Popular songs that also teach history?
June 21, 2022 4:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for popular songs that relate events or profile people from history in a straightforward, informative way. Can you help me add to this weird playlist?

I have two examples of what I'm looking for:

- Rasputin by Boney M: Profiles the historical Russian figure.
- Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot: Explains the circumstances of the boat's sinking.

Some specific criteria:
- People/events should be actual historical events – so "Boy named Sue" (and a lot of other songs that tell tall tales) wouldn't apply.
- The more concrete/straightforward the relating of the events, the better. So abstract/allusive songs that are about a particular person or event but do not actually explain what happened are less useful. The more 'educational' the song is about the person/event, the better.
- The songs should be relatively popular – deep cuts are less helpful than things that people would have a chance of knowing.
- Accuracy as a whole is ideal, but this is flexible given the necessities these being pop songs. So if there are a lack of contemporary primary sources showing that Rasputin could dance the kazachok really wunderbar, that's not a huge deal.
posted by ordinary_magnet to Media & Arts (81 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Do they need to be about specific events? So "We didn't start the fire" by Billy Joel- would that count?

Back in the USSR - The Beatles - for the cold war
posted by freethefeet at 4:19 PM on June 21, 2022

Vincent by Don McLean is about Van Gogh.
posted by FencingGal at 4:23 PM on June 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young is about the Kent State shootings, but may be less informative than you prefer.
posted by FencingGal at 4:29 PM on June 21, 2022 [3 favorites]

Bonnie & Clyde
posted by phunniemee at 4:30 PM on June 21, 2022

The Hamilton soundtrack comes to mind. Particularly the opening track “Alexander Hamilton”, and “The Room Where it Happens.”
posted by mekily at 4:30 PM on June 21, 2022 [5 favorites]

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band?
Louisiana 1927 by Randy Newman?
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 4:33 PM on June 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

Oh, forgot Biko by Peter Gabriel.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 4:34 PM on June 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

American Pie, Don McLean
posted by humbug at 4:36 PM on June 21, 2022 [3 favorites]

"Oliver Cromwell", by Monty Python, is a fun catchy song to sing (to the tune of Chopin's Polonaise in A Flat Major), and also EXTREMELY informative about the downfall of King Charles I and the ascendancy of the titular Oliver Cromwell.

Some historical detail: https://montypython.fandom.com/wiki/Oliver_Cromwell_(song)
posted by theatro at 4:36 PM on June 21, 2022 [5 favorites]

Not sure of the writing credits, so these are as performed by

Hurricane, by Bob Dylan
Pablo Picasso, by Jonathan Richman
The Night they Drove old Dixie Down, the Band
Strange Fruit, Nina Simone

I think Woody Guthrie might have some as well.
posted by rhonzo at 4:37 PM on June 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

It occurs to me that quite a bit of folk music would answer this prompt. That's kind of folk music's, like, deal.

Tom Dooley comes to mind immediately.
posted by phunniemee at 4:40 PM on June 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple tells the story of how the band came out Montreux to record an album but it burned down the night before during a Frank Zappa show because of "some stupid with a flare gun." I don't know how historical the events are in the grand scheme of things but the lyrics are pretty straight forward.

Also I feel like "literally every song by The Decemberists" is a correct answer but I don't know their music well enough to be specific.
posted by bondcliff at 4:42 PM on June 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

"Cold Missouri Waters" by Cry Cry Cry tells the story of the Mann Gulch fire in which 13 wilderness firefighters died. (Not exactly "popular" but I think that may be hard to find.)
posted by Lexica at 4:45 PM on June 21, 2022 [5 favorites]

James K Polk - They Might Be Giants profile our 11th president in a factual, straightforward manner.
posted by subocoyne at 4:48 PM on June 21, 2022 [10 favorites]

The Battle of New Orleans Is an old one by Johnny Horton. It looks like he also has one about the sinking of the Bismark but I've never heard it.
posted by BoscosMom at 4:50 PM on June 21, 2022 [8 favorites]

U2's Pride (In The Name of Love) is maybe less story-telly than you're looking for, but a potential example about Martin Luther King Jr. They did get some details wrong though!
posted by Paper rabies at 4:54 PM on June 21, 2022

The Band Played Waltzing Matilda (about the battle of Gallipoli)
Written by Eric Bogle, but the Pogues version is probably better known.
posted by wps98 at 4:54 PM on June 21, 2022 [5 favorites]

Also by the Pogues: Streets of Sorrow / Birmingham Six
posted by wps98 at 4:59 PM on June 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

Sunday Bloody Sunday by U2 is about a massacre in Northern Ireland in 1972.
posted by hydra77 at 4:59 PM on June 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Ooh, and one of my favorites: Best Goddamn Band in Wyoming by No-No Boy is about the George Igawa Orchestra, an all-Japanese jazz band formed by residents of a Japanese internment camp.
posted by hydra77 at 5:03 PM on June 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

1816, The Year Without A Summer by Rasputina (YouTube link isn't the album version, I don't think, but Spotify has it)
posted by deludingmyself at 5:05 PM on June 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

There's also Epic Rap Battles of History, there are as many fictional as historical figures represented, but many of the non-fictional disses are biographical in nature.
posted by subocoyne at 5:06 PM on June 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Iron Maiden dabbles in this occasionally, such as the quite literal Alexander the Great.
posted by twigatwig at 5:09 PM on June 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

This is Billy Joel's thing. Apart from the aforementioned We Didn't Start the First , Goodnight Saigon (Vietnam), and Leningrad (autobiographical telling of the Cold War and its thaw) probably fit your criteria. Widening your parameters slightly, there are a bunch of Joel songs that are about a specific time and place without mentioning specific events.

Peter Gabriel also has several possible inclusions: Family Snapshot is both a retelling of the assassination attempt on George Wallace and a profile of the assassin.
posted by AndrewStephens at 5:15 PM on June 21, 2022

ABBA, Waterloo. (Even though Napoleon did not, in fact, surrender there).
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:16 PM on June 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Horrible Histories is a kids' show and definitely plays up the "gross" aspects of history, but their songs are super catchy.
posted by basalganglia at 5:25 PM on June 21, 2022 [5 favorites]

Popularity is variable, but within the metal community, Sabaton is well known specifically for this.
posted by cobaltnine at 5:37 PM on June 21, 2022

The Song of the Shieldwall is not precisely popular but it does give you a full brief history of the Saxons in Britain.

Another version
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:41 PM on June 21, 2022

I thought of Sufjan Stevens and some of the songs from his Illinois album, particularly John Wayne Gacy Jr. (Actually, Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois is the song that came to my mind first, but aside from an alleged UFO sighting being questionable in terms of meeting the "actual historical events" criteria, it definitely tends toward the abstract/allusive side, as most of Sufjan's work does. Also, I haven't kept up with him over the past decade, but apparently he also wrote a song about Tonya Harding that might fit this brief, which she did not appreciate...)
posted by sigmagalator at 5:41 PM on June 21, 2022

A popular song, from before Top 40 radio: The Titanic. Maybe you sang it at camp, like I did.

he also has one about the sinking of the Bismark

Here you go! Sink The Bismark

Plus one more, a real oldie, about sinking a sailing ship: The Sweet Trinity (although I prefer the Brothers Four version, which they called The Gallant Argosy).
posted by Rash at 6:07 PM on June 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Rock Me Amadeus - FALCO.
It's been released in numerous versions, this is the one I'm familiar with SLYT: Canadian Version

Sink The Bismarck - Johnny Horton
posted by Mitheral at 6:13 PM on June 21, 2022

People have rightly cited TMBG's James K Polk, but I'd like to add Meet James Ensor (Belgium's famous painter. Dig him up and shake his hand, appreciate the man).

In French, Dominique was sung by Dominican nuns about the life of their patron St Dominic (1170-1221).

At the age of 90, actor Christopher Lee made the album By the Sword and the Cross, about the life of Charlemagne. It's.... not good, but maybe worth an aghast-watch as a curiosity. Here's the, er, video they made of The Bloody Verdict of Verden ("I SHED THE BLOOD OF THE SAXON MEN!!!")

(The problem was not Lee or his voice; he's a strong, resonant, tuneful bass even at 90. But the lyrics, written by some other guy, are beyond terrible and into the realm of the godawful)
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:21 PM on June 21, 2022 [3 favorites]

A bit more obscurely; Moreton Bay is an Australian folk song probably written in the 1830s by a former convict who had been held there (and in the other places mentioned in the song) and is a primary source for the killing of the commandant Captain Patrick Logan by Aboriginal people.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:23 PM on June 21, 2022

The MTA song is about a change in the fare system on the Boston subway system which at the time was known as the Metropolitan Transit Authority
posted by TimHare at 10:14 PM on June 21, 2022 [7 favorites]

Kilkelly Ireland, sung by Rowena Taheny. Writer Peter Jones based the lyrics on letters (1860-1890) written between his great, great grandfather John Hunt and Hunt's family back in County Mayo, chronicling the Famine and the resulting starvation, death, civil unrest, and the emigration of millions from their homeland.
posted by TrishaU at 10:32 PM on June 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

There are several songs about the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. There is a book of them. Here are the lyrics of one the Oldham Tinkers sing, and here is a recording.
posted by paduasoy at 11:46 PM on June 21, 2022

... Though, reading this again, I'm not sure if you want "popular" songs, which might include folk (and filk), or "pop" songs, which would not.
posted by paduasoy at 11:47 PM on June 21, 2022

No Man's Land (The Green Fields of France) by Eric Bogle is about a visit to military cemeteries in Flanders and to the grave of Willie McBride - who died in the war. The song's wikipedia page has some speculation about which particular Willie McBride. Many versions - but I like this one by The Men They Couldn't Hang.

The sea shanty Wellerman - of which you may have heard - is based on detailed events in the New Zealand whaling industry around the 1830s.
posted by rongorongo at 12:06 AM on June 22, 2022

Almost everything by Daniel Khan and the Painted Bird. Their “Butcher’s share” teacher dialectical materialism.
posted by slimeline at 12:15 AM on June 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Cold Missouri Waters" by Cry Cry Cry yt tells the story

Lexica, I have been looking for that song so long that I forgot I was looking for it.

Thank you so much!
posted by jamjam at 12:31 AM on June 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Nick Cave's Tupelo is about the birth of Elvis Presley - and his stillborn twin brother - during a storm in that town.
posted by rongorongo at 12:35 AM on June 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

The Harriet Tubman Song. This is Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert singing it, which is not my favorite version, but my favorite is lost to the sands of time.
posted by Well I never at 12:40 AM on June 22, 2022

Here is another very deeply affecting live version of Cold Missouri Waters sung by a band made up of members of the Forest Service (the Fiddlin' Foresters) to an audience of members of the Forest Service, and which includes lots of the historical details in the background of the song.
posted by jamjam at 1:35 AM on June 22, 2022

World Turned Upside Down - Billy Bragg
Ballad of Ira Hayes - Bob Dylan
Great Nations of Europe - Randy Newman
Sail Away - Randy Newman (content warning, racist epithet)
Boston Tea Party - The Sensational Alex Harvey Band
posted by Beverley Westwood at 3:45 AM on June 22, 2022

1913 Massacre - Woody Guthrie
posted by fourpotatoes at 3:56 AM on June 22, 2022

Don't Drink The Water by Dave Matthews Band is in the "voice" of the European colonizers of the Americas. (And I think it slaps.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:59 AM on June 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Depending on your definition of popular, English Rebel Songs by Chumbawamba might count.
posted by eotvos at 4:15 AM on June 22, 2022

William the Conqueror by DMX Krew is an absolute banger while also being genuinely very historically informative. Not sure how popular it is but it deserves to be more so!
posted by Lluvia at 6:00 AM on June 22, 2022

Bare Naked Ladies - History of Everything (Big Bang Theory theme)

Maybe too abstract/not concrete enough.
posted by Laura in Canada at 7:49 AM on June 22, 2022

Battle of New Orleans also has a take from the British viewpoint!

There’s also a animated Lego video.
posted by Bourbonesque at 8:48 AM on June 22, 2022

World Turned Upside Down yt - Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg has a bunch of them.
Island of No Return, basically everything on The Internationale, Gods Footballer, and Everywhere. and on and on, but I'm not sure those tracks are very 'popular'.

If you can take an abstraction of 'popular', well Horse Solider, Horse Solider by Corb Lund tells of many cavalry battles and is Certified Gold in Canada.

Even less popular than Gold in Canada is Say Ho by Scott Miller, which tells the history of Sam Houston.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:18 AM on June 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Catherine The Great by The Divine Comedy - not just a fun song but a pretty good historical primer.
posted by rongorongo at 9:33 AM on June 22, 2022

Nina Simone's Mississippi Goddam is in the Library of Congress.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:41 AM on June 22, 2022

Bob Dylan's 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll' and 'Oxford Town' are two more (well, if they meet the 'relatively popular' yardstick).
posted by box at 10:58 AM on June 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Frank Black and the Catholics - St. Francis Dam Disaster (lyrics)
posted by dfan at 11:16 AM on June 22, 2022

Warren Zevon's Boom Boom Mancini
posted by CookieNose at 12:36 PM on June 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

Bruce Springsteen, The Rising
Drive-By Truckers, Ramon Casiano
Tom Lehrer, Wernher von Braun
Steve Earle, Dixieland
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:32 PM on June 22, 2022

All Eyes On The Saint by Enter Shikari [Lyrics] is about the creation of the first Christian martyr in Britain, Saint Alban.
posted by glonous keming at 6:56 PM on June 22, 2022

I don't know if it counts as popular, but Mandelbrot Set by Jonathan Coulton is a fairly straightforward (and catchy!) introduction to Benoit Mandelbrot and his eponymous fractal. It's also probably the only rock song ever written to include a mathematical algorithm in its lyrics.
posted by dephlogisticated at 8:29 PM on June 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Tom Paxton - Lyndon Johnson Told The Nation about the Vietnam War
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:01 PM on June 22, 2022

Paris 1919 by John Cale: There is some dispute about the meaning - but it does appear to be at least partly about the Paris Peace Talks that led to the treaty of Versailles. Maybe also about what it felt like to be in Paris at that time.

O Flower of Scotland by The Corries: This refers directly to the Battle of Bannockburn - won by the Scots against Edward II - and indirectly to the Battle of Largs of 1263 where it is said a barefoot Norse invader sneaking up on the Scottish forces by night, trod on a thistle and cried out giving the game away. The specific thistle species used as Scotland's emblem is the spear thistle, Cirsium vulgar - which would be, indeed, a complete bastard if trodden on.
posted by rongorongo at 1:39 AM on June 23, 2022

Cloudbusting by Kate Bush is about William and Peter Reich.
posted by aesop at 4:16 AM on June 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

Melissa Etheridge, Tuesday Morning, about Mark Bingham, one of the people who helped take down the hijackers of Flight 93.
posted by Tamanna at 7:11 AM on June 23, 2022

Harry Chapin's Thirty Thousand Pounds of Bananas is about an actual, historical truck full of bananas (and, of course, provides the framework on which Weird Al's classic "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota" hangs).
posted by uncleozzy at 8:23 AM on June 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

The Tragically Hip's Fifty Mission Cap retells the story of the disappearance of hockey player Bill Barilko.

(Many of their songs feature historical elements, but this is one of the more straightforward).
posted by AndrewInDC at 11:50 AM on June 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

I mean, he might not be popular by today's standards, but there was a time when Al Stewart definitely was, and his catalog in entirety is pretty much this. Years ago, Rolling Stone called him "the Alistair Cooke of rock." The liner notes to his breakout 1973 album were like a history lesson for me (his song about Nostradamus was the first time many people had ever heard of the dude), especially some of the stuff relating to England after WWII and the song "The Last Day of June, 1934." But "Roads to Moscow" is a haunting work of pure genius (link goes to a YT posting that inexplicably and maddeningly uses the cover art from Year of the Cat) and amply fits your request. Most of his stuff does!
posted by kitten kaboodle at 1:00 PM on June 23, 2022 [3 favorites]

The 15th-C. Agincourt Carol tells the story of the Battle of Agincourt from the English perspective.
posted by anhedonic at 2:10 PM on June 23, 2022

Indigo Girls have Faye Tucker, which is about the execution of Karla Faye Tucker in 1998.
posted by hippybear at 3:16 PM on June 23, 2022

All the songs about John Luther "Casey" Jones and that 1900 train wreck between Memphis and Canton.

I guess I'd also ask "popular when?" given that the initial examples are from 1976 and 1978. "John Brown's Body" was certainly a popular song at one point.
posted by vitia at 4:17 PM on June 23, 2022

Springhill Mine Disaster. I grew up hearing my uncle play this on guitar (and honestly I like his version better) but it's a real event.
posted by annieb at 4:38 PM on June 23, 2022

Yeah, Al Stewart's entire career is doing this, sometimes well.

Well before The Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot wrote "Canadian Railway Trilogy" which is very straightforward, if entirely of a time and place. In Canada, we had to listen to this and discuss in school, so it's pretty well known up here.

Steve Earle: John Walker's Blues. Maybe a tad contemporary for when it was written.

Someone mentioned Bob Dylan - Hurricane may also count. He has quite a few narrative songs, but not all of major events.

Might be too allusive for your criteria, but Amelia by Joni Mitchell about Amelia Earhart, and more.

My dad used to strum and sing The Great Ship Titanic way back when, it was pretty well known in folky circles.

In the folky idiom, Canadian legend Stan Rogers has a number of pretty straight historical songs, best known probably The Mary Ellen Carter and Barrett's Privateers

Shoutout to OMD - Enola Gay.
posted by Rumple at 4:54 PM on June 23, 2022 [2 favorites]

I may regret this, but :

Marie Provost

(The grimmest part, maybe not entirely accurate)
posted by thivaia at 1:41 PM on June 24, 2022 [1 favorite]

If you're into prewar music and songs about shipwrecks and mining disasters and whatnot:

People Take Warning: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938
posted by box at 2:03 PM on June 24, 2022

James Keelaghan, Cold Missouri Waters
Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy
Stan Rogers, Barrett's Privateers
Stan Rogers, MacDonnell on the Heights
(lots of other Stan Rogers history songs on the album Northwest Passage)
Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Dead Chiefs
Buffey Saint-Marie, My Country Tis of Thy People You're Dying
Cheryl Bear, Residential School
Wintersleep, Beneficiary
posted by CCBC at 5:36 PM on June 25, 2022

The Roots, Mos Def & Common - Hurricane

Country Joe - The Fish Cheer / Fixin to Die Rag

CSN&Y - Woodstock (kinda, maybe not direct enough)

Jefferson Airplane - Volunteers

Marvin Gaye - Inner City Blues (probably needs at least some framing re: the social and economic moment)
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:31 AM on June 26, 2022

Really stretching the bounds of "not niche" They Might Be Giants ALSO have a song covering the campaign ballad "Tippecanoe and Tyler too." So it's like a "primary document redux" I guess rather than a secondary source. But it's great. On my phone but you can Google it.

But seriously I know so much about James K Polk our 11th president bc of that song, it's just what you're looking for.
posted by athirstforsalt at 8:23 AM on June 27, 2022

M-A-R-T-I-N-A by Phranc?
posted by snofoam at 10:44 AM on June 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

The Wreck of the Old 97, recorded by pretty much everyone in country music: here's Pete Seeger.
posted by apartment dweller at 7:31 PM on July 3, 2022

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