Good songs about history?
January 24, 2011 10:28 AM   Subscribe

Looking for good contemporary songs about history.

I've looked at this question and it's not entirely what I'm looking for.

I want to find contemporary songs that are about or mention historical people or events. My intention is to use these in a high school setting, so bands like They Might Be Giants is not at all what I am looking for.

I am not looking for kitschy/quirky songs, but ideally, good songs by popular bands. I suspect many might be deep cuts from albums, which makes finding them a bit more difficult.

Here are some examples:
Franz Ferdinand - All For You, Sophia (about Archduke Ferdinand's assassination)
Elliott Brood - President 35 (about JFK's assassination)
Elliott Brood - Jackson (about Stonewall Jackson's death)
The Band - The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (about the end of the Civil War)
Iron Maiden - Run to the Hills (about the Indian Wars)
Bob Dylan - Oxford Town (about Civil Rights movement)
Johnny Cash - Ballad of Ira Hayes (about Iwo Jima)
Johnny Cash - Ballad of Boot Hill (about OK Corral gunfight)
Mark Knopfler - Song for Sonny Liston (about the boxer)
Pink Floyd - A Great Day for Freedom (about the Berlin Wall)
Sam Roberts - Detroit '67 (about the auto boom and history of Detroit)

But I know there's got to be a few more Bob Dylan songs that will fit my needs...

(And yes, I know about the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and Springsteen's dreaded We Didn't Start the Fire. And feel free to avoid suggesting Vietnam protest songs...a monkey can find a thousand of those in its sleep.)
posted by BradNelson to Media & Arts (65 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Not exactly ideal but: Geoff Berner - Maginot Line. (About the Maginot Line. No YT at work so can't vouch for the recording right now, however.)
posted by griphus at 10:33 AM on January 24, 2011

The Clash, Spanish Bombs
Dead Kennedys, I Fought the Law (and the law won) is historical now
posted by vincele at 10:35 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this counts as a popular band, but it's not too far off from Eliott Brood.
Curtis Eller seems like a good fit:

"Eller's work has an old-time feel, drawing on an abundance of direct or indirect influences from the first half of the 20th Century, combined with a modern perspective and a healthy dose of rock & roll energy. Many of the lyrics deal with American politics both historical and contemporary.[1] He got an early introduction to show business when his father ran the Hiller Old Tyme Circus in Detroit, Michigan.[2]

The songwriting draws on many historical people and events but addresses contemporary American culture. Lyrical subjects have ranged from pigeon racing and performing elephants to sweatshop fires and presidential assassinations and the Hartford circus fire of 1944.[3] Historical figures as diverse as Buster Keaton, Abraham Lincoln, Amelia Earhart, Joe Louis, Jack Ruby, and Elvis Presley appear in the lyrical content."

This question has come up before, and I recommended him then too!
posted by Stagger Lee at 10:35 AM on January 24, 2011

For context, "Spanish Bombs" is about the Spanish Civil War. The Dead Kennedys' version of "I Fought the Law" is about the murder of Harvey Milk.
posted by vincele at 10:39 AM on January 24, 2011

Animaniacs did a nifty little ditty about the US Presidents.
posted by xedrik at 10:41 AM on January 24, 2011

Gotta step in and defend the Boss here. Springsteen didn't write "We Didn't Start the Fire" (Billy Joel did) but you may find him useful, as much of his work does reference contemporary social issues. Off the top of my head, a couple:

- I know you're not looking for Vietnam protest songs, but "Born in the USA" tells the story of a disillusioned vet returning stateside and finding a distinct lack of a support system for guys like him (the chorus, meant to be ironic, is famously and frequently misinterpreted but the song itself is fairly nuanced and might give kids something to sink their teeth into)
- "Youngstown" tells the story of a Rust Belt town in Pennsylvania over the course of a century or so
- "Roulette" is about the meltdown at Three Mile Island
- It may be too recent of an event, but every song on The Rising is pretty much a direct response to 9/11

On a completely different musical note, "Holland, 1945" by Neutral Milk Hotel is a very good song off a fantastic album inspired in part by the story of Anne Frank. It may be a bit raw or high concept for high schoolers, but definitely qualifies as a good song by a well-regarded band.
posted by superfluousm at 10:44 AM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ani DiFranco has a poem/song about September 11 (the mp3 is on that site as well, from her record company). Is ten years ago too many, though?

(Also, Billy Joel sang We Didn't Start the Fire. Springsteen has a song about 9/11 firefighters, though, The Rising.)

What about U2's Bloody Sunday?
posted by bluedaisy at 10:45 AM on January 24, 2011

Istanbul, They Might Be Giants.

I gotta think there are more by TMBG but off the top of my head that's the one that springs to mind.

Shipbuilding by Elvis Costello. About the Falkland War.
posted by From Bklyn at 10:46 AM on January 24, 2011

How about most of Woody Guthrie's catalog?
posted by fixedgear at 10:47 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Washington Bullets by the Clash.
posted by fixedgear at 10:48 AM on January 24, 2011

Uncommon Valor (this aint your grandma's monkey search)
posted by cashman at 10:48 AM on January 24, 2011

The whole album "Oh Perilous World" by Rasputina. "In Old Yellowcake" is about the destruction of Fallujah, "A Retinue of Moons" is about global warming, "1816, The Year Without a Summer" is about 1816, the year without a summer, and a handful of others are about the Pitcairn Islands.
posted by sarling at 10:48 AM on January 24, 2011

Mark Knopfler's duet with James Taylor Sailing to Philadelphia is about surveying the Mason-Dixon line.
posted by kimdog at 10:48 AM on January 24, 2011

Istanbul, They Might Be Giants.

I gotta think there are more by TMBG but off the top of my head that's the one that springs to mind.

The OP already explicitly disallowed "bands like They Might Be Giants" (although I don't really get why).
posted by dfan at 10:49 AM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Credence Clearwater Revival 'Fortunate Son' or is that too Vietnam-y?
posted by fixedgear at 10:52 AM on January 24, 2011

(as background it's Billy Joel and 'We didn't start the fire')

Hurricane - Bob Dylan
Run, Johnny, Run
Bring'em Home (Pete Seeger or Bruce Springsteen) A Vietnam song anyways...
posted by fluffycreature at 10:52 AM on January 24, 2011

Strange Fruit is about the lynching of two black men. Performed most famously by Billie Holiday.
posted by runningwithscissors at 10:57 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Pixies "Alec Eiffel" is about the guy who designed? built? the Eiffel tower.
posted by vincele at 10:58 AM on January 24, 2011

Lots more Iron Maiden:

Genghis Khan
The Trooper
Aces High
Alexander the Great
The Alchemist
posted by Bodd at 10:58 AM on January 24, 2011

The Band Played Waltzing Matilda by Eric Bogle, most famously performed by the Pogues, about the Siege of Gallipoli in WW1.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 11:00 AM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Camper Van Beethoven - Jack Ruby
posted by hydrophonic at 11:01 AM on January 24, 2011

Oh crap, apologies. TMBG are a good band though...

"Hurricane" by Bob Dylan. About a boxer getting framed in Jersey City, it's about the US in the early 70's.

Billy Bragg and Wilco did a couple albums covering Woody Guthrie songs. (Mermaid Avenue vols 1 + 2). They are terrific covers of these contemporaneous songs from the 40s(ish).
posted by From Bklyn at 11:03 AM on January 24, 2011

Capitol Radio by the Clash, about pirate radio. Heard It On The X by ZZ Top and Mexican Radio (Wall Of Voodoo?) about, yep, Mexican border radio stations. That would be interesting right there, media, tech, etc.
posted by fixedgear at 11:03 AM on January 24, 2011

Uncle Tupelo, New Madrid about the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 11:03 AM on January 24, 2011

Here's one for the high school crowd: Jay Z, Blue Magic: he refers to Regan, Oliver North, and Iran-Contra.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:05 AM on January 24, 2011

Young Ned of the Hill, also performed by the Pogues, is about Cromwell's invasion and occupation of Ireland.

Lots of Irish rebel songs are specifically about IRA and British actions and are often very specifically historically located - check out the Wolfe Tones on Youtube.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 11:05 AM on January 24, 2011

Not quite what you're looking for but BBC's Horrible Histories does contemporary song pastiches about history and are often quite funny (1, 2).
posted by Kattullus at 11:08 AM on January 24, 2011

Elvis Costello, Tramp the Dirt Down
posted by peachfuzz at 11:08 AM on January 24, 2011

Sufjan Stevens did a rather haunting song about John Wayne Gacy Jr.
posted by sarastro at 11:09 AM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Gillian Welch's April the 14th, Part 1, though it references more than one historical event on that date.
posted by ldthomps at 11:10 AM on January 24, 2011

They Might Be Giant's Istanbul isn't really a history of the subject, though a magnificent song. Their James K Polk was actually written after musing about half-forgotten presidents.

Also, it is awesome.
posted by munchingzombie at 11:10 AM on January 24, 2011

Oh - OMD, Enola Gay.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 11:15 AM on January 24, 2011

1913 Massacre --- Woody Guthrie

China -- Joan Baez

Don't Drink the Water --- Dave Matthews Band

Zombie --- The Cranberries

Sunday, Bloody Sunday --- U2

The Ballad of Ira Hayes -- Johnny Cash

Heaven Runs on Oil -- Nightmare of You

Civil War -- Guns'N'Roses
posted by zizzle at 11:16 AM on January 24, 2011

OMD. "88 minutes in Greensboro"

(I don't want to live in a world where OMD isn't contemporary! But, yeah, maybe not recent enough unless there's some hipsters in your class.)
posted by activitystory at 11:18 AM on January 24, 2011

Ok so maybe not a popular band, but you opened the door to this by listing Iron Maiden:

Iced Earth - The Devil to Pay which is the opener from the 2 CD concept album "The Glorious Burden" about American history. Topics range from the Civil War and 9/11 (the totally unironic When the Eagle Cries) to their 30 minute epic song that chronicles the battle of Gettysburg in a lot of detail.
posted by bradbane at 11:22 AM on January 24, 2011

Ugh, apologize for the Springsteen/Joel mixup. Inexcusable.
posted by BradNelson at 11:27 AM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Haven't listened to this album in a while but I remember it had a few literary and historical allusions: British Sea Power - The Decline of British Sea Power.
posted by blairsyprofane at 11:31 AM on January 24, 2011

Johnny Cash actually has an entire album called "America" that deals with history.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:32 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, be careful that the songs actually represent history accurately. For example, Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol is about a real case, but distorts the facts so much that he could conceivably have been used for libel.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:34 AM on January 24, 2011

There are some good songs about the Civil Rights movement and the Freedom Rides to Mississippi- "Oxford Town" and "Only a Pawn in their game" by Dylan and "he was my brother" by Simon and Garfunkel.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:35 AM on January 24, 2011

Black Day in July by Gordon Lightfoot is about the 1967 Detroit riots.
Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young is about the Kent State massacre
Fernando by Abba is about two veterans recalling fighting under Emiliano Zapata in a battle of the Mexican revolution of 1910.
Black Superman by Johnny Wakelin is a catchy tune about boxer Muhammad Ali.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:40 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Rise and Fall [Lyrics and song extract] by Million Dead is partially about the historic 'Eastern'/Islamic influence on Europe, which might be interesting in the present political climate.
posted by knapah at 12:06 PM on January 24, 2011

"Bin Laden", particularly the remix with KRS-One and Chuck D.
"Diallo" by Wyclef Jean.
"A Dream" by Common.
"Union Song" by Tom Morello.
"Zapata's Blood" by Rage Against the Machine.

High school students really like TMBG, in my experience, so I would definitely include "James Knox Polk."
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:19 PM on January 24, 2011

Railroad Earth's The Jupiter & the 119 is about the completion of the American transcontinental railroad.
posted by euphorb at 12:31 PM on January 24, 2011

Past, Present, and Future by Al Stewart? The whole album is historical; I would especially recommend "The Last Day of June 1934" and "Post World War Two Blues". (Last one is heavily Brit-centric.)
posted by dhens at 12:43 PM on January 24, 2011

Bob Dylan - Oxford Town (about Civil Rights movement)

So you're willing to delve into 50's and 60's folk?

Pete Seeger did lots of songs about the labor movement. "Which Side Are You On?" is probably the most popular, but skimming through my iTunes I'd guess you have a good chance with almost anything by him that has a proper name in the title ("Ballad of Barney Graham", "The Death of Harry Simms", "Mrs. Clara Sullivan's Letter", etc etc). A lot of others about social causes of the day are apparent by looking at the titles - "I Ain't Scared Of Your Jail", "Eight Hour Day", "Mill Mother's Lament", to name a few.

There were also a lot of folk songs from this time period that dealt with The Bomb and the horrors of war, in general. I'm a big fan of "Old Man Atom (Atomic Talking Blues)" by Sam Hinton.

However, going down this road reveals a much more interesting idea than some Decemberists track about Jean Lafitte or whatever -- the idea of listening to the actual songs written by people about major historical events as they happened. Hearing "We Shall Overcome" as sung by Pete Seeger at a benefit concert for the Freedom Riders is a lot more powerful than hearing what Rage Against The Machine thought about the Civil Rights Movement decades later.

On that note, "This Land Is Your Land" and "Big Rock Candy Mountain" would be great songs to listen to when you study the Depression, "Little Boxes" is a perfect expression of the social currents that influenced the beatniks and earlier hippies, and "Draft Dodger Rag" and "With God On Our Side" describe feelings about the Vietnam war and the draft.
posted by Sara C. at 12:56 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Animaniacs are good but Pinky and the Brain is bettah
posted by Redhush at 1:09 PM on January 24, 2011

Christian Kiefer's project Of Great and Mortal Men has 43 very listenable songs about 43 US presidents.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 1:15 PM on January 24, 2011

Titus Andronicus' The Monitor: "The album title is a reference to the USS Monitor, the first ironclad warship commissioned by the United States Navy, and the closing track "The Battle of Hampton Roads" refers to the battle between the Monitor and the CSS Virginia, which took place on March 8–9, 1862"
posted by wsquared at 1:25 PM on January 24, 2011

Bishop Allen's "The Monitor" is about a battle in the American Civil War.

And you didn't specify US-centric history, so I'd also suggest Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody's "From Little Things Big Things Grow", which tells the story of how the Australian Aboriginal land rights movement started.
posted by robotot at 1:32 PM on January 24, 2011

Phil Ochs' first album, entitled "All The News That's Fit To Sing" was massively devoted to news-related music, and is very good (and of course, what was news in the 1960's is now history). Since you mentioned a song about the assassination of JFK, I would like to mention that Phil Ochs composed two songs on that topic, the first entitled "That Was The President" which addresses the topic in a very direct and moving way, and the second, "The Crucifixion" is wildly metaphorical and extremely beautiful (perhaps Ochs' best song).
posted by grizzled at 1:40 PM on January 24, 2011

Neil Young - Cortez the Killer
posted by eunoia at 1:43 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

And you didn't specify US-centric history, so I'd also suggest Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody's "From Little Things Big Things Grow", which tells the story of how the Australian Aboriginal land rights movement started.

To piggyback here and show how mainstream I am, Midnight Oil's 'Beds Are Burning."
posted by fixedgear at 2:03 PM on January 24, 2011

Bridal Train by the Waifs is about a US chartered train (and boat) to take Australian War brides to their husbands in the US.
posted by kjs4 at 2:06 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Kinks 'Victoria.' Or the Kooks cover of same.
posted by fixedgear at 2:18 PM on January 24, 2011

Men They Couldn't Hang - Ironmasters, about the Rebecca Riots. Various of their other songs draw on history too.
posted by Abiezer at 3:58 PM on January 24, 2011

Louisiana 1927 by Randy Newman is about the Great Mississippi Flood. A bit of history I'd never known about until hearing Mr. Newman sing about it, but such a great song.
posted by booth at 6:34 PM on January 24, 2011

"Allentown" by Billy Joel, about post-WWII industrialism in the Lehigh Valley (steel factory workers in northeastern PA and the subsequent disillusionment/unemployment when the steel mill closed down). Wiki link to Bethlehem Steel.
posted by shortskirtlongjacket at 6:53 PM on January 24, 2011

You didn't explicitly say "rock", so I'm going to toss in the entirety of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins.
posted by kristi at 8:21 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Clash, English Civil War (Johnny Comes Marching Home)

Read about the song on Wikipedia. Another article from Wikipedia here.
posted by vincele at 8:55 AM on January 25, 2011

Jonathan Coulton's song about The Presidents is good and historically accurate.

Sadly, his even better song about Kenesaw Mountain Landis is not.
posted by namewithoutwords at 9:30 AM on January 25, 2011

Johnny Horton, the great mid-century country artist, was well known for these types of songs. Check out Sink the Bismarck (about the German battleship), Battle of New Orleans (about the War of 1812 battle), and North to Alaska (about the Klondike gold rush).
posted by John Frum at 10:25 AM on January 25, 2011

Warren Zevon, "Frank and Jesse James"

And yet another person wondering about you explicitly disallowing TMBG.
posted by cardioid at 8:57 AM on February 2, 2011

« Older Looking for a game like Neopets or the Zen Garden...   |   What's happening in San Francisco tonight and... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.