There are songs that try to persuade people to adopt a particular perspective or set of ideas. Chief among these would be protest songs. Yet protest songs do not all share the same WAY of being persuasive.

The ability to use language to persuade people is called rhetoric and this set of ideas has been around since Aristotle and the ancient Greek philosophers. These philosophers identified three different ways people try to persuade: logos, ethos, and pathos. Those are Greek words (because these guys were Greek!!) but the words have come into English. Logos is a foundation for any word that has -ology as well as "logic." Ethos is the basis for "ethics" and pathos is the basis for "pathetic."

Logos: Logos is rhetoric that uses logic to persuade. For younger kids, this is all the information needed besides examples of logic. Older kids (formal operations: high school and college) should learn about all the different logical fallacies because knowing this will help them to be immune to a lot of the junk on the internet. You can find details of logic, including definitions and examples of fallacies, at:

What is rhetoric?

Examples of songs that use logos:
Young Ladies in Town: if everyone wears home made clothing then it will become fashionable and we can boycott British goodss
Solidarity Forever: one person is too feeble to change things--we need to join together in a union because that way we have more strength.

Pathos: Pathos is rhetoric that appeals to one's emotions. If you have seen advertisements about helping children around the world and they show pictures of starving children, then you have experienced this type of rhetoric. The idea is that if you feel something about the topic then you will be persuaded to some kind of action, such as donating money.

There are times when pathos is an effective form of rhetoric and times when it does not work so well. People can use pathos to fool other people such as when a person fakes a disease and then has a fundraiser to get money. Sometimes pathos can be truly problematic such as when people "free" lab animals (we feel sorry for the animals) which puts the animals of a situation of being starved to death or killed by other animals.

A lot of protest songs depend on pathos. They can be emotionally powerful as a result.

Black Waters: here's how pretty the land was and then here's how ugly it is now when the coal companies have done their business. Similar to Muhlenberg County.

Ethos: Ethos is much more difficult to define. It is based on the authority of the person writing and also their personal characteristics such as being trustworthy and charismatic. Here is a handout on the topic of Ethos:

A good example of a song that uses ethos is Lift Every Voice and Sing. It is not based on a sense of victimhood which is what pathos can lead to. It is lofty and grand and at the same time convincing.

Note: Carolyn was asked (thanks, Steve!) about why she thought this project was a good idea and here is the gist of the answer. When you work with rhetoric, you are teaching students about different forms of logic and how they might work differently for various audiences. Working with rhetoric allows you to use the protest songs without getting bogged down in politics. It is really important for people to learn how to use rhetoric and what it is because the ability to do so is the ability to use one's ideas to influence other people. In other words, when you are able to use language to change other people's minds, you gain authority. In preschool, we tell children to use their words not their fists. Rhetorical control is a skill for using words and getting better, more effective results than the results of violence.

Activity that can be done with protest songs:
Group work (groups of three). Review the texts of some of the following songs (your choice). Choose two that use different rhetorical strategies to make their case. Now, how would you use these rhetorical strategies (the notes below each song suggest what the strategies might be) to try to convince people that music education [or whatever topic] is important? Write a song using that strategy. You can use someone else's melody or make up your own.
What did you learn in school today
Uses irony to get across its ideas.

Which Hat Shall I Wear
I'm not sure I can sing this one accurately, but it is a unique song in that it gets across its point by defamiliarizing everyday speech. There are people who have said things similar to the speaker of the poem, but those things get reinterpreted in the context of a song performed by people who play protest songs.

Love Me I'm a Liberal
This is a Phil Ochs song that criticizes the liberal stance of the 1960s--that Civil Rights were okay but not revolution. It uses something of the Which Hat Shall I Wear to show the oxymorons of the stance Ochs is criticizing, although it's not as subtle as the hat song.

We Shall Overcome
This is a song of hope that was essentially the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

Masters of War
This is a Bob Dylan song and its rhetoric was problematic for some protest singers when it was written. Other singers chose not to use the last verse about "I hope that you die..." because it seemed as violent as the violence it was protesting. This is an example of a protest song based in anger.

Which Side Are You On
This song was written in the 1930s by Florence Reese, whose husband was a coal miner and union organizer. The original song says, "My daddy was a miner, he's now in the air and sun" which means the father is no longer working in the mine. Pete Seeger changed it to "and I'm a miner's son" which is understandable, but robs the song of some of its own culture. Rhetorically speaking, this song draws a line in the sand and asks listeners to choose, privileging one choice by showing how ridiculous the other side is.

Young Ladies in Town;ttYNGLADIE.html
This is a Revolutionary War song suggesting that women boycott British goods. It provides an argument that if women do this, then home made clothing will be fashionable, so being worried about not being fashionable is not a good argument.

John Brown's Body
This song is the immediate predecessor to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" which uses the same words. John Brown was a radical who led a group of people to try to start a slave revolt in what is now West Virginia.

Solidarity Forever
This is a union song that uses John Brown's Body as its melody. It makes an argument for the union over the bosses because the workers are the ones that accomplish everything.

This is an environmental song by John Prine, recounting how the coal company changed the environment. It relies rhetorically on the listener being persuaded by the story of how pretty the area used to be.

Black Waters;ttBLAKWATR.html
This is Jean Ritchie's song about coal companies and their effect on the environment; rhetorically similar to John Prine.

Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Any More
John Prine's funny song about how overt expressions of patriotism don't counteract the real effects of war. In general, John Prine's songs are poetic, metaphorical, and wonderfully surprising.

Oh Freedom (to go with Faith Ringold book)

Abolitionist songs

Suffrage Songs

Has a song to tune of "Oh Dear What Can the Matter Be" and other stuff to download

Has images of a 1909 book of songs

Child Labor

Short poem protesting child labor

Civil Rights

We Shall Overcome
This is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech "We Shall Overcome"
We Shall Overcome applied to overcoming the results of Hurricane Katrina
Peter, Paul, and Mary (I grew up listening to them, so there's a bit of nostalgia here)

Anti-war songs

If You Miss Me From The Back of the Bus
Wonderful kids singing it--has words.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Lift Every Voice and Sing
Beautiful child's voice
choral version

We Shall Not Be Moved
Those wonderful children

Oh Freedom


Joe Hill words

Union songs

A performance of Joe Hill

Solidarity Forever words

Solidarity Forever performed by Pete Seeger

Coal Mining/Unionization

Which Side Are You On (history & words)


Information about this song
A performance of this song.

If You Miss Me From the Back of the Bus

We Shall Not Be Moved

We Shall Overcome
Martin Luther King Jr.'s "We Shall Overcome" speech
Peter, Paul, and Mary performing We Shall Overcome;ttBLAKWATR.html