he was “an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them.” 

And being inconvenient is not usually a sound marketing plan. That didn’t stop Against Me, a Chicago punk band, from selling hundreds of thousands of albums that assault the status quo in the same way Seeger once did. Their Disparity by Design, a song about the widening income gap between the haves and have-nots and the collapse of the middle class, presaged the Occupy Movement in many ways.

Against Me’s singer Tim McIlrath once told me that artists are reluctant to speak out because “our culture has been in a stranglehold by this hipster cynicism that permeates art and popular art. That's the currency of the latest incarnation of music. Apathy has more weight than anything else. It's not cool to be political, or to talk about these things in music.” His music found a wide audience, he believes, because “change never comes from the top down and trickles down. It always comes from the bottom up, and music can be a catalyst.”

Pete Seeger couldn’t have said it better.

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here.