I was dreaming of the past… History songs

By Kevin O’Sullivan

Sometimes when the collective editorial brains on Pue’s get to storming, there’s no end to the great ideas that get churned out. So when Juliana suggested we do a list of historical songs or concept albums (we didn’t get very far on the latter), well…

The rules are simple: the song must have been conceived and written about a particular event or personality in history, so no folk songs (e.g. Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Partisan’, a raft of Dubliners or Planxty songs, Woodie Guthrie’s Oklahoma ballads) and no songs written about contemporary events (Bob Dylan’s ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, Christy Moore’s ‘Joxer Goes to Stuttgart’, or a big chunk of Bruce Springsteen’s back catalogue).

Here are a few to start things off. Additions, comments or corrections welcome in the usual manner (i.e. the comments box).

1. The Band, The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down (1969)

If you can excuse the occasional historical inaccuracy and the fact that it was written by a Canadian (though sung by an American: the brilliant Levon Helm), this is probably the greatest evocation of the American Civil War in popular music. Who else could sing the line ‘There goes Robert E. Lee’ and make it sound so cool?

2. The Decemberists, Shankill Butchers (2006)

This is a strange one. Based on a mother’s warning to her children to settle down at night – ‘The Shankill butchers want to catch you awake’ – the images it evokes of men ‘picking at their fingers with their knives / And wiping off their cleavers on their thighs’ are truly chilling. But it’s the lullaby melody that’s the real killer.

3. Neil Young, Cortez the Killer (1975)

Listening to this is a bit like reading an overly enthusiastic undergraduate essay. It starts with some idealistic scene setting: ‘hate was just a legend / War was never known’; ‘the women all were beautiful and the men stood straight and strong’. It has a can-do-no-wrong good guy: Montezuma, who would ‘offer life in sacrifice so that others could go on’. And what tale would be complete without a Cortez coming ‘dancing across the water with his galleons and guns’? What a killer.

4. Public Enemy, Show ‘Em Whatcha Got (1988)

From history essays to history lessons. Less a song than a sampled list, but from that opening ‘Freedom is a road seldom travelled by the multitudes’, to the name-dropping of Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Stevie Biko, Nelson Mandela, et al, this is a powerful paean to a century of struggle for black political and civil rights.

5. Sufjan Stevens, John Wayne Gacy Jr (2005)

After releasing an album about the state of Michigan, in 2004 Sufjan Stevens holed himself up for six months to research its successor: the revealingly titled Illinois. In the process he managed – like most PhD students – to half-grasp that oft-repeated supervisor’s comment: write early (nothing for the first six months) and write often (22 songs on the finished record). Here’s one of the best: John Wayne Gacy, the story of a serial killer from 1970s Chicago whose problems – apparently – stemmed from a troubled childhood: ‘His father was a drinker / And his mother cried in bed / Folding John Wayne’s t-shirts / When the swing set hit his head’.

6. Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, Bonnie and Clyde (1968)

7. Sun Kil Moon, Pancho Villa (2003)

Why do some subjects lend themselves to song and not others? Here are two great examples: Gainsbourg and Bardot’s extremely French take on the life of the outlaw couple Bonnie and Clyde, and Sun Kil Moon’s lives of three twentieth-century boxers: the Filipino flyweight Pancho Villa (d. 1925), Cuban welterweight Benny ‘Kid’ Paret (d. 1962) and Mexican featherweight Salvador Sanchez (d. 1982).

8. Tinariwen, Mano Dayak (2006)

And don’t forget the fallen rebel. Mano Dayak, who died in a plane crash in 1995, embodied all of its great traditions: writer on the culture and politics of the Touareg nomads in Niger, freedom fighter, and rebel leader. This homage depicts the desert he lived in and what he brought to the region – satellite phones, apparently. (The lyrics are in the Tamashek language, if you hadn’t spotted that already. And for those already complaining about the song’s obscurity; surely I’m allowed one on the list!)

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8 Responses to “I was dreaming of the past… History songs”

  1. thelittlereview Says:

    Yes, Anastasia by Tori Amos is about the Russian civil war, and the various myths about what happened to the tsar’s daughter Anastasia.

  2. ctait Says:

    Sarah Jarosz has the most stunning version of ‘Shankill Butchers’ – chilling!

  3. Caoimhe Says:

    Gillian Welch’s ‘April 14th Part 1’ and ‘Ruination Day Part 2’ on her Time (The Revelator) album tackle three historical events in one – the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the sinking of the Titanic, and Black Sunday in the 1935. All events took place on….April 14. Spooky!

  4. Patrick Says:

    Some good choices there. The Band were quite historically aware, their Arcadian Driftwood deals with the forced transplatation of the Arcadian people from what is now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick following the 7 years war (1756-63)

    For another Irish historical classic see Christy Moore’s brilliant tribute to the Irish volunteers who fought against Franco, La Quinta Brigada

  5. Póló Says:

    “EEC” by Aodh Ó Domhnaill. Sung by na hUaisle. Widely used as part of the anti EEC campaign in 1972. Buried somewhere in the RTÉ Óró archive. Encapsulated much of the case against joining the EEC. In Irish.

  6. dfallon Says:

    Excellent post!

    ‘Joe Hill’ by Billy Bragg, via Phil Ochs. I think everyone thought Joe Hill was Irish as children, owing to the (different) folk song made popular here via The Dubliners!

    ‘Let Robeson Sing’ by the Manics. Excellent. Paul Robeson used to sing a most decent version of Kevin Barry, with the story going he learned it from Peadar O’ Donnell.

    ‘We Remember’ from Peggy Seeger. A roll-call. Victor Jara, James Connolly, Nelson Mandela…..

  7. puesoccurrences Says:

    Thanks for all the additions folks.

    I had a feeling that Russia was too good a topic not to have a few songs written about it, so happy (and unsurprised) that Tori Amos has had a go at it.

    Trust the Band to have a few more historical songs in the repertoire – ‘Acadian Driftwood’ is a great song too. I’m sure there’s a rich seam of Christy Moore songs out there, but I must admit to being completely ignorant of his back catalogue (and not all that fond of his voice, being honest).

    But Gillian Welch’s two songs I had no idea about. I find ‘Time (The Revelator)’ a funny record in any case – sometimes, and in some parts, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard. But sometimes, in other parts I find it infuriating. So, it’s a nice surprise to go back and listen to it with that in mind.

    I’ve a few others to add to the list from a fresh look in the last couple of days by the way:

    Led Zeppelin, ‘Immigrant Song’ (about the Vikings)

    Neutral Milk Hotel, ‘Holland, 1945’ (Anne Frank)

    The Hold Steady, ‘Cattle and the Creeping Things’ (the Bible)

  8. Neil Says:

    An oldie but a goldie by Elton John about the Amercian Civil War.

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