WHEN last seen overplaying devil's advocate, Mick Jagger gave no signs that his social consciousness had been raised. But practically all the other rock superstars, it seems, are worrying about the state of the world. On such subjects as South Africa, Nicaragua, the plight of the American farmer, and AIDS, such voices as Prince, Tom Petty, and, of course, Bruce Springsteen have been singing out loudly. U2, every parent's favorite group, is selling out concerts by applying the beat to the service of ``moral imperatives and social responsibilities,'' as one critic puts it. Great balls of fire! What's rock and roll coming to?
A few veterans recall the '60s, when Joan Baez and the folk singers led the chorus against Vietnam. Truly learned scholars drop the even earlier names of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Everybody else believes social consciousness in music was invented by Willie Nelson.
Such is the nearsighted state of history in our times.
The fact is, protest songs are as old as America. The colonists practically sang their way into the Revolution with hyperbolic lyrics like these, exhorting Boston merchants to boycott British goods: ``Oppression's bond we must subdue,/ Now is the time or never;/ Let each man prove this motto true/ And slavery from him sever.''
The struggle of American blacks for their freedom from slavery - actual slavery - is recorded in spiritual after spiritual.
Words like the following speak powerfully in a double sense: ``Ain't you got a right to the Tree of Life?'' The blues composer W.C. Handy declared that spirituals did more for emancipation than did all the guns of the Civil War.
The folk anthems of the labor movement defined class attitudes in the 19th century. Coal miners, railroad workers, mill hands ``'mid factory gloom'' - all had their special grievances sung. The overview was taken in this 1866 song by a mechanic's wife of Bridgeport, Conn.: ```Heaven help the poor - protect the old -/ And give us all a home.'/ Thus often does the rich man pray,/ With solemn tone and word;/ But, oh! how seldom does he say,/ `I'll be thy agent, Lord.'''