Be sure to check out 10 more songs to make Social Change to for even more inspiration, and if you’re looking for something to read take a look at our book recommendations. You can also find out more about what we do at Student Hubs supporting university students to make social change in their local communities. (Editor’s note: 10/02/22)
We all love a good song in the Student Hubs office and it’s usually one by Beyoncé on a Friday afternoon, but this week I’ve been thinking about my favourite songs relating to social change-making. It turns out that there have been plenty of protest songs and charity fundraising tracks over years but it can be quite tricky to find one that’s actually a decent tune as well. I’ve managed to track a few down though, so here we go, my soundtrack to making the world a better place…
You can listen here on Spotify as you read.
10. Big Yellow Taxi // Joni Mitchell // 1970
Anthropogenically-induced global warming wasn’t much of a worry to the general public back in the 1960s and ‘70s (in fact, global cooling was perceived to be a bigger problem for a while) but after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, concern over pesticides and environmental pollution became widespread. With the chorus line “Don’t it always seem to go/ That you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone”, Joni Mitchell’s record Big Yellow Taxi soon came to symbolise the burgeoning environmental movement that later evolved into the sustainability and climate change campaigns of today.
9. Love Train // The O’Jays // 1972
The O’Jay’s 1972 hit single may not have as much substance as some of the others in this chart, but it’s still a bit of a tune. It’s inspirational too: the song asks “People all over the world” to join hands and start a love train. I’m not entirely sure what a love train entails but I think it must be something to do with global unity and helping others out, no matter where they come from. Who knows, maybe we’ll be discussing the need for more romantically-themed public transport options at the next Student Hubs international development conference?
8. I Am Woman // Helen Reddy // 1972
Next up, we have a song that celebrates female empowerment and which became an anthem for the second wave of feminism and women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. Aretha Franklin’s Respect may have stood the test of time a little better, but unlike Respect, I Am Woman was originally written by one very cool woman with the aim to inspire other women everywhere. As Reddy sings, we “know too much to go back and pretend”.
7. The Times They Are A-Changin’ // Bob Dylan // 1964
As you might have noticed by now, for me the 1960s and ‘70s are a rich source of amazing social change tunes and Bob Dylan’s classic protest song seems to embody the feeling of this time period better than any other. Dylan deliberately wrote this song with a view to create an anthem for social action and he succeeded. The Times They Are A-Changin’ has easily transcended the politics of the 1960s: although much has changed in the last fifty years, Dylan still performs the song with relevance today.
6. The Wind Of Change // Scorpions // 1991
I’ve mulled it over and decided that it is worth the risk of revealing my great love of power ballads for the sake of this blog. Apart from being an absolute tune and showcasing some of the best rock whistling of all time, The Wind of Change celebrates the many political changes that occurred in Europe during the late 1980s and early 1990s. These changes centred around Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika which led to increasing political freedom across the Soviet Eastern Bloc, the eventual dissolution of the USSR and end of the Cold War. The German Scorpions were inspired to write the song after visiting Moscow in 1989 where they could feel “The future[…] in the air”. The record topped charts throughout Europe and North America two years later.
5. Imagine // John Lennon // 1975
This song was recently picked by Aung San Suu Kyi as one of her Desert Island Discs, and if it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for us. Imagine powerfully combines John Lennon’s song-writing talents and a strong message of peace and equality. What’s not to like?
4. The Way It Is // Bruce Hornsby and The Range // 1986
In 1986, Bruce Hornsby looked out soulfully from beneath his mullet and sang a tale of social inequality, poverty and racial discrimination in modern day America. A character in his story explains that “That’s just the way it is/ Some things’ll never change” but Hornsby tells us not to believe them. He points out that at one time racial segregation was viewed as “just the way it is” and insists that it only feels like that if you wait for change to happen, rather than actively trying to create social change yourself. The chorus was famously sampled by 2Pac with Changes in 1992. He refers to the possibility of a black President of the United States, saying “we ain’t ready yet”. Twenty years later, Barack Obama proved Hornsby and 2Pac right: things can and do change!
3. Geraldine // Glasvegas // 2008
We move into our top three with a relatively new record from Scottish indie rockers Glasvegas. This heartfelt song celebrates the kindness and hard work of social workers and is written from the perspective of the band’s lead singer’s social worker named Geraldine. It clearly differs from the other songs in this chart in that it’s not a message of widespread social change but a celebration of those individuals who quietly dedicate their lives or careers to helping others, sometimes with very little thanks but often with huge impact.
2. A Change Is Gonna Come // Sam Cooke // 1964
A lot of the greatest social change-making music has come out of the American civil rights movement and the beautiful A Change Is Gonna Come has got to be the best of the lot. Through this much-covered song, Cooke dealt with his own experiences of racial prejudice and simultaneously created a true anthem for the ongoing civil rights protests at the time. “There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long / But now I think I’m able to carry on / It’s been a long, long time coming / But I know a change gonna come”. Very sadly, Cooke didn’t live long after the record’s release to see its commercial success or the social change that did indeed come.
1. Believe In Yourself // Ziggy Marley and The Melody Makers // 1996
Pipping Sam Cooke to the top spot this week is everyone’s favourite fictional cartoon aardvark: Arthur. If you’re reading this blog and had a TV at home when you were younger there’s a good chance that, like me, you grew up watching the adventures of Arthur the aardvark on CBBC. It might not be the most obvious choice but I would like to propose Arthur’s theme tune Believe In Yourself as a new anthem for the modern student social change movement. Sung by Ziggy Marley and The Melody Makers, the song delivers a simple message of collaboration and cooperation, all in a funky reggae style. I defy anyone who listens to this song to not feel a little bit uplifted and a little bit more ready to change the world!