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Protest Song of the Day: ‘It Isn’t Nice’ by Barbara Dane & the Chambers Brothers

To recognize the power of protest music, acknowledge its role in keeping dissent alive and how musicians are translating today’s social issues and systemic problems into song, The Dissenter has launched a daily feature that highlights a protest song every weekday.

This selection is a request from Barbara. It was originally written by Malvina Reynolds, an American folk singer who was well-known for her song “Little Boxes.” She was active in movements for social justice and also wrote this song, “It Isn’t Nice,” for the civil rights movement.

In 1966, just two years after the effort by civil rights activists to register African-Americans to vote known as Freedom Summer, American folk, blues & jazz singer Barbara Dane and the soul group, Chambers Brothers, released this cover version of Reynolds’ song.

The song is a kind of wry political jab at anyone, who ever showed contempt for Americans struggling for the rights through protest, civil disobedience or non-violent direct action in public or in the streets. As the lyrics of the song go:

It isn’t nice to block the doorway,
It isn’t nice to go to jail,
There are nicer ways to do it,
But the nice ways always fail.
It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice,
You told us once, you told us twice,
But if that is Freedom’s price,
We don’t mind.

Now, the lyrics to Reynolds’ song differ from the lyrics Dane sang in her version. When the song asks those who do not approve of civil rights protest whether they objected to lynchings or shootings of civil rights leaders and then answers the question with the words, “You were quiet just like mice,” Dane uses the word “murders” instead of “lynchings.” She also provides a setting where these cold-blooded killings took place: Alabama.

Her verse on trying negotiations also is different. The picket line is “token” instead of “three-man”:

Yeah, we tried negotiation
And the token picket line
Mr Charlie didn’t see us
And he might as well be blind
When you deal with men of ice
You can’t deal in ways so nice
But if that’s Freedom’s price, we don’t mind

It isn’t nice for the Occupy movement to hold protests and clog traffic around Wall Street, but so long as financial institutions and Wall Street executives continue to enjoy impunity for committing white-collar crime, for as long as the 1% continues to defend its right to redistribute wealth from the 99% to themselves, there will be protest.

Or, to make it even more relevant to current action taking place in the country, it isn’t nice for nine activists to sit in a tree village and block TransCanada from building a Keystone XL pipeline that will make it possible for this multinational corporation to market oil it extracts from Canada’s tar sands. It isn’t nice to get in the way of machinery tearing down forest, but then, the activists tried negotiation. They were arrested in front of the White House. Hundreds of people were arrested. They tried what some Americans might consider more civil tactics. But, power didn’t heed the calls of the people and now power faces an even bolder show of resistance, with people in Texas actually daring TransCanada to decide whether to hurt them in order to build the pipeline or stop construction of it altogether because at stake is humanity’s future on Earth.

Here’s the song:

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The Dissenter will be putting one of these up every weekday morning. If you have suggestions for songs that should be featured or if you recorded a protest song you think should be featured, email dissenter@shadowproof.wpengine.com.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."