I’ve taught songwriting for years and when a group asked me to teach writing protest songs and sing alongs, I was on it. In case you weren’t one of the people at that workshop, here are tips for writing your own “We Shall Overcome.”
First, let’s look at some great songs.
One of my favorite political songs is this one by Holly Near. It gets right to the point, is easy for a crowd to sing, and is adaptable to many different issues.
I mention “We Shall Overcome” above. I like Baez’s version. It’s moving and has a memorable melody.
Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote “Ella’s Song.” It’s powerful and touches on several issues.
Here’s one more, “Harperman,” by Canadian Tony Turner. What I like about this is that it packs a lot of information into one song but still has a singable chorus.
What do all of these songs have in common?
A singable chorus
Here’s where you present the essence of the issue. Reagon’s chorus is simply “We who believe in freedom cannot rest …” It doesn’t take long for a crowd of people to jump in, sing it, and feel empowered. The same for the other songs I mention.
Near’s song is a zipper song – one that is essentially the same every time except for one line. Again, a crowd can easily pick up on what to sing, as long as someone is leading them with each new line.
Turner’s song came at a time when many in Canada were unhappy with the prime minister. The song presents a lot of information about Harper and again, there’s a singable chorus. (Here’s more about the song. Turner lost his government job because of it.)
Know your audience
You wouldn’t sing a hymn at a rally about separation of church and state. However, you might sing about Rosa Parks at a women’s gathering or a Black Lives Matter march. You get the idea.
General songwriting tips
Use a successful song as your template – borrow the chords, the lyric meter, or the rhyme scheme. (You can’t copyright a chord progression. If that was so, country music would be in serious trouble.)
Have a clear direction. Don’t introduce a lot of information unless you have a structure like “Harperman.”
Show, don’t tell. Don’t tell us you’re sad. We’ve heard that in a million songs and it has ceased to have emotional impact. Write verses like the one Reagon did for “Ella’s Song.” It’s clear how she was feeling. She never says “angry” or “sad” but she uses her words like a good cinematographer uses images in a movie.
Don’t use a lot of notes or a complicated rhythm if you want people to sing along. Opera and jazz won’t work well. Folk, country, and rock will.
Get feedback. Before you get up in front of a crowd of thousands, sing the song for people who’ll give you an honest critique – not your mama who murmurs “That’s nice, dear” at everything you do. I find that songwriters, poets, and other writers give the best feedback, however, your mileage may vary.
I’ll leave you with a great song from the 2017 Women’s March in DC.
Now go make some beautiful noise.
Here’s more about that workshop I mention above. It includes video of yours truly.
Find a lot more songwriting tips from moi here.
I teach songwriting via Skype as well as in my studio in Ottawa, Canada. Interested? Contact me here.
There are so many other powerful songwriters I could’ve mentioned. Who are some of your favorites?