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Protest Song of the Day: ‘Wasteland of the Free’ by Iris DeMent

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

Iris DeMent is a country-folk singer, who wrote a song about sixteen years ago that is still applicable today. It is called “Wasteland of the Free,” and, according to statements she made, she thought the song could get her killed because of all the hate mail she would receive. However, she said she put what she was thinking into a song because it was “around-the-kitchen-table talk.” If she had “the courage to say it around the kitchen table but not out in public,” then she thought she would not be “as much of a person” as she liked to think of herself as being.

The chorus to the song is rather provocative:

Living in the wasteland of the free
where the poor have now become the enemy
Let’s blame our troubles on the weak ones
Sounds like some kind of Hitler remedy
Living in the wasteland of the free

From the beginning to the end, it touches upon a range of issues with each verse tackling another aspect of the American “wasteland.” Preachers are “dealing in politics and diamond mines.” The politicians are “running races on corporate cash.” Don’t tell her “they don’t turn around and kiss them people’s ass.”

CEOs are “making two hundred times the workers’ pay but they’ll fight like hell against raising the minimum wage and, if you don’t like it, mister, they’ll ship your job to some third-world country ‘cross the sea.”

Simultaneously, as the war on the poor plays out, DeMent sings, “We got little kids with guns fighting inner city wars/So what do we do, we put these little kids behind prison doors.”

“We’ll kill for oil, then we throw a party when we win.” But, when “some guy refuses to fight, we call that the sin.” Remember, George W. Bush was not president. These bold words were written and put to song while the president was Bill Clinton.

In the final verse, she sings, “While we sit gloating in our greatness/Justice is sinking to the bottom of the sea.” What is the bottom? When do we reach it? If justice had sunk to a low in 1996, think of what depth it has sunk to now.


The Dissenter will be putting one of these up every weekday morning. If you have requests for songs that should be featured or if you have a protest song you recorded, which you would like to see featured, email

And all previous Protest Song of the Day selections can be found here.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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