20 of your songs that changed the world


Can a song really help change the world? A recent Magazine feature raised this question, and hundreds of readers responded.

Fifty years ago, Barbara, a French singer of Jewish descent, wrote the song Goettingen about a German city she loved. Many believe her song helped build a new relationship between Germany and France. Here are some of the songs that you think also changed the world:

1. "For me and for my generation it was Free Nelson Mandela by The Specials (1984). I was born in 1960 and had no memory of Mandela being sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. So when we heard the song on the radio, it was a case of who is this guy and what has he done? Before long I was a member of Anti-Apartheid Movement, taking part in boycotts whilst apartheid, Desmond Tutu, Winnie Mandela and Steve Biko all became household names and in the national news." Barry King, Walsall, UK

2. "I am a fan of Barbara, but feel you have made far too much of it. The important one is Jean Ferrat's Nuit et Brouillard, or Night and Fog (1963). It talks about the trains that took Jews, like his father, to the concentration camps and is very powerful. De Gaulle did not like it as it interfered with his rapprochement with Adenauer. Ferrat says let the young dance the twist if they like, but the world should know who you - the people in the trains - were." Irene Ball, London

Image caption,
Nelson Mandela was eventually freed in 1990

3. "Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready (1965), a hymn of the civil rights movement and taken up in other places of struggle such as South Africa. The song has been covered by many, but the original still inspires, unites and reminds all of the human struggle for equality. It's also been used and played by many LGBT groups and causes." Cookie Schwartz, US

4. "It may be cheesy and too popular for consideration, but maybe Band Aid's Feed the World (1984) is important for just that reason. Until the song was released, with its videos of starving children, the plight of millions of African families was seen as just a footnote in the news. Live Aid generated revenue, but it was the song which caught people's imagination and made us realise that famine abroad was a problem for all of us to fight, not just the people suffering. The response to other subsequent disasters has been markedly different to before, and millions have benefitted as a result." Jamie, Aylesbury, UK

5. "Ben Kayiranga's Freedom was a daring song in 1997 right in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, not much for the bits of dancehall and reggae there, but the lyrics. It's not just that the lyrics were in Kinyarwanda, French and English either. But the message - freedom for people, freedom forever, freedom. The youth wants freedom, children want freedom. And maybe not the message either, because it was not that new in Rwandan music. But the moment, the timing - that fresh message of hope when a country is still mourning. The song gave a smile to a whole nation, so if Rwanda is the world, then that song changed the world." Rafiki Ubaldo, Knivsta, Sweden

6. "The anthem of the incredible movement that rescued almost two million Soviet Jews from oblivion and launched an effective human rights push that was the demise of the Iron Curtain was launched with a repetitive, easy Hasidic-style song that ignited people in Britain, the US and, most of all, the silenced Jews in post-Stalinist, atheistic USSR. In 1965, Shlomo Carlebach, an American Jewish rabbi/singer-songwriter, debuted the song Am Yisrael Chai (The People of Israel Live, the Father Lives). Almost a decade later, I was a student at UCLA in California, protesting the continued gulag internment of Jews and other human rights protestors, and we danced to that anthem. At the same time, in protest, young Jews were courageously gathering outside boarded-up synagogues across the USSR and danced too. A few years later, I married one of them!" Racelle Weiman, Charlotte, NC, US

7. "Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit (1939). There's racism in the world, but for many it's far too easy to mentally block out. This song kept it in your face, dangling from the tree, completely unable to be ignored. A brutal awaking to what was still transpiring in the southern parts of the United States long after the emancipation." Michelle, Iowa

8. "The Japanese song Ue O Muite Aruko (I Will Walk Looking Up, 1961) - but inexplicably known in the US and UK as Sukiyaki (1963) - did as much or more to change the attitudes of Americans toward their former enemies as any policy or speech. I am not old enough to remember the song coming out in 1963, but many older Americans have said this song marked the first instance where they began to see Japanese people not just as a former enemy or some mysterious, exotic race, but as people with feelings no different from their own, and capable of expressing beautiful, tender emotions. The effect went both ways. I lived in Japan for about five years, and many older Japanese shared with me how moved they were at the reception this song received in America, and this made them feel more positive toward their former foes. It is still to this date the only Japanese song to ever top the American charts. I do think it helped accelerate the alliance between Japan and the US that has maintained peace in the Pacific for over 50 years." John Taylor, Washington, DC

Image caption,
Royal Scots Dragoon Guards topped the charts with Amazing Grace in 1972

9. "Former slave ship captain John Newton wrote Amazing Grace in 1772. He mentored William Wilberforce in his long fight to outlaw slave trading. The song took root in the US during the Second Great (religious protestant) Awakening in early 1800s. It became a standard hymn sung by all races but also a protest song associated with civil rights and with Martin Luther King. It remains a hymn, a freedom song and also has a life as a radio chart hit for performers as diverse as Mahalia Jackson, Judy Collins and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. It is the song most frequently sung on Martin Luther King Jr Day in the US. Unfortunately, people-trafficking and slavery still exist, so the song has not been entirely successful. Yet." Alison Ahearn, London

10. "Joan Baez's We Shall Overcome (1963), originally focused on the civil rights movement, was a powerful way to bring people of different races, classes, backgrounds, religions - but one shared value - together, and now has become the song any group trying to stand against old and needing-to-change practices uses. So I think it both changed, and continues to change, the world for the better. It is not usually a song performed by an artist for others to hear - it is a song everyone sings, to express unity in a good cause." Bev Noia, Denver, US

11. "How about Lili Marlene (1939), brought to the fore in the time of Rommel's Afrika Korps and gained popularity with Montgomery's Eighth Army? When Allied victory came, perhaps this quite arresting melody - and its background too - provided some foundation for the consolidation of nations in Europe (Churchill's United States of Europe) which was to be forged from the early 1950s onward." John Olszewski, Windhoek, Namibia

12. "I like to think that Glad to be Gay (1976) by the Tom Robinson Band made a big contribution to changing the world for gay people. It challenged everybody to confront their own prejudice and society's prejudice, and awakened people's awareness of the persecution of gay people by authority in the UK and US. After 300,000 people marched through Paris last week opposing gay marriage, perhaps a new version of the song should be released." Andi Ye, UK

13. "Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come (1963) was influential during the civil rights movement, particularly after Martin Luther King was killed. Some would say that it played a significant role in bringing white Americans to actively support the move towards equality." Peter Wilding, Sheffield

14. "Bob Dylan, inspired by the ravages of war and universal social injustice, wrote Blowin' in the Wind (1962). I first heard this song at a Scout camp in 1967. Before long, ALL of us were singing along - including those (like myself) who didn't speak English. One of its greatest merits is that it so simple. Over the decades, I have encountered this song - and the positive spirit that emanates from it - the world over. It ranks among the very few songs that are truly universal. Or, in a nutshell: Never before has so little given so much to so many." Siegmar Siegel, Gaufelden, Germany

15. "Nena's 99 Luftballons (1984) certainly cast an interesting light on the East/West Berlin division. The keyboardist, I believe, wrote the song after going to a Rolling Stones concert in Berlin where a bunch of balloons were released. He then wondered what people on the other side might think they were, if they floated over the Berlin Wall. It certainly gave me, as a young man, the idea to question what governments tell their people, and maybe it did for others too. In the song, a war takes place, because people in power used the balloons as a sign of provocation to start a war. In the end, she finds a balloon, releases it into the air, and thinks of someone she has lost, or is missing, or someone she hasn't seen in a while. A modern example might be North and South Korea." Clayton Dale, Anchorage, Alaska

16. "David Hasselhoff is on record as saying that he thought his song Looking for Freedom (1989) helped bring down the Berlin Wall. I disagree, but I haven't the heart to tell him." Paul Kachur, Oberheimbach, Germany

Image caption,
On Bloody Sunday, British soldiers shot 26 protesters in Londonderry in 1972

17. "U2's Sunday Bloody Sunday (1983) captured the raw emotion and feelings of many people in Ireland and the UK growing up in the early 1980s. The year after its release the IRA Brighton bomb-blast rocked the Tory leadership, and the Falklands War was still vivid in our memories. I have seen U2 perform this song live on several occasions and each time they turn the music down so just the audience can be heard singing: 'How long - must we sing this song'. Perhaps it simply shone a candle of hope for a while and made us all pause and draw in breath at the futility of war and violence." David Christman, Hove, East Sussex

18. "L'Internationale (late 19th Century). An anthem of revolution worldwide, a stirring and moving hymn and call to the oppressed everywhere to rise up against tyranny, the great rallying paean of the poor and downtrodden. Nothing to beat it as a world-changing song throughout modern history. Truly unites the human race." Terry Martin, Blairgowrie, Scotland

Image caption,
Simon worked with South African musicians such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo

19. "I think Paul Simons' Graceland (1986) changed the world as part of a whole movement protesting against apartheid in South Africa, which started to gather momentum during that decade. The album introduced a commercial element to world music and significantly raised the profile of African musicians and performers. I remember Paul Simon being criticised by some supporters of the anti-apartheid movement at the time for breaking the cultural boycott but perhaps he had a point. Musical appreciation spans boundaries and cultures and can overcome politics." Jane Jarvis, Buckfastleigh, Devon

20. "Imagine (1971) by John Lennon encouraged a dialogue about war, famine and religion, but in a respectful and calm way, to the point now where even contemporary religious figures like the Archbishop of Canterbury use it in religious performances. I am not a religious person myself, nor really a hippie, but I feel that this song is still relevant today and am happy to have grown up with my Indian/Pakistani father playing it in the car on my way to school." Sara, Waterlooville, Hants/Salem, MA, US

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