I attended a local open-mic gig last night. Nothing strange about that, you might say. But as I sat there, soaking up a brilliantly silly psychedelic-folk musings of an open-mic singer on the life of 18th century English poet William Blake, it struck me that history must have inspired countless thousands of pop songs. And so, here, in no particular order of importance, are the HT blog's selection of the best of the best. Or, at least, what our addled brains could come up with late on a Thursday evening...
First up, Boney M's ra-ra-Rasputin, probably the most infectious beat that 19th century Tsarist history has ever, or will ever, know. Check out the YouTube video above for footage of disco's finest hitting Red Square, sometime circa 1976.
Civil rights struggles have inspired much music on both sides of the Atlantic. Here is one of the most powerful and poetic treatments of the subject, Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit ("blood on the leaves"), an allegorical account of a lynching in the deep south.
Another portrayal of American 20th century now, though a decidedly more upbeat one. Arlo Guthrie's 18 minute comic epic Alice's Restaurant deals with the ordeals of a hapless narrator who is unwittingly conscripted into the US Army for service in the Vietnam war. Very funny, if you can last until the end!
Next up, Don McLean's American Pie. If the internet is anything to go by, this is probably the most cited pop song about history out there. As the singer's official website says, the song deals with
the transition from light (the innocence of childhood) to the darker realities of adulthood... started with the death of Buddy Holly and culminated with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 and the start of a more difficult time for America.
I'll confess, being from Ireland has shaded this list somewhat with a touch of green. But I can't ignore songs as powerful as this, the Cranberries' Zombie, an acutely aware piece of pop music, both historically and politically. The songs' lyrics refer to the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, the event that established southern Irish independence. The video, meanwhile, directly links that important historical event to the Northern Irish Troubles.
Now I don't want to over colour this list with too many Irish historical references, but some mention too must be made of that most ubiquitous of Irish bands, U2. There are more than a couple Bono & Edge-penned songs that would qualify here: the Mothers of the Disappeared was influenced by Bono's experience of central American dictatorships and the name of the Joshua Tree album has biblical connotations.
Sunday Bloody Sunday gets our vote, however, because of the dual historical references at work. Not only did U2 release it less than ten years after the events in Derry / Londonderry, but much of the lyrics could also be applied to the other infamous Bloody Sunday of history, in Russia in 1905.
OK, OK, Irish again, I know, but I promise this is the last reference to my homeland. And this is one for the art historians out there. In 1991, A House released Endless Art, surely one of the strangest songs to grace the pop charts anywhere. The lyrics largely consist of the lead singer reading out the names, birth and death dates of around 120 famous singers and artists. A House don't just sing in chronological or thematic order either. A typical line reads: "Beethoven / Bach / Brahms / Elvis Presley...". Brilliant!
And that's it. We would love to hear of any songs that we have missed. Or perhaps you disagree with our selection? Either way, drop us a line.
And in the meantime, don't forget to read Richard Welch's excellent Rock'n'Roll and Social Change from our 1990 archive.