Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Thirty Great History Songs

 History is shared among the masses in a variety of ways, both conventional and unorthodox.  Tonight's post will hopefully validate that sentiment.  A topic that a number of readers over the years have asked me to tackle is historical memory via music.  I have long procrastinated on this particular endeavor because I knew it would be a lengthy post requiring a difficult process of elimination and potential technical anguish.  All that said, I am glad to have compiled this list.  Each song deals with a real person, event, or idea from History.  Hopefully it will give all you teachers out there some creative material to share in the classroom to one extent or another.  For the most part, the thirty songs below are in no particular order and delve into a myriad of topics from different ages.  And yes, I know I missed some.  I will graciously allow one of you out there on the internets to compile an even more comprehensive list should you choose to do so.  Until then, enjoy and Happy New Year!

The Ballad of Davy Crockett by Fess Parker (1954)
Recorded by various artists, the song was introduced via the Disney empire and its massively successful Davy Crockett franchise starring Fess Park as the celebrated frontiersman.  Selling over ten million copies, the song is synonymous with 1950s culture and practically bleeds patriotism in its quest to promote Consensus History amidst Cold War anxieties.

1913 Massacre by Woody Guthrie (1941)
Ever the champion of populism and the common laborer, Woody Guthrie's 1913 Massacre is about seventy-three people killed in a stampede of patrons escaping Italian Hall in Calumet, Michigan after someone falsely yelled, "Fire!"  The Christmas Eve gathering was largely composed of copper miners and Guthrie's lyrics suspect that the person yelling fire was anti-union and wanted to ruin the assembly.  He certainly did.  Twenty years later, the song was covered by Bob Dylan.

Hurricane by Bob Dylan (1975)
Speaking of Bob Dylan and injustice, our next selection deals with the arrest and imprisonment of the famed boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.  Accused of triple murder in a Patterson, New Jersey bar in 1966, Carter became a martyr of police discrimination--a topic still hotly debated fifty years later.  While many historians doubt Carter's innocence, his story was cemented in popular culture via Bob Dylan's catchy and potent social critique.  The tune was also effectively used in the Denzel Washington film of the same name.

The Battle of New Orleans by Johnny Horton (1959)
Written in the same vein as The Ballad of Davy Crockett, Johnny Horton's rendition of the 1814-1815 Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 tackles the frontiersman myth from both a legendary and comical perspective.  Songs such as this reveal that characters like Andrew Jackson were among the pantheon of American heroes to the Baby Boomer generation coming of age.

Sink the Bismark by Johnny Horton (1960)
Released in conjunction with the British movie of the same title, Horton scored big yet again with this ballad about the supposedly unstoppable Nazi battleship that was ultimately sunk in a series of high seas duels in 1941.  American audiences did not mind that the name of the ship was spelled wrong in the song title.  This song was later sung by the Blue Brothers for their film (above), but the scene was cut.  Bonus song: PT-109 by Jimmy Dean.

Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple (1973)
In what is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable songs of the 1970s, the classic hit by Deep Purple was inspired by the burning of a lakeside hotel and concert arena in Montreux, Switzerland that the band witnessed.  The song is even immortalized in stone next to a statue of Freddie Mercury in Montreux.

Strange Fruit by Abel Meeropol (1939)
Written as a song of protest to denounce the thousands of lynchings of African Americans in the South in the half-century following the Civil War, Strange Fruit is a somber reminder of the horrors of racism pervasive in our society.  Best remembered through Billie Holiday's sorrowful rendition above, the song speaks of the "strange fruit" that sprouts from a tree on which men were lynched.

Sky Pilot by Eric Burdon and the Animals (1968)
Released the same month as the opening phase of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the release of Sky Pilot could not have been more timely.  The somber song is focused on a military chaplain (aka a "Sky Pilot" who guides dying combatants to the Pearly Gates).  The song is quick to allude to the futility and contradictions of war, especially as a chaplain--a man of peace--must confront and somehow abide by the evil and death that surrounds him.  This is a stellar anti-war song with a rich historical context--bagpipes and all.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot (1976)
Inspired by the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald during a horrendous November 1975 storm on Lake Superior, this fine Folk Rock tune by Gordon Lightfoot took a nationally-publicized disaster and hurled it into the realm of pop-cultural icons.  Embracing the style of classic seaman's tunes, the song is both harrowing and accurate in its chronicle of the twenty-nine souls lost in the ship's violent sinking.

The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band (1969)
In what is undoubtedly the best song that exemplifies the mythos of the Civil War's "Lost Cause," this classic from The Band expresses the sorrow and bitterness that is still present in many regions of the American South.  The song is a bit one-dimensional in its glossing over of postwar racial strife, but hey, musicians aren't historians and it's still one hell of a song.  The live performance above is from Martin Scorsese's phenomenal documentary The Last Waltz.

A League of Notions by Al Stewart (1995)
Part of his fantastic, historically-based album "Between the Wars," this song by Al Stewart chronicles the political conniving made by various European states in the wake of World War I.  Ultimately, the creation of a League of Nations and the United State's failure to enter it only leads to yet another world war.  Here, Stewart rightfully mocks the political leaders of the time who likened the map of Europe to a "jigsaw puzzle."

Roads to Moscow by Al Stewart (1973)
This is one of my favorites.  Conveying the experiences of an unnamed Soviet soldier during World War II, Roads to Moscow reflects upon the horrendous conditions endured by Russian combatants on environmental, military, and political levels.  The song rolls through a wide array of obstacles one soldier encountered, but ultimately, the soldier is executed by his own side for disloyalty despite the fact that he has "carried a gun" on their behalf for many long years.

Abraham, Martin, and John by Dion (1968)
Dion's moving tribute to the slain leaders Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy is a testament to the sense of frustration and bereavement that was pervasive among the American people in the highly contested year of 1968.  The big question Dion asked with this song: Why were citizens trying to inhibit social progress?

Louisiana 1927 by Randy Newman (1974)
While at first it might sound like nothing more than another sad song from Toy Story, Randy Newman's ode to the "Great Mississippi Flood" that affected some 25,000 square miles of the Gulf and displaced 700,000 people will definitely pull at your heartstrings when you put the lyrics into context.  This song was also used as an allegory to Hurricane Katrina and similar hurdles citizens faced in the wake of that 2005 disaster.

Zoot Suit Riot by Cherry Poppin' Daddies (1997)
This toe-tapper perhaps best encapsulates the brief era of Swing and Big Band revival in the late 1990s.  A one-hit wonder of sorts for the band Cherry Poppin' Daddies, the song is a recognition of the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. The urban scuffle was waged between white service members and Latino and African American civilians who wore colorful suits frequently sported by musical icons such as Cab Calloway.  In short, the ladies of LA found these suits worn by minorities alluring and military members on leave were jealous.  Thus, the race riot.  The music video above alludes to this tension even though nobody in it is Hispanic or black.  Regardless, we need more music like this today.  You know, actual music.

The Ghost of You by My Chemical Romance (2005)
In an homage to the WWII Generation in the wake of the successful  Band of Brothers, the pop punk band My Chemical Romance shed their typical emo look and instead donned 1940s wool uniforms for the single The Ghost of You.  For this song, the music video (which imitates Saving Private Ryan) might even be better than the song itself.  Much like the song, the short film starts out mellow and becomes increasingly violent.  All in all, the video that starts off with a dreamy USO dance shatters our typical, romanticized views of WWII by song's end.

Erie Canal performed by Bruce Springsteen (2006)
This nostalgic and sad song was originally written in 1905 as "Fifteen Years on the Erie Canal" to mourn the passing of old canal days.  This version played by Bruce Springsteen was also performed by the legendary Pete Seeger.

American Land by Bruce Springsteen (2012)
The acclaimed Bruce Springsteen album that also includes Death to My Hometown talks about robber barons, greedy thieves, Ellis Island, fighting dictators, and disparity in wealth.  Using these terms and imagery, listeners get a sense that he is signing of the Industrialized era--the times of Carnegies and Rockefellers.  In fact, the Bruce is making an analogy about the 2008 economic collapse, the Wall Street bailout, and the abandonment of average Americans.  He further contemplates why so many seek to keep immigrants out the country when it was immigrants who built it in the first place.  The historical themes in this one seem universal.

Allentown by Billy Joel (1982)
Musician Billy Joel is a self-proclaimed history buff, one who admittedly reads historical books as if he life depended on it.  Therefore, it comes to no surprise that many of his songs intelligently incorporate historical narratives into the lyrics.  One fine example is Allentown, which vividly chronicles postwar de-industrialization and the creation of the "Rust Belt."  Here, Allentown, Pennsylvania and the Bethlehem Steel Works become symbolic of a broader economic collapse that had reached fever-pitch by the 1980s.

Der Fuehrer's Face performed by Spike Jones (1942)
The wonderfully satirical song was performed by numerous musicians at the outset of WWII but is best remembered via Spike Jones's rendition.  In what is a blatant propaganda song, the lyrics nevertheless ring true as they comically denounce the Third Reich.  The song is also remembered in an equally wonderful but alarming Walt Disney cartoon short starring Donald Duck.

Dirty Water by The Standells (1966)
Paying mock homage to the City of Boston, the Standells were critical of the level of pollution that had inundated the Charles River and Boston Harbor.  Written in the same age as the birth of the modern environmental movement, the snappy song highlighted decades of pollution, neglect, and their long term consequences on the citizenry of Boston and major urban areas.

Oh Dixie, Now You're Done by Waylon Jennings (1978)
I first heard this one on vinyl at a colleague's house while in grad school.  Part of a Civil War country/rock album entitled "White Mansions," this song essentially conveys the same message as The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down: "Oh Dixie, now the land is scarred, The States are bleeding. They're wounded and marred. Mister Lincoln isn't here to lend a hand. Now he's gone and bitter, hate rules the land."  The refrain and guitar is what makes this one.

Handsome Johnny by Richie Havens (1967)
Havens's classic song performed at Woodstock runs through a litany of violent moments of History: Concord, Gettysburg, Dunkirk, Korea, Vietnam, and Birmingham.  At each of these moments, a youthful "handsome Johnny" marches into the maelstrom--perhaps toward death.  To this day, I am unsure if this memorable melody is an anti-war song or a song about young people involved in momentous struggles--maybe both.  Your call.

Jefferson and Liberty (based on the Irish tune The Gobby-O) (1800)
Here is a real oldie.  While the actual music predates the United States, the popular drinking song The Gobby-O became the foundation for one of the most popular tunes of the 19th century.  While its lyrics were written with contemporary issues in mind as a Thomas Jefferson campaign song, it has also become a fabled tune of the early United States.  In 1860, it was even revised as Lincoln and Liberty.  Since then, the song has been utilized in various ways--including the soundtrack for the popular video game Assassin's Creed (above.)

Spanish Bombs by The Clash (1979)
The famous British punk rock band The Clash was making big waves in the music industry--especially with its album cover for "London Calling" that mimicked Elvis.  Within that album was this memorable song dealing with the Spanish Civil War, and particularly the death of anti-fascist writer and poet Federico Garcia Lorca.  The song makes several notable references to events and groups involved in that conflict, so listen in and learn something new.

Riding with Jesse James by Charlie Daniels (1980)
There is a vast plethora of songs about the history of the American West--most of them being about gunslingers and outlaws.  Therefore, I decided to pick one that first came to mind.  Riding with Jesse James was part of a collaborative album compiled by the likes of Levon Helm, Johnny Cash, and other celebrated Country artists.  In this selection, mean fiddle player Charlie Daniels plays the role of Cole Younger--who relates his hell-raising exploits.  The song certainly feeds into the inaccurate Robin Hood-like perception people have of James.  Tune in and see why.

Ten Million Slaves by Otis Taylor (2002)
A raggedy and heartfelt yet lively banjo creation of Otis Taylor conveys the story of some ten million slaves brought in chains to the shores of the Americas.  The powerful lyrics speak for themselves.  Many of you may recall this tune from the 2009 gangster drama Public Enemies--to which the song infers that people were also slaves to money.

When the Levee Breaks by Led Zeppelin (1971)
Drastically reworking a song by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy from 1929, Zeppelin created another one of the iconic hits from the 1970s.  Different in style but similar in lyrics, both songs recall the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which was also done by Randy Newman earlier in our list.  Click on both songs and see which one you enjoy more.

The Pipes of Peace by Paul McCartney (1983)
McCartney's fifth solo studio album may yet be another example of a history-related music video that is better than the song itself.  As the Cold War was in its final throes, the song is definitely well-meaning and pleasant from a moral perspective.  The music video, however, gets even more creative as McCartney plays both a British and German soldier amidst the celebrated Christmas Truce of 1914 during WWI.  In essence, the song illustrates that when we kill others, a piece of us dies with them.

We Didn't Start the Fire by Billy Joel (1989)
Okay, I saved the best one for last.  To mark his 40th birthday, musician Billy Joel selected 100 major events that occurred during his lifetime and put them into song form.  Ranging from movies and sports to wars and the drugs epidemic, the song is the quintessential tune about the second half of the 20th century.  I love playing this one for students in the classroom and I wish Joel would create addendums every ten years so the song perpetually sails into the present.

There you have it.  Thirty of my favorite songs about historical people, events, and topics.  Which ones did I miss?


  1. Nice list! However, I was surprised to notice this song didn't make the list:

  2. That is an extremely smart written article. I will be sure to bookmark it and return to learn extra of your useful information. Thank you for the post. I will certainly return.

  3. How about AC/DC Night of the Long Knives?>