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The Protest Songs Of David Crosby

“Part of our job is just to rock you, and part of our job is to be like troubadours, carrying the news from one town to another, like town criers,” singer-songwriter David Crosby declared in an interview in 2006.

Crosby took his responsibility as a prominent musician seriously, and when he made this comment, he was on the Freedom of Speech tour with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young, where they performed songs from Young’s “Living With War” protest album, called for the impeachment of President George W. Bush, and spoke out against the Iraq War.

He co-authored a book, Stand and Be Counted: Making Music, Making History, that was released in 2000. It recounted antiwar demonstrations, civil rights marches, and music benefits from the perspective of artists.

“Nobody kids themselves into believing that they can solve the world’s problems,” Crosby wrote. “We’re just trying to make a difference, to change things for the better wherever we can. And if it takes a long push, then we’re in it for the long haul.”

“A lot of times this isn’t about the genius of the moment. It’s about persistence. It’s about being in there and staying in there.”

On January 18, 2023, Crosby died after battling what his family described as a “long illness.” Though he was in poor health, he still was working on another album and thinking about touring again.

In 1971, when Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) organized the “Winter Soldier” investigation to call attention to war crimes by the United States military in Vietnam, Crosby (and Nash) performed two concerts to help raise funds in support of the event. The investigation emphasized the role of U.S. generals and commanders, who were responsible for the My Lai Massacre.

Up to the final years of his life, Crosby visited the wall at the Vietnam War memorial to remind himself of the “awful price we pay when we let our politicians drag us into wars for profits going to the giant [corporations].”

Profiteering in the Iraq War deeply upset Crosby. He cared about young people who joined the US military and risked their lives, and it disgusted him how Halliburton, Bechtel, and ExxonMobil, etc, were benefiting from the carnage.

He was part of the Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) collective that performed in concerts after the Three Mile Island disaster to demand an end to nuclear energy.

Crosby joined Nash in 2011 to support Occupy Wall Street in New York. They visited the site of the encampment and performed several songs for the people of Liberty Plaza that had gathered to stand up for the 99 percent.

As Crosby described the influence of money over politics, “A senator has to spend more than half his time whoring himself out to get money. And of course, there are all those guys in the $2,000 suits just standing around dying to stuff it in his pockets, you know, from the corporations, because they want to buy a senator, they want to buy a congressman, they want that contract, and that takes our representative democracy out of your hands and my hand. It means it disenfranchises us, and I don’t feel that that’s the way it’s supposed to work.”

Crosby never accepted the official US government narrative around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He shouted at multiple concerts, “The Warren Report was a lie.”

“It was, you know, a hit, and it certainly was no lone gunman. You know, if you watch the Zapruder film, [Kennedy] got hit from two directions. There’s no question about it. Also, I’ve been there and stood in Dealey Plaza behind the fence, and I could’ve hit him with a handgun. It’s not very far,” Crosby contended.

Until his death, Crosby maintained that Kennedy had pissed off those in the power structure, and that was why he was assassinated.

Now here are six protest songs that David Crosby wrote or co-wrote.

“Long Time Gone” (1969)

The liner notes for the 1991 box set version of Crosby, Stills & Nash, the group’s debut album, features Crosby’s explanation for what inspired this song.”

“It was written the night Bobby Kennedy was killed,” Crosby shared. “I believed in him because he said he wanted to make some positive changes in America, and he hadn’t been bought and sold like Johnson and Nixon—cats who made their deals years ago with the special interests in this country in order to gain power.”

Yet in later interviews, Crosby also said that Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination was just the “penultimate trigger.” He was also had the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. in mind while writing the tune.

The song is both about the importance of dissent, even when it feels like it will not make any difference. “Speak out, you got to speak out against the madness,” Crosby sings. “You got to speak your mind, if you dare.”

“But don’t, no, don’t now try to get yourself elected. If you do, you had better cut your hair, Crosby adds.

The lyrics recognize that one could no longer be part of the counterculture and independent of the establishment if they were in political office. They would gradually become more implicated in the madness and forced to give up their identity.

“It appears to be a long time before the dawn” represents the very impatience any person feels in the never-ending struggle for truth, peace, and justice.

The song took on a kind of legendary status, when it was included in the introduction for Michael Wadleigh’s “Woodstock” documentary. But it was nearly scrapped after Crosby struggled with it for several weeks while the band was recording their debut album.

According to CSNY: The Wild & Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup by David Browne, Stephen Stills stayed up all night perfecting the instrumentation. Writer Ellen Sander, who was present, recalled that Stills gave Crosby a look that appeared to say: “I arranged your song better than you could have in a thousand years. And don’t forget it.”

“Almost Cut My Hair” (1970)

Even David Crosby recognized that the song was rather adolescent, but its defiance represented the rebellious spirit of the late 1960s.

“We were the counterculture so the idea was, ‘Don’t give in, stay with it, don’t cop out from the attitude that we’re different and want it another way,’” Crosby recalled in Browne’s book. “Hair was only a symbol. It was a statement of independence. We’re not going to shave it and put on a button-down shirt and become like you.”

“Almost cut my hair. It happened just the other day,” Crosby sings. He says he often feels like letting his “freak flag fly.” But now the pressure to conform has added to his paranoia, “like looking at my mirror and seeing a police car.”

That fear is the fear of being singled out because you are fighting for the world to be organized differently. It stems from a recognition that hose wearing a badge or acting under the banner of the law may try and stifle you to preserve a certain order.

The song appeared on the first album that included Neil Young, Déjà Vu. It’s considered one of Crosby’s finest songs, and for what it’s worth, Crosby lived his entire life with long hair and let his freak flag fly.

“What Are Their Names” (1971)

From Crosby’s debut solo album, the song featured Jerry Garcia on guitar and Graham Nash on guitar and piano. The instrumental opening crescendos to the song’s powerful indictment of the men who really run the US government.

“I wonder who they are,” Crosby sings. “The men who really run this land, and I wonder why they run it with such a thoughtless hand.”

“What are their names and on what streets do they live? I’d like to ride right over this afternoon and give them a piece of my mind about peace for mankind.”

“Peace is not an awful lot to ask,” Crosby concludes.

It was rarely performed live, according to Browne, but the song was part of the setlist for CSNY’s Freedom of Speech tour in 2006.

The version performed in the midst of the Iraq War was a shorter a cappella version similar to Stephen Stills’ “Find The Cost of Freedom,” which was also featured in shows.

When Crosby appeared on “Democracy Now!” with Nash after visiting Occupy Wall Street, they recited the poem.

“Nighttime For the Generals” (1988)

The Iran-Contra scandal was fresh in the minds of the nation, and George H.W. Bush, a former CIA director, had become president after Ronald Reagan completed his second term in the White House.

“Nighttime For the Generals” appeared on the CSNY album, American Dream. David Crosby’s song is another one of his songs about the faceless and unknown men who rule the country. This time he explicitly referred to those who plot covert and lawless operations in the shadows.

“And it’s nighttime for the generals, and the boys at the CIA,” Crosby sings. “Power gone mad in the darkness. Thinking they’re God on a good day. They giveth, they taketh, but they like to take it away.”

The boys at the CIA think they know what’s best for the population. At least that’s what they tell themselves. But they “shot blind Lady Liberty in the back of the head,” he adds, a nod to the disregard for how their actions endanger freedom.

Unfortunately, the song has not aged well. An artist like Peter Gabriel may have been able to make it work, but it has too much of a tacky ‘80s sound that is particularly discordant to our ears because it differs from that transcendent folk-rock sound, which defined CSNY and helped make them a supergroup.

“They Want It All” (2004)

David Crosby performed this song with Graham Nash at Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and it’s a searing indictment of the one percent and crooked and greedy capitalist executives, who hold too much power and influence over government.

“They want it all, they want it now. They want to get it and they don’t care how,” Crosby sings.

The faceless men, who are the subject of the song, want our life savings, our mother’s ring, and another mansion. Enough is never enough. A piece of the pie will not do. They want the whole pie. And “they always have a president or two” to help them “get away with what they do.”

As the song progresses, Crosby paints a picture of corruption engaged in to avoid any accountability. Executives make wire transfers in Jamaica. They’ll “sacrifice” their lawyer just to be certain that they’re never prosecuted.

“If you want us to believe in justice, justice better be real,” Crosby adds.

The song was actually recorded for Crosby and Nash’s 2004 album, which received lackluster reviews.

Graham Nash said in one interview that the lyrics were inspired by the Enron scandal. “It’s about all corporate malfeasance, but inspired by the outrage that David felt about the way that Enron treated its employees and ruined countless thousands of lives, destroying their life savings and their IRAs and their 401s. But at the same time, making billions for themselves.”

Performed at Zuccotti a decade after that major scandal, Occupy protesters must have thought the song was written specifically for the moment in which they mobilized against the class warfare fueled by corporations on Wall Street.

“Capitol” (2017)

David Crosby’s son James Raymond co-wrote this song with his father, which was released on Sky Trails. It sounds nothing like any classic Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song, but the music production is much better than the songs on American Dream.

By the time Crosby recorded Sky Trails, it was apparent that the acrimony between Crosby and Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young would prevent any further reunion tours from happening. So he focused on projects like this one and Lighthouse (2016).

“Capitol” is about the scene of the crime, the building where members of the US House of Representatives and Senate meet regularly, and what it is like to realize as one tours the premise that this is where all the most impactful decisions get made.

Crosby sings, “This is where it happens. They run the whole damned thing from here. Money to burn, filling up their pockets, where no one can see and no one can hear.”

Once again, it’s about a cabal that is shrouded in secrecy. They ignore the constitution. They hide from the public, where no one can hear what they do. All they care about is staying a part of the machine.

And the votes are just pieces of paper
And they sneer at the people who voted
And they laugh as the votes were not counted
And the will of the people was noted
And completely ignored

Over a lush composition, Crosby articulates what it’s like to observe daily that there is a big elite club in Congress, which has the ear of lobbyists from corporate and special interest groups, while the most important people of them all—the bottom 90 percent of citizens—are shut out of decisions.

Remarkably, the song was released after President Donald Trump’s election. It distinguishes itself from the many, many songs recorded during that era by staying focused on the real center of power rather than the personality of Trump.

As Crosby described, “‘Capitol’ is an indictment of our Congress. It’s me saying this is a scam. They’re tricking you with all that white marble and all that pomp and circumstance that they’re showing you. They’re really a grubby bunch of thieves, lowest kind of people.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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