Thursday, February 14, 2008

History In Rock & Roll

This piece started out as one thing, and ended up as something else entirely.

I intended to write something about the use of history in rock and roll…or to be more precise, the lack of it. Other forms of art – movies, novels, paintings – have drawn heavily on history for inspiration. But rock and roll, not so much.

And when it does, I thought, it usually screws it up. Think of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by the Band. A great song (especially the live version) but historically inaccurate:

Back with my wife in Tennessee,
When one day she called to me,
"Virgil, quick, come see, there goes Robert E. Lee.”

I thought, those silly Canadians, Robert E. Lee wasn’t in Tennessee during the Civil War.

Bob Dylan liked to sprinkle historical figures in his lyrics (“Napoleon in rags”), but he mangled a Lincoln quote in Talking World War III Blues:

Half of the people can be part right all of the time,
Some of the people can be all right part of the time,
But all of the people can't be all right all of the time.
I think Abraham Lincoln said that.

You thought wrong, Bob. What Lincoln is reputed to have said is, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

And my favorite, Billy Joel’s The Ballad of Billy the Kid. If you’ll allow me to quote at length.

From a town known as Wheeling, West Virginia
Rode a boy with a six-gun in his hand
And his daring life of crime
Made him a legend in his time
East and west of the Rio Grande

Well, he started with a bank in Colorado
In the pocket of his vest, a Colt he hid
And his age and his size
Took the teller by surprise
And the word spread of Billy the Kid

One cold day a posse captured Billy
And the judge said, "String 'im up for what he did!"
And the cowboys and their kin
Like the sea came pourin' in
To watch the hangin' of Billy the Kid

Well, he never traveled heavy
Yes, he always rode alone
And he soon put many older guns to shame
And he never had a sweetheart
But he finally found a home
Underneath the boothill grave that bears his name

Billy the Kid was not from Wheeling, or any other part of West Virginia. He didn’t rob banks. He didn’t ride alone. He killed with a Winchester rifle, not a Colt. He wasn’t captured by a posse, and he wasn’t hung. To paraphrase Mary McCarthy, every word is a lie, including “and” and “the”.

Clearly, I thought, rock lyricists have issues with history.

Digging in the Archives
To make my case stronger, I trolled through my own 5000 song iTunes catalogue, looking for more evidence of rock’s indifference to history. And I confess, I found the opposite. More lyricists than I realized had tackled history, some quite accurately.

For example…

Mr. Churchill Says, The Kinks
Bastille Day, Rush
Sympathy for the Devil, The Rolling Stones

The first two are among the most straightforward of the history rock songs in my collection. The Kinks capture England during the Battle of Britain. He even mentions historical figures like Beaverbrook, Mountbatten, and Montgomery. Rush captures the class warfare - as well as the beheadings - of the early French Revolution.

The lyrics of both are fairly uninspired, though Neal Peart turns a neat phrase with "See them bow their heads to die, as we would bow as they rode by".

Sympathy is the ultimate rock and roll romp through history. It starts on Calvary, takes us through the Hundred Years War, the Russian Revolution, the Blitzkrieg, and the assassinations of the Kennedys.

My only quibble with the song is this lyric:

I watched in glee while your Kings and Queens

Fought for ten decades for the Gods they made.

Presumably the "fought for ten decades" refers to the Hundred Years War. While many wars were fought over religion, this wasn't one of them.

Oliver’s Army, Elvis Costello
Not a history song at all, but one that requires knowledge of history to understand. The song is about mercenary soldiers, and Oliver refers to Oliver Cromwell, who rewarded his mercenary soldiers with land in Ireland - something Elvis Costello (aka Declan McManus) would be familiar with. "Mr. Churchill" is a stand-in for England.

Children's Crusade, Sting
Russians, Sting

History Will Teach Us Nothing, Sting

Gordon Sumner, the former schoolteacher, is clearly the songwriter most obsessed with history, and the idea that the past can - though often doesn't - teach us about the future.

Children's Crusade is about the young men slaughtered in WWI ("Young men, soldiers, Nineteen fourteen"); Russians is about the Cold War; History more of a political song:

Convince an enemy, convince him that he's wrong

Is to win a bloodless battle where victory is long

A simple act of faith, in reason over might

To blow up his children will only prove him right

History will teach us nothing

Buffalo Soldiers, Bob Marley

There isn't a lot of history in this song, but what little there is seems accurate. More importantly, Marley captures why history is important in this lyric:

If you know your history,
Then you would know where you coming from,
Then you wouldnt have to ask me,
Who the eck do I think I am.

You said it, Bob.


William said...

I must point you to the They Might Be Giants song, James K. Polk. There are an amazing amount of videos on YouTube, but you can start with this one...

Anonymous said...

There goes "The" Robert E. Lee... It was a steamboat built in 1866 and you could indeed see it from Tennessee along the Mississippi River. So, the song is very accurate.


Harry said...

The Night They Drove Dixie Down is pretty accurate. Joan Baez must have thought it was innacurate as well, when she changed the words "till Stoneman's Cavalry came" to "till so much cavalry came". As Virgil worked on the "Danville train", one of Richmond's vital lifelines, he would have been very aware of Stoneman's raid. Read this:

An interesting discussion of the lyrics by musicians and historians.