Sunday, April 22, 2007

Top 10 Songs About Historical Figures

The last rock song top 10 in a while, I promise. Ranked by historical specificity, historical intelligence, and general quality of the song. Neither Achilles nor Rubin Carter counts as a historical figure. No Sufjan Stevens on grounds of general ickiness.

10. God Bless Robert E. Lee, Johnny Cash. Not QUITE as neo-Confederate as you might think -- the gist seems to be that Lee is heroic for surrendering and saving lives. But still, fairly dubious...

9. So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright, Simon & Garfunkel. Art Garfunkel warbles pompously and unmelodically about architecture. It's a shame Art was such a douche, because he really did make Simon better.

8. I'm Henry the VII, I Am, Herman's Hermits. You know a list is in trouble when this tune cracks the top 8. It's not even technically about the king. But the Hermits win points for irresistible infectiousness: "Second verse, same as the first!"

7. Galileo, Indigo Girls. Not very focused -- begins with Galileo, then all of a sudden I think she's talking about Amelia Earhart, then "nuclear annihilation." At least there aren't any gratuitious attacks on PhDs in this one, though.
6. MLK, U2. Apparently Richard Kelly originally wanted this song for the closing sequence in Donnie Darko, and only replaced it with Gary Jules's cover of "Mad World" when he couldn't get the rights. "Mad World" is a far, far superior song.

5. For the Love of Richard Nixon, Manic Street Preachers. Sorta mediocre, but there are some classic clips of Nixon speeches thrown in.

4. James K. Polk, They Might Be Giants. Martin Van Buren wasn't "an abolitionist", and this isn't what you'd call a "good" song, but shit: half of it is about the 1844 Democratic convention! How awesome is that?

3. Cortez The Killer, Neil Young. An interesting case: this is without doubt my favorite song on here, with its slow churning guitar and appropriately mystical atmosphere. The opening lyrics are great: "He came dancing across the water, with his galleons and guns." But Neil loses points for essentializing the Aztecs ("hate was just a legend, and war was never known"), lavishing praise on Montezuma, and seeming to celebrate human sacrifice. As he later said to his biographer, "What the fuck am I doing writing about Aztecs in 'Cortez the Killer' like I was there, wandering around? 'Cause I only read about it in a few books. A lotta shit I just made up because it came to me."

2. I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine, Bob Dylan. Who needs specificity when you can have poetry? I haven't read enough (OK, any) of Augustine to know if there are real connections being drawn here, but I do dig this song.

1. Mr. Churchill Says, The Kinks. Political commentary! Famous speeches committed to music! Mention of Beaverbrook, Montgomery, Mountbatten, and Vera Lynn! What more could you ask for? Churchill is in the title, but not in the best line:
"Mr. Beaverbrook says /
We gotta save our tin /
And all the garden gates and empty cans are gonna make us win..."


Jeffrey said...

"I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" has a major howler, insofar as neither St. Augustine was never put to death. But the image is nevertheless a powerful one, so much so that I'm willing to get past it.

"Cortez The Killer" is also my favorite song on this list, for the same reasons you gave. Did you know that the long guitar solo that opens the song was originally just supposed be the first verse, but that Young was singing into a dead microphone? (Listen carefully, you can hear his voice very faintly being picked up by the drum mic.) I love the quote you give from Shakey - glad Neil realized later on what a crock of bull his vision of the Aztecs was.

And what's wrong with rock lists anyway? That's pretty much all I'm good for on this blog anyway - my voluminous rock music scholarship.

Jeffrey said...

Oof, that unedited double negative in the first sentence is painful. That's what I get for rewriting my sentences after the fact.

Sarah said...

What about Gil Scott Heron ?

"B Movie" and "ReRon" about the Gipper, of course. And the best song about the Taft-Hartley Act I know, "Three Miles Down" (Somebody signs a paper, everybody thinks its fine but Taft and Hartley ain't done one day in the mines...)

Akshay said...

You also forgot to mention "Bennie and the Jets," Elton John's rollicking tribute to Benjamin Franklin.

Jeffrey said...

Oh crap, I just realized that this list omits the single best song about a historical figure of all: Peter Gabriel's "Biko," about South African anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko. Several of the songs on this list are good; none are nearly as good as "Biko," which is IMHO the single greatest protest song of the 1980s, and right up there with the all-time greats. When Gabriel lets out that earth-shattering "WOOAAAAAAHHH" at the end, it's a goosebumps moment for me every time...and the actual lyrics - as opposed to wordless cries - are even better.

I don't know if you would consider it to be a song about a "historical figure" per se, but Scott Walker's "The Old Man's Back Again" (which invokes Stalin to excellent effect in protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in '68) is another humdinger.

John said...

the single greatest protest song of the 1980s,

Isn't that like being the tallest munchkin?

John said...

There is, BTW, a whole spoken word (with musical backing) track about George Wallace in the Drive-By Truckers' Southern Rock Opera which is fairly awesome, and is then followed by a song in which the Devil welcomes George Wallace to hell. Together, the whole business is probably good enough to warrant being listed here.

John said...

Is anyone familiar with Randy Newman? He seems like the sort of person who would have numerous songs about semi-obscure historical figures, but I don't actually listen to him.

"Louisiana 1927," though, besides being about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, mentions specifically President Coolidge and Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover (who is the "little fat man with the notebook in his hand," I believe). But not exactly a song about a historical figure.

Matt K said...

Don't know a thing about Randy Newman, other than that he doesn't like short people. But I can't believe I forgot OutKast's "Rosa Parks"!

Akshay said...

The Newman song Rednecks off "Good Old Boys" is about Lester Maddox. Also, if we don't care about lyrics, there are lots of great jazz tracks about historical figures: Fables of Faubus, one of Mingus's greatest songs, is about Orval Faubus; and Christine Keeler by the Skatalites is about the prostitute at the center of the Profumo scandal.