Protest and Folk Songs by James R. Coggins

I grew up in the 1960s listening to protest songs and folk songs sung by such artists as Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Those songs spoke to me then, and they still resonate with me today.

To be sure, many of these singers were naïve in their expectations and were often themselves quite imperfect people, but they sang about perfect ideals. Whether they were aware of it or not, their songs were filled not only with biblical concepts but even with biblical phrases and images. This was perhaps due to the extent to which biblical concepts had permeated general culture as a result of the resurgence in church attendance in the 1950s. For some of the singers, the biblical content was more conscious than for others. Bob Dylan and Paul Stookey later embraced Christianity, however imperfectly.

Recently, I rewatched a recording of a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert from 1986. What struck me was how much their songs were permeated by a plethora of biblical concepts. Love. Peace. Truth. Justice. Human dignity. Respect. Humility. Gratitude. Gentleness. Freedom. Family. Brotherhood. Unity. Community. Work. Compassion for human suffering. Lament over the brokenness of our world. Sacrificial giving. Forgiveness. Delight in the natural world. Fun. The innocence of childhood. Life. Joy. Hope.

I think that the biblical content is the reason these songs still resonate with me today. They certainly offer a more elevated set of concepts than much modern popular music (which is often very narrowly self-centered even when not blatantly immoral)—and even much social activism today. To be sure, modern social activists still advocate for justice and compassion. But much else has been lost. There are undercurrents of anger, selfishness, division, and pride in much modern social activism. Sex and pleasure have replaced the emphasis on love and family. The right to die has replaced the joy of living. Human rights (however badly defined) are still emphasized, but not humility, work, sacrificial giving, and forgiveness. On all sides, truth is fought over rather than genuinely sought with humility. Rather than people working together to achieve justice and change opinions, justice is to be imposed from the top by governments, which themselves have often proved to be unjust. Perhaps most crucial of all, trying to build an ideal world on a human level without even a subconscious awareness of the God of the Bible is futile and likely to be misguided and go astray.

We live in an imperfect world, where we often fail to achieve lofty goals, even with the best of intentions. But I still think that we should sing about, celebrate, believe in, and work for: love, peace, truth, justice, human dignity, respect, humility, gratitude, gentleness, freedom, family, brotherhood, unity, community, work, compassion for human suffering, lament over the brokenness of our world, sacrificial giving, forgiveness, delight in the natural world, fun, the innocence of childhood, life, joy, and hope.

About jrcoggins

James R. Coggins is a professional writer and editor based in British Columbia, Canada. He wrote his first novel in high school, but, fortunately for his later reputation as a writer, it was never published. He briefly served as a Christian magazine editor (for just over 20 years). He has written everything from scholarly and encyclopedia articles to jokes in Reader’s Digest (the jokes paid better). His six and a half published books include four John Smyth murder mysteries and one other, stand-alone novel. In his spare time, he operates Mill Lake Books, a small publishing imprint. His website is
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