What songs reference events in U.S. History?
January 13, 2014 12:56 PM   Subscribe

Please help me create a comprehensive list of songs that reference events in U.S. History! I teach high school U.S. History courses, and each day between classes I try to play a song that references what we'll be studying that day - students try to guess who the song is by and how it relates to what we're studying as they come into class.

Some eras (Vietnam, Civil Rights, etc.) are much easier to come up with songs for than others. The songs don't have to be *about* the event - it's fine if the event is simply referenced in one line of the song. I do try to incorporate a variety of genres, but lean towards more modern music (because students get more excited when it's music they recognize). It would be awesome to know the name of the song, the artist, and what event it relates to.

Here are some examples:
-Strange Fruit (Billie Holiday) - Lynching
-Buffalo Soldier (Bob Marley) - African-American soldiers in the Spanish-American War
-Death of Emmett Till (Bob Dylan) - Emmett Till & Civil Rights
-Rosa Parks (Outkast) - Rosa Parks
-Ohio (Neil Young) - Kent State
-99 Problems* (Jay-Z) - 4th Amendment
-An Amendment to Be (Simpsons) - Bill of Rights
-Power to the People, Free our People (Black Panther Kids) - Black Panthers
-Born in the USA (Bruce Springsteen) - Vietnam War

*I have to find 'clean' versions of songs with swearing in them, or just play a clip of them. I can work with that.
posted by leitmotif to Education (106 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
April 29, 1992, by Sublime
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 1:04 PM on January 13, 2014

Springsteen's version of "Erie Canal" might do (economics, transportation, labor, moving goods).
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:06 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

We Didn't Start the Fire--Billy Joel
posted by Melismata at 1:07 PM on January 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

Battle of New Orleans because it is AMAZING. Also, I'm surprised how much kids that age often enjoy Schoolhouse Rock type stuff. Abraham, Martin, and John (if you don't mind people potentially crying).

Also, if there are any particular eras that you really need (not entirely sure what you'd be focusing on) let us know! What an exciting question this is!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 1:13 PM on January 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Any version of Sixteen Tons, for coal mining.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:14 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm pleased to share with you this copy of Sing Along With Millard Fillmore (The Life Album Of Presidential Campaign Songs), lovingly transferred from vinyl (ok, it's kind of a crappy transfer, but love was involved). Don't miss the bitterly sarcastic negative campaign song "His Grandfather's Hat."
posted by zachlipton at 1:14 PM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? - Great Depression
posted by in278s at 1:14 PM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Probably a third of Phil Ochs's output fits the bill.

I aint' marching anymore (references to various wars, but probably should count for Vietnam)
In the heat of summer (race riots in the 1960s, I think, though unspecified)
Ballad of William Worthy (travel restrictions)
Talking Cuban Crisis (Cuban missle crisis)
posted by hoyland at 1:15 PM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Decemberists - Rox in the Box about a mining town in Butte, Montana and its history.

The White Stripes - The Big Thee Killed My Baby About the Detroit automakers in the 50s and 60s

Cherry Poppin Daddies - Zoot Suit Riot About the Zoot Suit Riots :)
posted by magnetsphere at 1:15 PM on January 13, 2014

Barrett's Privateers by Stan Rogers is about a naval engagement between an American rebel ship and a Canadian privateer vessel during the American Revolution. Bonus death and destruction.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:15 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B-Andrews Sisters

Union Maid-Woody Guthrie
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:16 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Plane Wreck At Los Gatos
posted by steinsaltz at 1:17 PM on January 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

American Pie by Don McLean
posted by Thorzdad at 1:17 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Steve Goodman - Daley's Gone - Richard J Daley (maybe only that relevant if you're in Chicago)
posted by hoyland at 1:18 PM on January 13, 2014

Smithsonian Folkways has American History in Ballad and Song.

"Developed as a teaching guide for junior high school social studies classes, this compilation features 57 songs, mainly about American history and culture. They are organized thematically, with topics including Colonial America, the Civil War, and frontier life."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:19 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree (Glenn Miller's version is the one I'm thinking of)
Over There
Devo covered CSNY's "Ohio"--fitting 'cause at least two of them were there on 5/4/70
posted by luckynerd at 1:19 PM on January 13, 2014

King of the Road, depression era poverty
Battle Hymn of the Republic, perhaps.
posted by SLC Mom at 1:20 PM on January 13, 2014

TMBG — James K. Polk
posted by Nomyte at 1:20 PM on January 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Listening to it again, Daley's Gone has a reference to the 1968 Democratic National Convention and political machines, so it could be a little more general.
posted by hoyland at 1:21 PM on January 13, 2014

U2's Pride (In the Name of Love) about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life and shooting.
posted by xenization at 1:21 PM on January 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Abraham, Martin and John by Dion
posted by jquinby at 1:22 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Darling Nelly Gray, which is rumored to have helped lead to a bit of a war we had a while back.
posted by fritley at 1:23 PM on January 13, 2014

Maybe a stretch because it's not from an American perspective, but Letter from America for immigration generally. (I was reminded of it as the Proclaimers covered King of the Road.)
posted by hoyland at 1:23 PM on January 13, 2014

Songfacts has a long list of songs about historical events, in alphabetical order by song title.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:25 PM on January 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Also, from another TMBG album, Purple Toupee is a garbled and macaronic version of 50s and 60s history ("Martin X was mad when they outlawed bell bottoms"), but it might be a little too insider-baseball, should-have-been-there for many high-schoolers.
posted by Nomyte at 1:25 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some Steve Earle:

Leroy's Dustbowl Blues- A poor dustbowl family heads to California. Spoiler alert, bad things happen.
Johnny Come Lately- A Vietnam veteran reflecting on his dad's experiences as a WWII veteran. Could be an interesting way to demonstrate changing cultural attitudes.
Dixieland- A Scottish immigrant during the Civil War era joins the Union Army. "We come from the farms and the city streets of a hundred foreign lands/and we spilled our blood in the battle's heat- now we're all Americans."
Ben McCullough- Also Civil War era, this time a Confederate soldier who loathes his commander.
John Walker's Blues- from the perspective of John Walker, "the American Taliban."
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:26 PM on January 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you're willing to go to showtunes, 1776 has a bunch of songs about the revolutionary war. "Mama, Look Sharp" is about someone dying at the battle of Lexington, "Molasses to Rum" is about the triangle trade, and "But, Mr. Adams" is about who should actually write the Declaration of Independence.
posted by rmd1023 at 1:26 PM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Straight to Hell by the Clash includes verses about the Vietnam War.
posted by scody at 1:27 PM on January 13, 2014

Rasputina have a lot of songs about history.

"My Little Shirtwaist Fire" is about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

"We Stay Behind" is about New Orleans and Katrina.

"The Donner Party" is about you can probably guess.

"1816, The Year Without a Summer" is about just that.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 1:30 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow! I am overwhelmed and beyond impressed with all of these suggestions! Thank you so much.

To answer one of the questions above, here are the general units we do. I've bolded those units that have been more difficult to find [modern] music for. That said, I still have holes in almost all of the units and welcome any & all suggestions.
1. Founding Era
2. Constitution & Bill of Rights
3. Expansion
4. Civil War
5. Reconstruction
6. Gilded Age
7. Imperialism
8. 1920s
9. Great Depression & New Deal
10. WWII
11. Changes of the 1950s & Early Cold War
12. Civil Rights Movement
13. Vietnam Era
14. Modern America

Thanks again - keep all the great ideas coming!
posted by leitmotif at 1:33 PM on January 13, 2014

Also: No Sex by Alex Chilton is about the AIDS epidemic in the '80s. You'd definitely have to skip the first verse, though, assuming the title doesn't make it a non-starter to begin with. (The third verse might work: "I'm really worried about the future / Junkie blood is gonna pollute ya / Pretty soon, we're all gonna get it / It's time to buy some stuff on credit")
posted by scody at 1:36 PM on January 13, 2014

We had an FPP of labor songs a while back.

Paul Simon - A Church is Burning (I have always presumed this was about black churches being attacked)

Phil Ochs (missed it earlier) - Too Many Martyers/Ballad of Medgar Evers

Simon and Garfunkel - He was my brother - murder of those three civil rights workers in Mississippi (there are a couple of other songs about it, too)
posted by hoyland at 1:36 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I always think of the Great Depression when I listen to the Dropkick Murphy's "Worker's Song," though it doesn't specifically reference an historic event.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:43 PM on January 13, 2014

"The Panic Is On" is about the Great Depression, and I personally like the Anne Hills version best even though I can't find it online. It's available to buy as an mp3 though.

There's lots of songs about labor events on this IWW compilation.

Utah Phillips did a bunch of songs about strikes and various events out west.

John Trudell, who is a Native musician and poet, did a bunch of songs about Native issues, AIM and other contemporary stuff. I don't have time to sort through his discography, but there's a ton of stuff there.

One More Time, which is a reworking of the Clash song and about the second Gulf War, is one of the more affecting anti-war songs I've heard.
posted by Frowner at 1:45 PM on January 13, 2014

R.E.M.'s Swan Swan H isn't a very clear narrative, but it is at least tangentially about the Civil War! It mentions Johnny Reb specifically, if you want to pick out a line from it.
posted by ausdemfenster at 1:46 PM on January 13, 2014

Enola Gay (Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark) - Dropping of atomic bomb on Hiroshima
posted by homesickness at 1:46 PM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sufjan Stevens - Come on Feel the Illinoise! -- World's Columbian Exposition
posted by hydrophonic at 1:50 PM on January 13, 2014

If your school teaches The Grapes of Wrath (and maybe not as well, but more of a stretch), you've got:

Woody Guthrie - Tom Joad

Bruce Springsteen - Ghost of Tom Joad (which isn't actually about the Depression)
posted by hoyland at 1:51 PM on January 13, 2014

jquinby beat me to The Battle of New Orleans (which is fantastic), so here's a video of it animated with legos
posted by colin_l at 1:51 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Eminem, Mosh - about the 2004 election, voting, and social change. This is absolutely a partisan song, and I don't know what you can get away with where you're teaching, but it really captures the time and just how angry folks were around that election time.

Same Love, Macklemore - again, this song doesn't pretend to be unbiased, but if you want a popular song by an artist that students are guaranteed to recognize about a current hot issue, well, there you go.

Two by the Drive By Truckers: Uncle Frank skewers the TVA, and TVA thanks it.

Kate Campbell, New South - the current economy and how it changes a place.
posted by joycehealy at 1:52 PM on January 13, 2014

For American imperialism, how about Warren Zevon's Veracruz? I heard Woodrow Wilson's guns/I heard Maria calling/Saying, "Veracruz is dying/And Cuernavaca's falling"
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:53 PM on January 13, 2014

No More Kings! Schoolhouse Rock
posted by cecic at 1:53 PM on January 13, 2014

Oh, there's a Utah Phillips song about the Enola Gay. There's a lot of set-up in this live recording - the song begins at about 3:00.

Also, REM has a song, Exhuming McCarthy, which is both about the McCarthy hearings and about Reagan and Iran Contra. It also samples the famous "have you left no sense of decency" thing from the McCarthy hearings. And REM also has a song about US involvement in Central America, "Flowers of Guatemala".

You might also want to check out the work of David Rovics, a radical songwriter who covers a lot of current events. He is a better songwriter than his website suggests.
posted by Frowner at 1:55 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you'll be discussing the space race, Buzz Aldrin's Blues by my friend Dean Driver is a great song about how Aldrin coped with his life after the moon landing.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:58 PM on January 13, 2014

Wikipedia Songs about actual events, including The Star-Spangled Banner.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:59 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Eminem, Mosh yt - about the 2004 election, voting, and social change. This is absolutely a partisan song, and I don't know what you can get away with where you're teaching, but it really captures the time and just how angry folks were around that election time.

Oh god, yes, though they're all probably too young to remember.

Green Day's American Idiot album totally defines the mood of 2004/2005 for me. (You'd need to find bleeped/muted versions.) American Idiot, Wake Me Up When September Ends's video was about the Iraq War, but it's not so obvious from the lyrics, and Holiday is pretty clearly about the run up to the war.
posted by hoyland at 2:00 PM on January 13, 2014

I don't know where you are, but if you're in New England, especially, I'd suggest John and Mary's "July 6th," about the Hartford Circus Fire in 1944.
posted by dlugoczaj at 2:09 PM on January 13, 2014

Oh! I can't believe I forgot this: Fort Minor, Kenji, about the Japanese internment camps. Fort Minor isn't super well know, but the frontman (Mike Shinoda, of Link Park fame) certainly is.

And Jason Isabell, Dress Blues, about Iraq and Afghanistan, but it works for any war, sadly.
posted by joycehealy at 2:11 PM on January 13, 2014

Mark Knopfler - Sailing to Philadelphia - Mason and Dixon (the version on the album is much better)
posted by hoyland at 2:16 PM on January 13, 2014

Oh, and if you really want to wield a bludgeon, either Simon & Garfunkel's "Silent Night/7 O'Clock News" or Paul Hardcastle's "19" might be fun.
posted by dlugoczaj at 2:23 PM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Elton John - My Father's Gun -- Civil War, from the Confederate perspective
posted by hydrophonic at 2:30 PM on January 13, 2014

Ballad of the Green Berets for a different Vietnam-era perspective.
posted by msbubbaclees at 2:31 PM on January 13, 2014

Richard Corey was originally written in 1901, so sort of gilded age
posted by IndigoJones at 2:32 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Louisiana 1927" by Randy Newman (watch out for the reference to "crackers")

"A More Perfect Union" by Titus Andronicus has some juicy Civil War references.
posted by Mothlight at 2:37 PM on January 13, 2014

Several songs on The Joshua Tree bu U2 are about U.S. imperialism/foreign policy in Central and South America: Bullet the Blue Sky (Salvadoran civil war) Mothers of the Disappeared (Argentine dictatorship), One Tree Hill (Chilean counter-revolution, specifically the murder of Victor Jara)

The Clash's Washington Bullets is also about U.S. support for military dictatorships in Central and South America.

Bonzo Goes to Bitburg by the Ramones is about Reagan visiting a military cemetery in Germany where SS officers were buried.
posted by scody at 2:38 PM on January 13, 2014

Happy Days are Here Again was released in 1929, but it became best known after FDR used it as his campaign song in 1932 .
posted by brujita at 2:58 PM on January 13, 2014

judy collins' "hey nelly nelly" is the civil war in a nutshell. when johnny came marching home...

there are entire big books about labor movement songs, depression songs and slavery songs; the answers to this question could go on and on and on. joe hill wants you to organize! john henry was a steel-driving man! (did that really happen?) my darling clementine has a dark back-story.
posted by bruce at 3:04 PM on January 13, 2014

john brown's body is a-mouldering in the grave!
posted by bruce at 3:05 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Josh Ritter's Wings is generally about Western expansion, specifically in Idaho.

Also, this is a more general recommendation, but my high school AP US History teacher always played Motown as we started class.
posted by yasaman at 3:18 PM on January 13, 2014

Tom Lehrer for cold war
posted by brujita at 3:22 PM on January 13, 2014

Titanic by Leadbelly or
When That Great Ship Went Down by William And Versey Smith -
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:34 PM on January 13, 2014

Manifest Destiny, Guster (used as an analogy; not actually about US expansion)
posted by tyrantkitty at 3:38 PM on January 13, 2014

Another Randy Newman song:
"Sail Away"
posted by jrchaplin at 3:48 PM on January 13, 2014

Westward Expansion -- Schoolhouse Rock is your friend again: Elbow Room

Civil War: When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again

Great Depression / New Deal: We're in the Money
posted by phoenixy at 3:49 PM on January 13, 2014

Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers - White House Blues (Lyrics)...McKinley assassination
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:52 PM on January 13, 2014

Best answer: Here is the (more or less) comprehensive link of all of the songs I use in my APUSH class, and here is a similar question I asked in the past.

I want to go ahead and register my shock that no one has mention the jawdropping Alexander Hamilton Mix-Tape! It is year in and year out the most well received thing I play.

In the realm of parody, I also like Too Late To Apologize (A Declaration) and Bad Romance. In the realm of World History, Music For History Lovers was featured on MetaFilter. It's pretty hit or miss, and has the audio and visual quality of low grade karaoke. Also, most of the songs only Olds like us even recognize, so YMMV.

I'll take (some of) your bullet list and add my suggestions:
1. Founding Era
=> See above. Alexander Hamilton and Too Late To Apologize. Also, the song Molasses to Rum from 1776 is a song about the Triangle Trade that gets rightfully harrowing and disturbing near the end. I love 1776, but in terms of content most of the songs don't have a wondeful RoI.

3. Expansion
=> I use the majority of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (heavily edited) as a scaffold for early democratic expansion and "little p" populism. It's also does a great job with the Corrupt Bargain and showing Jackson as kind of the first actively campaigning candidate in the modern mold. Additionally, the War of 1812 has a lot of great songs: The Hunters of Kentucky (also from BBAJ) and the Star Spangled Banner, for just two.

Additionally, TMBG has a pair of songs that do double or triple duty in this regard: the eponymous James K Polk covers the man and Manifest Destiny. The newer Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too! Is good mostly because it's the first real "campaign song."

4. Civil War & 5. Reconstruction
=> This is an overly rich mine to vein. I use The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" to demonstrate the mental and physical state of the post-War South and I use the Hoyt Axton version of I'm A Good Ol' Rebel to demonstrate the depth and venom of the neo-Confederate redeemers as obstacles to reconstruction.

6. Gilded Age
=> Not too much going on here. I use Rasputina's "My Little Shirtwaist Fire" along with a pretty horrific slide show to introduce Progressivism. I'm also a fan of the Ani/Utah version of "The Most Dangerous Woman in America" because Mother Jones. If you want to go up to and through the progressive era - which I assume to do since it's not otherwise periodized - then you can throw in Union Maid, Which Side Are You On, or any one of literally a thousand union songs.

8. 1920s
=>"Aint We Got Fun." I bookend this with "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" as an introduction to the Great Depression. I'll notice you didn't mention WWI, so i'll go ahead and say "Over There," as it's a great primary source example of the sorts of propaganda put out officially and otherwise by the CPI.

9. Great Depression & New Deal
=> See above! Also, depending on what you're looking for, the Almanac Singers can be counted on to have a song about it. Or, anything by Woody or Pete. The textbook I use has a homework assignment with the lyrics for "Grand Coulee Dam" and so I use that one as my song for the New Deal. It being a great song also recommends it. The Annie Soundtrack has good songs on it, but I'm afraid in the original 70s cast recording the most appropriate song - Thank You, Mr. Hoover - has totally shitty audio for the male parts. "Do Re Mi" is another great Woodie song about the 30s with a lot of wonderful covers.

10. WWII
=> More Almanac Singers! All their anti-Hitler stuff is great. Also, of course, "Rosie The Riveter". Brother Ali's "Live From the Chippie Bun Club" is some brutal hip hop about the experiences of African American veterans in the post-War world that you almost certainly can't play for them.

11. Changes of the 1950s & Early Cold War
=> *wolfish grin* I have all of those songs if there is one whose lyrics intrigue you.

12. Civil Rights Movement
=> The Scotsboro Boys is a musical about a particularly sad civil rights tragedy, but there are plenty of songs here, too, both from and about the era. U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" jumps immediately to mind, but you don't have to look too deep.

13. Vietnam Era
=> An embarrassment of riches! I use Marty Robbin's "Aint I Right" to represent the hawks, but you could just as easily use Okie From Muskogee. Plenty of anti-war songs to chose from, of course, with the most obvious choice to demonstrate war cynicism being "Fortunate Son," but I usually go with "Ohio" instead when I teach Kent State. Also, Born in the USA.

14. Modern America
=> Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire" is the quintessential song about the Boomer Era, but tends to be pretty useless in practice unless you want to attach a hard core ID assignment to it.

The Band (from above) also did a song about the Acadian Expulsion called "Acadian Driftwood." I made a little video for the Richard Shindell cover to teach myself some new editing software.

Feel free to memail me or follow up here with more specific periodizations, topics, or units and I'll almost certainly have more ideas to chip in.
posted by absalom at 3:57 PM on January 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

A couple from Iron Maiden

Run For The Hills - about the European conquest of Native Americans

The Longest Day - About D-Day.

The Pilgrim - somewhat symbolic but I think tries to capture the sentiment of the Pilgrims leaving their homeland for the New World.

Maiden's music is a treasure trove of history references, but as a British band most of it is European history.
posted by COD at 4:25 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Monitor by Bishop Allen is concerned, for the most part, with the Battle of Hampton Roads.
posted by howfar at 4:32 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I made a mix CD of historical songs for a history teacher friend a few years ago. Here are a few tracks I included:
Baltimore Fire
Charles Guiteau
Wreck of the Old 97
NRA blues
Franklin Roosevelt's Back Again
There'll Be No Distinction There

I play old time music, and many of my favorites are about the depression and prohibition. I've got a bunch more - memail me if you want a more comprehensive list. The New Lost City Ramblers are a treasure trove of historical songs.
posted by amelliferae at 4:36 PM on January 13, 2014

U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" jumps immediately to mind, but you don't have to look too deep.

Isn't it about Northern Ireland?
posted by hoyland at 4:42 PM on January 13, 2014

Most of Bruce Springsteen's The Rising seems to be about 9/11, but You're Missing and Lonesome Day are especially good.
posted by jabes at 4:47 PM on January 13, 2014

Oh, and speaking of Springsteen: The Ghost of Tom Joad and The New Timer both reference the Great Depression.
posted by scody at 4:52 PM on January 13, 2014

For grins X-Fourth of July
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:57 PM on January 13, 2014

Snoopy vs The Red Baron?
Also the Christmas sequel to it .
posted by BoscosMom at 5:03 PM on January 13, 2014

(Misplaced) Canadian triumphalism: The War of 1812.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:09 PM on January 13, 2014

I love Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" for the civil rights era. Especially because most of the alternatives are by white artists.

"The Sun is Burning" by Simon and Garfunkel is a good nuclear fear song. Of course, 99 Red Balloons is the classic there.
posted by JMOZ at 5:11 PM on January 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Istanbul (not Constantinople) by TMBG

US history relevant part: Even old New York was once New Amsterdam / Why they changed it I can't say / People just liked it better that way

Forever Young by Alphaville (nuclear war/cold war)

I Don't Like Mondays by the Boomtown Rats

Lydia the Tattooed Lady
references a lot of different historical events. Lyrics here. (Bonus modern pop culture relevance: this song was Todd's ringtone in Breaking Bad)

And this last one is a clip of a song, super obscure and may not work for your purposes, I remember it from when I watched it as a kid - The Monkees episode Here Comes The Monkees. The Monkees are trying to help Davy's girlfriend with her homework and sang this little ditty (at 11:50):

When Patrick Henry was in Virginia / He made a speech we all recall / He said to the people of Charlotte town / United we stand, divided we fall
posted by triggerfinger at 5:43 PM on January 13, 2014

A few that haven't been mentioned:
Sting - Russians
REM - Orange Crush
Buffalo Springfield - For What It's Worth
Joan Baez - Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti (note: lyrics are taken from letters from Vanzetti)
Steve Earle - Copperhead Road (but that might be a direction you don't really want to take your class)
The Pogues - Thousands Are Sailing

When Johnny Comes Marching Home
My Old Kentucky Home - but go through all of the song, you may be surprised
posted by dilettante at 5:55 PM on January 13, 2014

I like "Dust Bowl Dance" by Mumford and Sons for the Great Depression.
posted by chainsofreedom at 6:30 PM on January 13, 2014

Ella's Song by Bernice Johnson Reagon, about Ella Baker, the civil rights activist.
posted by southern_sky at 6:40 PM on January 13, 2014

Jonathan Coulton - The Presidents
posted by blue_beetle at 6:40 PM on January 13, 2014

Minutemen -- Vietnam
Sam Cooke - A Change is Gonna Come (Civil Rights)
posted by hydrophonic at 6:56 PM on January 13, 2014

Tom Clay..What The World Needs Now (Abraham,Martin and John)
Disc jockey Tom Clay was working at radio station KGBS in Los Angeles, California when he created the single "What the World Needs Now is Love/Abraham, Martin and John", a social commentary that became a surprise hit record that summer.

The song begins with a man asking a young boy to define such words as bigotry, segregation and hatred (to which the boy says he doesn't know); he says that prejudice is "when someone's sick." Following that is a soundbite of a drill sergeant leading a platoon into training, along with gunfire sound effects, after which are snippets of the two songs — both as recorded by The Blackberries, a session recording group. Interspersed are excerpts of speeches by John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, the eulogy after Robert's assassination by Ted Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and soundbites of news coverage of each one's assassination. The ending of the song is a reprisal of the introduction.

"What the World Needs Now is Love/Abraham, Martin and John" rose to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August 1971, and was Clay's only Top 40 hit.
It's heartbreaking. Brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it.
posted by alms at 7:16 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" for the civil rights era. Especially because most of the alternatives are by white artists.

Oh, yes yes! It's amazing.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:27 PM on January 13, 2014

Clutch - Abraham Lincoln

Not quite pop music, but Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton Mixtape covers the life of Alexander Hamilton. I think the linked song is a short, fun retelling of Hamilton's life.
posted by Turkey Glue at 7:28 PM on January 13, 2014

Bill Haley and his Comets - Thirteen Women / Ann-Margaret - Thirteen Men (early Cold War, blink and you'll miss it)
Camper Van Beethoven - Jack Ruby (Kennedy), Sweethearts (Reagan)
The Mekons - Empire of the Senseless (Reagan and Thatcher era)

More Civil Rights era:
The Impressions - This is My Country, Keep on Pushing, People Get Ready, We're a Winner
James Brown - Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud
posted by hydrophonic at 8:02 PM on January 13, 2014

Gordon Lightfoot - Black Day in July
posted by ODiV at 8:37 PM on January 13, 2014

The Brooklyn "chamber-pop" band Pinataland has a few albums about historical events: "Songs for the Forgotten Future," volumes 1 and 2, which include some but not all tracks from their early EP "Songs from Konijn Kok*," and " Hymns for the Dreadful Night." In the SftFF, the songs being with some historical audio, and segue into a song about the relevant event. They have famous if not particularly pivotal events in history, such as the 1939 World's Fair ("1939") or the execution of Topsy the Elephant by electrocution ("Coney Island Funeral") or the infamous displaying of an Congolese pygmy tribesman at the Bronx Zoo ("Ota Benga's Name"). And then there are things you've never heard of, like the bizarre "airship scare of 1895" ("Devil's Airship.") You can probably guess the topic of "Oppie Struck the Match."

Half the fun of listening is researching what strange event or historical figure they've uncovered. I had heard of John Banvard, who painted the Mississippi River on a miles-long canvas, but hadn't heard of Sam Patch, "The Yankee Leaper," who made a name for himself by leaping into the Niagara River at the base of the eponymous falls.

I think this is a brilliant band and I look forward to future works.

*It's Dutch for "Rabbit Cook" if you're wondering. It's the term that gave Coney Island its name.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:01 PM on January 13, 2014

"Chicago" - Graham Nash (1968 Democratic convention in Chicago and the trial of the Chicago Eight)

"We'd Like To Thank You Herbert Hoover" and "A New Deal For Christmas" from the Annie soundtrack (Great Depression and New Deal)

"Eve of Destruction" - Barry McGuire (Vietnam War)

"Sister Suffragette" - Mary Poppins soundtrack (Women's suffragette movement)
posted by SisterHavana at 10:54 PM on January 13, 2014

The first two that came to mind were "The Constitution" from School House Rock and the "8th of November" from Big & Rich. [more info]
posted by Leenie at 11:10 PM on January 13, 2014

The window of direct relevance on this for high school use is closing, but folks who watched Nickelodeon's The Adventures of Pete and Pete growing up are often surprised to hear that its catchy theme song "Hey Sandy" is a veiled reference to Sandra Scheuer, one of the students killed in the Kent State massacre.
posted by Rhaomi at 11:56 PM on January 13, 2014

Flogging Molly have some good stuff, including a really beautiful/soul-crushing song about workers who built the railroads ( the name escapes me, sorry), but off their more recent album, the song The Power's Out is an incredibly scathing, angry song about the decline of blue collar work and union strength in the last decade. It's amazing, and I can't imagine complacency after listening to it.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:18 AM on January 14, 2014

Genesis - Land of Confusion: released during those halcyon Reagan/Thatcher days of yore, but still sounds 100% relevant today.

World Party - Is It Like Today? -- a thought-provoking journey through the history of mankind, released in 1992.
posted by Fuzzypumper at 2:29 AM on January 14, 2014

Well gosh, I really like those two songs I mentioned above, but OK, more specifically U.S-centric:

Scott MacKenzie -- San Francisco: an overly-idealistic song about the birth of the Flower Power counterculture in the Summer of '67 (though it really had already started about 2 years earlier with Kesey's busload of Merry Pranksters.)

Meanwhile, there was a war on; Creedence Clearwater Revival's Fortunate Son is a timeless reminder that not all was groovy during the Summer of Love.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - Woodstock: written by Joni Mitchell about one of the defining moments of the Boomer generation.
posted by Fuzzypumper at 2:57 AM on January 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Korea Girl's Atomic Skies is a pretty great song about the Atomic era. It opens with "1957 is the year when Sputnik died."

The Fiery Furnaces' Birdie Brain is about the fear of change that comes from the Age of Steam, but it might be a bit of a stretch to work it into your curriculum.

Positive Jam by The Hold Steady goes from the 20s ("woke up in the twenties/and there were flappers and fruits and white suits/it was right before the crash") to the 90s ("And in the 90s we were wired and well-connected/put it all down on technology and lost everything we invested"). It also has a lot of bits about sex-- beat influence and all that.
posted by NoraReed at 4:49 AM on January 14, 2014

Have not heard it myself, but 'Divided & United': Songs Of The Civil War Re-Imagined might come in handy. Old songs; contemporary artists.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:00 AM on January 14, 2014

Songfacts has a long list of songs about historical events, in alphabetical order by song title.

They also have a Songs with Political Statements list.
posted by pracowity at 5:45 AM on January 14, 2014

Two songs referencing the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma:

Oklahoma by Dan Bern is a basic telling of events
Shades of Gray by Richard Shindell uses it in passing in the last line so that if you didn't now about the event you'd miss the significance of it.

Dan Bern's songs in general are chock full of references to people and events that are very wide-ranging. He alludes to Oklahoma again in True Revolutionaries, school shootings in general in Kid's Prayer (I'm going to go ahead and put a trigger/crying warning on that one just in case). His song about Monica Seles (trigger warning for violence) also references John Lennon and MLK. A lot of his more recent songs are about current events - you can get a sense of it by glancing at song titles, but some are less obvious.

Richard Shindell, too, weaves a lot of history throughout his songs, and they are always sung from an interesting point of view. Reunion Hill and Arrowhead are both Civil War related songs. The Things That I Have Seen is about more recent wars. Fishing is about searching for undocumented immigrants. May is about Northern Ireland. Cold Missouri Waters is about the Mann Gulch fire of 1949.

He recorded Cold Missouri Waters with Cry Cry Cry, which includes singer/songwriter Dar Williams. She has probably the only song you'll find about the 1960s Milgram experiments (Buzzer). She also has a song about Pompeii (with apologies that the only version I could find is connected to that video).
posted by mikepop at 8:02 AM on January 14, 2014

For the Civil War:

Roll Alabama, Roll (about a Confederate commerce raider)
Better Times Are Coming (written by Stephen Foster to support the Union war effort)
Two Soldiers
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:16 AM on January 14, 2014

flobots have some good stuff that references more recent events

same thing
anne braden
defend atlantis
posted by misanthropicsarah at 12:54 PM on January 14, 2014

Pretty much anything from Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, as well as much of the show Ragtime.

Also, there was a folk band called The Foremen that did a bunch of political/current-events stuff - their stuff can be really hard to find, but, for example, here are the lyrics to a song about Oliver North and here's Firing the Surgeon General (possibly too racy for school). Oh, and this one's timely again: Privateers of the Public Airwaves. It looks like there are some mp3s at the Foremen page, but those look more general-political and less specific-historical-event. ... Oh, wait - three Foremen albums are available on iTunes. You can preview the songs and see if they'd be of any interest. ("San Diego" and "Chicago" are about that year's Republican and Democratic conventions - there's a reference to "the cue cards Bill and Al used". You could even do a little mini-lesson on the way "San Diego" is a big musical nod to "If You're Going to San Francisco" and "Chicago" riffs on CSNY's "Our House".)


Ani DiFranco:
* Hello Birmingham refers to the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian and the 1998 bombing of a Birmingham abortion clinic
* To the Teeth discusses gun control and school shootings
* Tis of Thee mentions smallpox blankets
posted by kristi at 8:02 PM on January 16, 2014

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