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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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).
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!)