Posts Tagged ‘Music History’

I was dreaming of the past… History songs

27 July 2010

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. Read More

Chavez Ravine to Churubusco: American history through song

16 March 2010

By Kevin O’Sullivan

Ry Cooder, to turn a phrase, has previous. In 2005 he released an album entitled Chavez Ravine that told the history of a Mexican-American neighbourhood of Los Angeles, bulldozed to the ground in the 1950s to make way for a housing development that was never built and a baseball stadium that was. On ‘Don’t Call Me Red’ he took on the role of Frank Wilkinson, the public architect who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was condemned to prison as a result. On ‘Chinito Chinito’ he offered a colourful snapshot of inter-race relations in 1940s LA: ‘Washes my shirts, irons my pants/Then he takes his maraca home’. The tale had it all: McCarthyism, cool cats, UFOs, conspiracy, and injustice, with a dash of the boogie-woogie and the jitterbug thrown in for good measure.

No surprise then to hear him return to the album-as-history theme for his new record, San Patricio, recorded with The Chieftains and a troupe of Mexican musicians. The yarn on this occasion: a group of ‘disaffected’ Irish-Americans led by Captain John Riley, who deserted to fight with the Mexicans in the war of the 1840s under the command of General Antonio López de Santa Ana. Read More