Songs about the past...
September 2, 2008 10:56 AM   Subscribe

MixCD filter: Acro's comment in this post sparked an idea. And so now I am seeking songs about specific historic events.

I'm looking for isolated incidents -- for example, while there are plenty of songs that are generally "about" the Vietnam War, I'd be looking more for songs about one particular battle.

Wikipedia has yielded a whole list of songs about 9/11, they have little info on other events; and the only ones I can think of off the top of my head are Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927", Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", CNSY's "Ohio" and "Woodstock", and Acro's contribution above. Peter Gabriel's "Biko" SORT of works, as well; U2's "Pride" doesn't, because it talks more about MLK as a person than about the actual event of his assassination (save for half of one verse). Basically, if a really cool high school teacher could play it in class to supplement a lecture on a specific event, it's what I'm looking for. (I may also end the whole collection with "We Didn't Start The Fire.")

Any thoughts? Thanks.
posted by EmpressCallipygos to Media & Arts (39 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down isn't one specific event, but it does refer to several key moments that marked the fall of the Confederacy, told in a first person narrative. And it's such a freaking good song.
posted by kimdog at 11:17 AM on September 2, 2008

The Pogues' "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda" is about the Battle of Gallipoli. "Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six" is about the trial of the Birmingham Six (obviously).
posted by nasreddin at 11:26 AM on September 2, 2008

Perhaps a bit more focused on generalities than you'd like:

Masters of the Hemisphere - Billy Mitchell (can't find anything on the song, but here's the real Billy's wiki)
The Mountain Goats - The Anglo-Saxons (hype machine | lyrics)
The Clash - Spanish Bombs (wiki)

Thinking of more is going to bother me all day...
posted by Someone has just shot your horse! at 11:29 AM on September 2, 2008

Songs and Poems on the War of 1812

Many things from the Ballad of America (eg "The Battle of Trenton"; "Paul Jones's Victory"; "The Constitution and the Guerriere"; etc)

Lots of mine disasters, including the Avondale Mine Disaster, Blantyre Explosion, Coal in the Stone, Cross Mountain Explosion, Gresford Disaster, Ballad of Springhill, Sugar Notch, Two Cent Coal on the Monagahela
posted by nonane at 11:46 AM on September 2, 2008

A bit more obscure in terms of bits of history, but also check out the album Illinois by Sufjan Stevens.
posted by Someone has just shot your horse! at 11:50 AM on September 2, 2008

"The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," by Bob Dylan, tells the story of a wealthy white man who beat his black servant to death, then was sentenced to only six months in jail. And the story is told without using the words white or black, which is astonishing, since you so clearly understand them being implied by the facts of the story.

"Hurricane" by Dylan tells about the trial of Reuben Carter, but there's a bit more, uh, poetic license being taken with the retelling there, so don't take it as gospel.
posted by roombythelake at 12:11 PM on September 2, 2008

Response by poster: Feedback so far (because I'm paranoid that I didn't describe properly and now I can point to things and go "yeah, kind of like THIS but not like THAT"):

Kimdog: Actually, "The Night They Drove..." WOULD fit what I've got in mind. I'd just been under the impression that what they'd written in it was fiction (I never listened to the lyrics closely). So that's perfect; thanks.

Someone Has Just Shot...: "Spanish Bombs" works, similarly. As for the Sufjan Stevens work: doesn't look like his Illinois work may fit, but I am now very tangentially interested to see what happens when he gets up to Connecticut in his Fifty States project. (Shoot, I'm thisclose to writing him and telling him about this obscure true story from my own home town that may fit what he's looking to write about.)

Nonane: The War of 1812 site looks to be mostly lyrics, but the Ballad of New Orleans is in there, and I know there are scads of recordings of that, so that'll work. And I think I'll try to confine myself to just one mine disaster song (yikes, there are a lot).

Nasreddin: Ooh, forgot about the Pogues Waltzing Matilda one! Thanks!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:18 PM on September 2, 2008

21 Nov 1920 / 30 Jan 1972: U2: Bloody Sunday

3 Dec 1976: Bob Marley and the Wailers: Ambush in the Night (Scroll down to Survival)
posted by Kiwi at 12:20 PM on September 2, 2008

How about When the Tigers Broke Free? Less of a battle, but how about Sunday Bloody Sunday?
posted by Mike1024 at 12:26 PM on September 2, 2008

29 Jan 1979 (Mon): Boomtown Rats: I Don't Like Mondays

Yeah, and sorry they're all songs about killing.
posted by Kiwi at 12:33 PM on September 2, 2008

April 29th, 1992 by Sublime, concerning the Rodney King Riots.

Roads To Moscow by Al Stewart, concerning the Russian Front in WW2.
posted by philip-random at 12:40 PM on September 2, 2008

Response by poster: Kiwi: What is "Ambush in the night" about? The page linked to just describes it as an assassination attempt, but of whom?

As for "Sunday Bloody Sunday," I'm tempted, but while the song is NAMED after a specific incident, the lyrics themselves strike me as more just expressing the general opinion that "the Troubles suck".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:41 PM on September 2, 2008

What is it about riots and disaster?

The Gunner's Dream (Pink Floyd) -- London IRA attack
When the War Came (Decemberists) -- Siege of Leningrad
Roulette (Springsteen) -- Three Mile Island
Face the Fire (Dan Fogelberg) -- Three Mile Island again
Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple) -- the Montreux Fire
When The Levee Breaks (Zeppelin) -- The Great Flood of 1927
Louisiana 1927 (Randy Newman) -- Same flood
LADP (Ill Wind) -- Century Plaza riots
Bye Bye Badman (Stone Roses) -- 1968 French student riots
Long, Hot Summer (Tom Robinson Band) -- Stonewall Riots

I'd find lyrics and links but... lunchtime's over! :)
posted by rokusan at 12:42 PM on September 2, 2008

Best answer: "1913 Massacre" by Woody Guthrie, about the Italian Hall Disaster. Just to single out this one that might get lumped with other historical ballads.
posted by frances1972 at 12:46 PM on September 2, 2008

How about some songs by The Decemberists:

Yankee Bayonet talks about "all the dead of Manassas."

And apparently When the War Came is about the siege of Leningrad (second comment on that page.)
posted by o0dano0o at 12:49 PM on September 2, 2008

Topical songs are a huge part of folk music, as you must know. Tompkins Square records recently released a great compilation called People Take Warning about disasters (man- and nature-made) that is almost exclusively comprised of topical songs. But that barely scratches the surface of what's out there, especially in music recorded before WWII.
posted by OmieWise at 12:50 PM on September 2, 2008

Empress - from the linked Wikipedia article:

"In December 1976, two days before "Smile Jamaica", a free concert organized by the Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley in an attempt to ease tension between two warring political groups, Marley, his wife, and manager Don Taylor were wounded in an assault by unknown gunmen inside Marley's home."
posted by Kiwi at 12:59 PM on September 2, 2008

As alluded to above by philip-random, Al Stewart does/did a lot of genre stuff like this, especially the album "Past Present and Future". Not really my cup of tea, but a song or two as part of the mix could work.

There have been a number of songs about the death of Medgar Evers, including Dylan's "Only a Pawn" and Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddamn".
posted by Rumple at 1:42 PM on September 2, 2008

"Acadian Driftwood" by The Band - Plains of Abraham and the subsequent migration
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:47 PM on September 2, 2008

Acadian Driftwood
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:54 PM on September 2, 2008

Canadian Railroad Trilogy by Gordon Lightfoot, about the building of the CPR. (long and kinda tedious to my ears but maybe that's because we had to listen to it in high school (!!).

Also, topically!, CSNY: Chicago, about the 1968 DNC.
posted by Rumple at 2:58 PM on September 2, 2008

- U2 covers the Springhill Mine Disaster song which catapulted it into some prominence.
- Cordelia's Dad [and I'm sure many others] has a song called Granite Mills about the Fall River Fire of 1928.
- There's a pretty good mashup that combines Soundgarden's Like Suicide with Joni Mitchell's Woodstock. Her lyrics about the event but also some clips of people talking about it. Dunnow if it's really history so much but it's a very cool song. It's on this page.
posted by jessamyn at 3:14 PM on September 2, 2008

There are tons of songs about the sinking of The Titanic.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 3:22 PM on September 2, 2008

There are also several versions of Remember The Alamo.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 3:25 PM on September 2, 2008

Best answer: They Might Be Giants' James K. Polk is a blunt, factual look at the situation leading up to Polk's election, and his accomplishments in office. Also, it's a fun song. :)

Marillion's Easter is about the Easter Rising of Ireland in 1916. Another of their songs, Out of This World, is about the wreck of the Bluebird K7. These are not fun songs.
posted by cereselle at 3:27 PM on September 2, 2008

There's In Zaire by Johnny Wakelin (about Muhammad Ali and the Rumble In The Jungle) [youtube]
posted by ktrey at 3:27 PM on September 2, 2008

A few more:

The Wreck of The Old 97

posted by Fuzzy Monster at 3:33 PM on September 2, 2008

"Here comes the story of the Hurricane"

Bob Dylan - possibly not an accurate account, but still a great song.
posted by Kiwi at 3:37 PM on September 2, 2008

You can listen to Cry Cry Cry's recording of Cold Missouri Waters and get just about as much information about the Mann Gulch Fire as if you read all of Norman McLean's Young Men and Fire.

The Mountain Goats' Sept 15 1983 details the death of reggae musician Prince Far I.
posted by MsMolly at 3:40 PM on September 2, 2008

Bishop Allens "The Monitor" tells the story of the Monitor vs the Merrimack.
posted by robotot at 3:59 PM on September 2, 2008

Cold Chisel's Khe Sanh.

Redgum's Only Nineteen, although not about any particular battle so much as the general psychological effect of war. A very powerful song nonetheless.
posted by robotot at 4:06 PM on September 2, 2008

...and lastly Ratcat's Getting Away From This World is mostly about depression, but features the actual dialog from the ground crew at the fatal launch of the Challenger spacecraft.
posted by robotot at 4:14 PM on September 2, 2008

Response by poster: Redgum's Only Nineteen, although not about any particular battle so much as the general psychological effect of war.

Thanks, Robotot, but as stated above I'm looking for more specificity than this. But "The Monitor" is worth looking into.

Marillion's Easter is about the Easter Rising of Ireland in 1916.

Ooh, and you've just tangentially reminded me that so is "The Foggy Dew". Thanks!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:29 PM on September 2, 2008

Leeds' finest cowpunks The Mekons cover another mining disaster ballad, The Trimdon Grange Explosion, on their album Honky Tonkin'.
posted by Abiezer at 6:14 PM on September 2, 2008

Only Nineteen was fairly specifically about two blokes, friends of the writer.

Billy Bragg's "The World Turned Upside Down" illustrates the Diggers' uprising of 1649.

Eric Bogle's "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda" is about the landings at Gallipoli in 1915 (on review: same song was covered by the Pogues and mentioned above).

The Specials' "Free Nelson Mandela" - self explanatory.
The (English) Beat's "Stand Down Margaret" - self explanatory.
posted by pompomtom at 6:58 PM on September 2, 2008

Bridal train by the waifs

About the US government funded trip from Australia to the US for women who had married US soldiers after WW2. Not a particularly important event, but it's a good song.
posted by kjs4 at 8:39 PM on September 2, 2008

Dropkick Murphys' "Buried Alive" is written about the miners trapped in the Quecreek Mine
posted by pupdog at 11:02 PM on September 2, 2008

More Dylan:

Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues(April 25, 1962)

where pinkos were attacked

Death of Emmit Till ('62)

Negro teenager bludgeoned to death for supposedly wolf-whistling at a white woman

The Clash:

Guns of Brixton (Brixton riots of '81)

Mountain Goats:

Song for dennis brown

Bruce Springsteen
American Skin (41 Shots)

Amadou Diallo shot 41 times by NYPD after reaching into his pocket for his wallet

Both Randy Newman and REM wrote songs commemorating the time when the ridiculously polluted Cuyahoga river in Cleveland caught fire.

While in Buffalo Springfield, Stephen Stills wrote
"For What It's Worth" ('67) about teen riots on Sunset Strip.
posted by doncoyote at 10:02 PM on September 3, 2008

...and how could I forget Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly's "From Little Things Big Things Grow", which tells the story of the Gurindji strike.
posted by pompomtom at 12:12 AM on September 4, 2008

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