Popular Music for Bored American History Students
February 4, 2009 4:58 PM   Subscribe

Looking for popular modern songs with great historical content like Fort Minor's "Kenji"

I'm an American history teacher who is trying to help my students see that history is exciting and help them experience it in a new way.

I recently had students to listen to Fort Minor's song "Kenji." The lyrics are about Japanese internment during WWII. My students really loved it and I wish I could find more music by popular 21st century artists that includes such great historical information. We Didn't Start the Fire by Billy Joel is another good example of popular music that contains history, but I'd rather have something that focuses on a specific time period or event. There are also a lot of great modern songs about the current political climate, but those are generally too far to one side of the political spectrum to be used in my classes.

Does anyone know of any other songs that fit this category?

If you know of any songs from the past that would help my students, those are more than welcome too. Thanks!
posted by NHlove to Education (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Seattle is my favorite song by the Hackensaw Boys. It's about the 1999 World Trade Organization riots in Seattle, and you can preview and download it for $0.99 from Amazon. I'd be glad to share my copy, too, if you MeFi mail me.
posted by halogen at 5:12 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Alexander the Great" by Iron Maiden. Seriously!

Ah, but you said American history. OK, "The Manhattan Project" by Rush encapsulates the birth of the atomic bomb. "Lone Star Song" by Grant Lee Buffalo touches on the Waco/Koresh disaster. "Driving the last spike" by Genesis is a heartbreaking account of what it was like for the men who gave their lives laying down railroad track. If you touch on WWII, you can't do much better than Al Stewart's "Roads to Moscow."
posted by jbickers at 5:25 PM on February 4, 2009

Oh, and how could I forget this: "Sullivan" by Caroline's Spine is an incredible telling of the story of the Sullivan brothers.
posted by jbickers at 5:33 PM on February 4, 2009

Cake - I Bombed Korea is one of my favourites.
There's also one that's not so modern but just as significant, Simon and Garfunkel - The Sun Is Burning, an allegory for Hiroshima/Nagasaki.
Iron Maiden - Run To The Hills is a far less subtle but no less arresting theme of the treatment of native Americans by the European settlers.
posted by fearnothing at 6:00 PM on February 4, 2009

The Decembrists' "Shankill Butchers" uses a real-life series of events (psychopathic Irish Protestants torturing and killing Catholics) and turns it into a lullaby. Pretty awesome. (Not about American history, though, now that I reread the question.)

"Billy the Kid", also by Billy Joel? I'm unsure how historically accurate the lyrics are. "Allentown" might be a good backdrop for the decline of the Rust Belt. Or "Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot.

You may want to look into some older folk music - Phil Ochs comes to mind. Lots of political stuff, but some of it has a sort of narrative associated with it. Check out "Paul Crump" (unfortunately Wiki doesn't have any info on his trial).
posted by backseatpilot at 6:04 PM on February 4, 2009

I guess most high school students might not be into this kind of thing, but when I was taking American history in high school my father hooked me up with an amazing anthology of recordings by assorted American left-wingers of the '30s, '40s, and '50s (including Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, whose oeuvres might also be very worth delving into for your purposes). A lot of the songs on it were more general, but there were many topical songs about things like the labor movement and various political campaigns. Pete Seeger has a track listing on his website with all the titles and so on. I'd be happy to share some of these songs, if you're interested in hearing any of them. The CDs are kind of hard to come by.
posted by bubukaba at 6:10 PM on February 4, 2009

Gold Rush Brides by 10,000 Maniacs off Our Time in Eden.
posted by njbradburn at 6:12 PM on February 4, 2009

Ohio by Neil Young is a good jumping off point for learning about the 1970 Kent State shootings.
posted by amyms at 6:15 PM on February 4, 2009

Best answer: Also, Songfacts has a pretty good list of songs about historical events.
posted by amyms at 6:18 PM on February 4, 2009

... actually the only reason I didn't put this in my first post is because I was sure someone else would throw it in, if it wasn't blatantly obvious already - but Bob Dylan's songs make continued and frequent references to politics and current events. Some are specific, some not, but this thread won't be complete without mentioning him.
posted by fearnothing at 6:22 PM on February 4, 2009

Mark Knopfler has a number of songs which tell stories about historical people or events.

For example:

Done with Bonaparte

Boom Like That

Song for Sonny Liston
posted by tdismukes at 6:55 PM on February 4, 2009

Cold Missouri Waters by Cry Cry Cry. It's based on the book "Young men and fire" by Normal Maclean about fire jumpers.
posted by roue at 7:23 PM on February 4, 2009

Bob Dylan's songs make continued and frequent references to politics and current events

So true. I came here to recommend his song "Oxford Town," which is about the riots that ensued when the first African-American student came to the University of Mississippi in the early '60s.
posted by rebel_rebel at 7:34 PM on February 4, 2009

Billy Bragg does a good version of "The World Turned Upside Down", which is a nice vignette on the Diggers' movement.

For American history, Billy's "The Marching Song of the Covert Battalions" could be interesting, dealing with US interventionism in Central America.

Also Bob Dylan's "No More Auction Block".

(also second Ohio)
posted by pompomtom at 7:42 PM on February 4, 2009

They Might Be Giants' "James K. Polk".
posted by likedoomsday at 8:02 PM on February 4, 2009

1916 by Motörhead
A Train Robbery by Levon Helm
Rooster by Alice in Chains
Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron by Royal Guardsmen
posted by Sailormom at 8:14 PM on February 4, 2009

Seconding likedoomsday's suggestion. Years later, I can still remember that in 1844, the Democrats were split. And the three nominees for the presidential candidate were: Martin Van Buren, a former president and an abolitionist, James Buchanan, a moderate, [someone else], a general and expansionist. When then there was a dark horse riding up. It was James K. Polk...
posted by salvia at 9:01 PM on February 4, 2009

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down can start an interesting discussion about the Civil War. The fact it was written by a Canadian is fascinating.

Louisiana 1927 is about Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 (and sadly fit Hurricane Katrina in 2005.)
posted by ALongDecember at 9:17 PM on February 4, 2009

Sailing to Philidelphia

posted by low_horrible_immoral at 1:07 AM on February 5, 2009

Randy Newman is a treasure trove for songs about history. The Great Nations of Europe covers the 16th century.. the lyrics of Sail Away were actually adapted by Newman from an interview with Charlie Wilson, the last living African born slave who lived to be well over 100.
posted by zaelic at 2:09 AM on February 5, 2009

how bout "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." by Sufjan Stevens?
posted by Heliochrome85 at 8:01 AM on February 5, 2009

"Josephine" by Tori Amos is fabulous (though admittedly European, not American history).

"Hello Birmingham" by Ani DiFranco is a great song for American History, deals with MLK JR., voting, and abortion rights. All in one song.

"Hot Topic" by Le Tigre is a song referencing a lot of radical politicians, much in the way that "We Didn't Start the Fire" references events from the 20th century.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:31 AM on February 5, 2009

Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier by Corb Lund and the Hurtin' Albertans is a great song about horse-mounted cavalry.
posted by workerant at 9:16 AM on February 5, 2009

Several Bruce Cockburn songs come to mind:
If I Had a Rocket Launcher (about Central America, specifically an atrocity committed by US-backed forces)
Indian Wars (self-explanatory title)
Kit Carson (not really explicit, but could lead into a discussion of Carson's role in the Indian wars)

A little dated, but Johnny Horton had lots of songs in this category:
The Battle of New Orleans
North to Alaska (about the gold rush)
Sink the Bismarck
The Battle of Bull Run
Comanche, the Brave Horse
Jim Bridger

Maybe not the best thing for bored HS students, but "I Don't Like Mondays" was based on a 1979 school shooting in California.
posted by joaquim at 3:05 PM on February 5, 2009

"Jerusalem" by Steve Earle. The whole album, practically, is about events leading up to the invasion of Iraq and events in the Middle East in the aftermath of 9/11.
posted by essexjan at 4:16 PM on February 5, 2009

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