by Rick Bretz
The Way It Is-Bruce Hornsby and the Range, 1986
A song that references the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 and specifically the formation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to “Give those who ain’t got a little more” as Bruce Hornsby sings. The also refers to the Food Stamp Act of 1964 to help those people who need an assist to boost themselves up the economic ladder. Best remembered words of the song: That’s just the way it is. Some things will never change. That’s just the way it is. Ah-but don’t you believe them.
We Didn’t Start The Fire-Billy Joel, 1989
Billy Joel has stated that he doesn’t like singing this song in concert because he has to remember a string names and events from history. Indeed, he’s on record as saying he didn’t think the song was “that great to begin with.” Song criticisms aside, the song does a good job of listing several famous people and historical events while rhyming at the same time.
Here’s one of the best:
“Rosenbergs, H Bomb, Sugar Ray, Panmunjom Brando, The King And I, and The Catcher In The Rye
Eisenhower, Vaccine, England’s got a new queen Maciano, Liberace, Santayana goodbye”
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald-Gordon Lightfoot, 1976
Gordon Lightfoot researched the tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald and put the events leading up to the freighter sinking into a song that is classic still being heard today. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald Great Lakes Freighter surrendered to the cold waters of Lake Superior on November 10, 1975 during a heavy storm and with it took the lives of its crew of 29 souls on board. It’s a perfect blend of words and haunting music.
Dirty Laundry-Don Henley, 1982
I know this doesn’t reference history but it refers to the people who write the first draft. This is an amusing song to listen to but it is so true. He wrote this song in 1982 but it is relevant as ever today. He’s turns the microscope on media but he’s really scolding us, the audience, for liking it way too much. Lines like “People love it when you lose” throughout the song disrobe the media so the listener can see the king, the media, without their clothes while simultaneously scolding the audience for giving the media the power to continue their wicked ways.
Sunday Bloody Sunday-U2, 1983
Considered one of the best call to action songs of all time. Bono tells the listener he’s tired of the violence. It’s non-partisan song but he is clear from the lyrics that he wants the killing to stop. The militaristic drum beat in the beginning sets the tone for the words and music U2 brings to the song. Lead singer Bono sings, “I can’t believe the news today. Oh, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.” Later, he asks “How long must we sing this song.” From their “War” album, the song concentrates on the “Bloody Sunday” incident in Derry, Northern Ireland in the Bogside area on January 30, 1972 when 13 protestors died from injuries from battling British forces during a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association March.
Abraham, Martin and John-Dion, 1968
This is a song that has been covered by many singers and is about three significant people in the fight for civil rights. The words, “Has anybody here seen by old friend Abraham” and repeated for Martin and John are poignant throughout the rendition. A song about what might have been.
American Pie-Don McLean, 1971
A song about a terrible plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa on February 3, 1959 that killed everyone on board including Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.
On the surface this masterpiece of writing is about that plane crash but has several references and meanings in the lyrics left to interpretation of the listener. The interpretation is left to the audience because Don McLean refuses to say what he had in mind when writing the lyrics. This has left several people to create websites to fill the void about what the song means.
“19”-Paul Hardcastle, 1985
This song is about the Vietnam War and how it affected soldiers after they came back to the United States. It is a song that is relevant to every soldier coming home from every country involved in a conflict, As the song title states, the average age of the Vietnam soldier was 19 years old. An age significantly lower than the Korean War and World War II.
Honorable Mentions: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down-Joan Baez; Strange Fruit-Billie Holiday; Pride (In The Name In Love)-U2; Zombie-The Cranberries; Ohio-Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.