As we created a soundtrack for our stories about ethics and equity, we found certain genres especially helpful. Many country-music lyricists excel at penning songs about moral challenges, from Johnny Cash walking the line of fidelity (here, in a cover by Garland Jeffreys) to his ultimate protest song, in which he explains all the reasons he always dressed in black. Kenny Rogers’ protagonist Tommy, in “Coward of the County,” spends years following a pacifist pledge to his dying father, then reaches a crisis of conscience when his wife is the victim of a horrible crime. Dolly Parton’s 1973 song “Jolene,” in which an insecure wife begs a gorgeous rival not to steal her husband, gets a response from country artist Cam in her 2017 song, “Diane,” whose narrator apologizes after being fooled into bed by the cheating husband, who hid his wedding ring.
John Lennon, who died 40 years ago this week and would have turned 80 this fall, appears with The Beatles and solo, drawing ethical lines against destruction and hate in 1968’s “Revolution” and warning a listener “laughing in the face of love” to recognize universal brotherhood in 1970’s “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On).” Our mix also includes protest songs for equality and uplift of the left-behind, spanning a half-century and the genres of rock, folk, blues, and R&B — from Bob Dylan’s 1963 anthem “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (here covered by Flogging Molly) and Nina Simone’s defiant 1967 “Backlash Blues” to songs from the Black Lives Matter era: “Freedom,” from Beyoncé’s 2016 album Lemonade, with help from Kendrick Lamar; and “Glory” by Common and John Legend, from 2014’s soundtrack to the movie Selma.
Listen to our playlist as you read our November and December stories about moral dilemmas, the quest for equality, or both.