Who said history has to put you to sleep?
Songwriters never tire of using history as inspiration for the music they are writing. From America’s early days battling for freedom to Ireland’s longtime struggle for independence, genres across the board have featured songs about the past’s most infamous moments.
Here is a story-filled mix of songs about history that you probably didn’t hear in history class. (No, there won’t be an exam!)
Table of Contents
- Sympathy for the Devil – The Rolling Stones
- Enola Gay – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
- Genocide (The Killing of the Buffalo) – Thin Lizzy
- Waiting for the Worms – Pink Floyd
- Radio Bikini – The Vaccines
- Dallas 1 PM – Saxon
- The Palace of Versailles – Al Stewart
- Zombie – The Cranberries
- Jack Ruby – Deep Purple
- Mr. Custer – Larry Verne
- Run to the Hills – Iron Maiden
- Let Him Dangle – Elvis Costello
- Pompeii – Bastille
- Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2
- We Didn’t Start the Fire – Billy Joel
- Amerigo – Patti Smith
- Cortez the Killer – Neil Young
- Rasputin – Boney M.
- The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – The Band
- Mississippi Goddam – Nina Simone
- The British Are Coming – Weezer
- Antarctica – Al Stewart
- Don’t Drink the Water – Dave Matthews Band
- 99 Red Balloons – Nena
- Belfast Child – Simple Minds
- Spanish Bombs – The Clash
- Desolation Row – Bob Dylan
- Lay Down – Melanie & The Edwin Hawkins Singers
- Black Day in July – Gordon Lightfoot
Sympathy for the Devil – The Rolling Stones
‘Sympathy For The Devil’ has seen a lot of commercial success. It has been licensed many times for films, including the Jason Bourne saga. While it solidified the bad boy image the Stones were going for, a closer evaluation of the song brings to light many layers. It was inspired by Jagger’s reading of the Russian magical-realist book The Master and Margarita. The devil in the book became the devil in the song. Jagger references many historical events in the song, including Christ’s crucifixion and the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
Enola Gay – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
This early 1980s song was initially misconstrued as a song about the band coming out regarding their sexual orientation. Because of this, after its initial release, it faced a series of bans across media outlets. This forced the band to clear up what the song’s actual message was about: the plane (The Enola Gay) used during WWII to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
Related: Is the sky falling!? Here are some songs about the end of the world.
Genocide (The Killing of the Buffalo) – Thin Lizzy
Songwriter Phil Lynott enjoyed writing music about Celtic history and folklore. But for ‘Genocide (The Killing of the Buffalo),’ he took a page out of America’s history book while writing the lyrics. The song’s story is about the hard times Native Americans faced when settlers came and decimated the buffalo population. Native American tribes relied heavily on buffalo for everything from food and clothing to housing.
Waiting for the Worms – Pink Floyd
Featured on their infamous 1979 album, The Wall, ‘Waiting for the Worms’ is a classic Pink Floyd song full of historical references to the experience of WWII in Europe. There was initially supposed to be a star-studded cast for backup vocals, which included Toni Tennille from The Captain and Tennille and the harmonies of the Beach Boys. When it came time to release the album, the band decided to go in a different direction.
Related: Stand against war with these songs about war and peace.
Radio Bikini – The Vaccines
At first glance, this song seems like it’s a pleasant ode to summertime. But The Vaccines wrote it about the nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll (a formerly inhabited island in the Pacific) during America’s atomic age in the 1950s. The song refers to a documentary, also called Radio Bikini, which highlights the former inhabitants of the island and the soldiers who participated in the tests.
Related: Soak up the sun with these songs about summertime.
Dallas 1 PM – Saxon
Categorized as a modern “murder ballad,” Saxon tackles the assassination of beloved American president John F. Kennedy in their song ‘Dallas 1 PM.’ In keeping with the genre, the group uses different media to evoke a strong emotional response from the listener. Clips of Kennedy speaking and a news report of the tragedy are used in the recording alongside the song’s production.
The Palace of Versailles – Al Stewart
‘The Palace of Versailles’ might be considered a folk song, but Al Stweart added some electric guitar and keyboards to the recording to toughen up the sound a bit. The rockish sound aligns well with the story of the lyrics, which highlight parallelism between the French Revolution and the 1968 student riots happening when Stewart penned the song.
Related: See our playlist of more social injustice songs.
Zombie – The Cranberries
‘Zombie’ was the hit that put The Cranberries on the map internationally. Frontwoman Dolores O’ Riordan felt the song might touch a nerve because of its controversial nature. It is a single about a bombing in England in the early ’90s, which the IRA took responsibility for. She wrote the song to call for peace amidst Ireland’s longtime fight for sovereignty and independence.
Related: Don’t hide from these songs about monsters.
Jack Ruby – Deep Purple
Deep Purple began this song with a memorable riff in 6/4 time, a beat not too common in commercial music. The song chronicles in great detail the story of Jack Ruby, the man who killed Lee Harvey Oswald after Oswald shot American president John F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s assassination sparked an entire industry of journalists, writers, and historians dedicated to researching and reporting on his death.
Related: Seeking justice? Check out these revenge songs.
Mr. Custer – Larry Verne
A vintage song from 1960, the tune has a novelty feel as the singer tells the story of The Battle of Little Bighorn, which involved a fight between settlers and Native Americans. Known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” the infamous general lost 200 soldiers that day, and he also perished. It was a striking defeat by the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes. Producers felt Verne’s deep southern drawl would lend itself perfectly to the song.
Run to the Hills – Iron Maiden
This heavy metal tune gave the rock band Iron Maiden their first hit in the UK. ‘Run to the Hills’ tells the story of explorers’ first visits to America from both the natives’ perspective and the explorers’ perspective. The lyrical approach to this single is story-filled, with the listener ultimately trying to figure out which side of history the band is rooting for.
Let Him Dangle – Elvis Costello
Inspired musically by the stylings of folk songwriter Woodie Guthrie, Costello tackles the controversial subject of capital punishment with ‘Let Him Dangle.’ Drawing on the news story of a man sentenced to hanging who had taken the life of a police officer, Costello details the event in his lyrics and then offers his own opinions on the morality of the sentencing.
Related: Sneak over to our playlist of songs about crimes.
Pompeii – Bastille
In historical context, the hit song ‘Pompeii’ by Bastille references the famous volcano eruption that took out the bustling Roman city. But songwriter Dan Smith took a more introspective approach while writing it. Despite its happy, dancing nature, the song is about the fear and uncertainty of getting stuck in time and wondering how to dig yourself out.
Related: Need something new? Try these songs about being stuck.
Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2
Originally, ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ was written as a message taking a stand against IRA rebels in Ireland. However, after consultation, Bono decided to take a more moderate approach and edited the lyrics so that no one side was taken when it comes to Ireland’s long history of intra-country turmoil. In 1972, a peaceful civil rights protest turned deadly in Derry (Northern Ireland) when British officials killed 13 protesters.
Related: Relax with our playlist of songs about Sunday morning.
We Didn’t Start the Fire – Billy Joel
Songwriter Billy Joel takes a more logical approach to politics in his song ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire.’ Tired of having to take on a certain ‘original sin’ when it comes to the environment you’re born in, he lists all the messy problems his generation inherited but isn’t responsible for starting via stream of consciousness style lyrics.
Related: Our playlist of songs about fire and burning is hot!
Amerigo – Patti Smith
‘Amerigo’ pays tribute to the Italian explorer credited with giving America her name. Amerigo Vespucci sailed to the American mainland in the late 1400s and became transformed by the unadulterated beauty he found. Patti Smith wanted to focus on capturing that amazement and wonder when she wrote her song for the 2012 album Banga.
Related: Appreciate this world with some songs about mother nature.
Cortez the Killer – Neil Young
The Spanish explorer Cortez sailed from the territory now known as Cuba to the Aztec territory of Mexico in the early 1500s. Cortez’s expedition is credited with discovering what is now called Mexico, but it came at a great cost. The Aztecs suffered at the hands of his 600-men army, and their vast empire crumbled. Young highlights the emotional turmoil the Native Americans must have gone through as their civilization toppled to make way for the building of Mexico City.
Rasputin – Boney M.
This late ’70s track is all about the notorious monk who aligned himself with Russia’s last dynasty before the Bolshevik revolution. Czar Nicholas and the Romanov family became highly dependent on the mystic, who seemed to have the ability to heal their son stricken with hemophilia continually. Royalty assassinated Rasputin due to his getting too close to governmental secrets, and the revolution toppled the Romanovs soon after.
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – The Band
A song referencing America’s old south by using the term ‘Old Dixie,’ The Band’s popular song tells the story of a fictional character, Virgil Cane, and his experiences during the civil war. The war pitted brother against brother, and riots even broke out protesting the draft. The band had several hits, including ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ and ‘The Weight.’
Related: Check out these fun songs about being 18.
Mississippi Goddam – Nina Simone
Nina Simone was an outspoken civil rights activist and often used her music to speak out against injustice. This poignant song finds her reflecting on two tragedies in what is known as the Deep South in the ’60s. In Mississippi, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was gunned down, and in Alabama, several African-American children were killed in a church fire by an arsonist.
Related: Speak up about injustice with this playlist of equality songs.
The British Are Coming – Weezer
This impactful Weezer song focuses on the theme of fathers. While exploring his own relationship with his father, frontman Rivers Cuomo related it to America’s history of breaking free from their “imperial father,’ the British government, during the Revolutionary War. ‘The British Are Coming’ is included in their 2014 album Everything Will Be Alright In The End.
Related: Grab your family and listen to our playlist of songs about family.
Antarctica – Al Stewart
Al Stewart pays tribute to what is known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration in his song ‘Antarctica.’ Singing about brave men who weathered countless obstacles to explore the frozen continent, their fearless exploration helped both America and Great Britain to understand the South Pole better. Stewart’s song covers an often-forgotten part of history featuring valiant modern explorers.
Related: Feel cool with these songs about snowfall.
Don’t Drink the Water – Dave Matthews Band
Released on their 1998 album Before These Crowded Streets, Dave Matthews Band covers Apartheid in South Africa and the plight of indigenous people with their single ‘Don’t Drink the Water.’ During the recording process, the song’s meaning morphed into a more general message about the struggles of marginalized civilizations. Alanis Morisette sang backup vocals for the tune, and Bela Fleck lent his banjo skills to the track.
Related: Dive into our playlist of water songs.
99 Red Balloons – Nena
While at a Rolling Stones show in West Berlin, Nena’s guitarist, Carlo Karges, got the idea for the song when the band released a bunch of red balloons into the sky, and one floated over the wall into East Berlin. ’99 Red Balloons’ represents the German population’s many different dreams after the devastation of WWII. The song went on to become Nena’s only hit in the US, though she’s had a few internationally.
Related: Keep counting with the best songs with numbers.
Belfast Child – Simple Minds
Irish band Simple Minds chronicles Ireland’s bloody history with their single ‘Belfast Child.’ Though Ireland was a united country until 1920, due to religious differences playing a significant role in the country’s political makeup, Ireland’s government decided to split the country in two. Guerilla warfare between parties such as the IRA and the British government controlling Northern Ireland commenced over the next several decades. ‘Belfast Child’ grapples with the personal tragedies experienced by the people of Ireland during these times.
Related: Take a trip with some songs with a city in the title.
Spanish Bombs – The Clash
The Clash frontman Joe Strummer might have been branded as a rebellious, unpredictable punk rocker, but some of his off-stage hobbies included the more civilized tasks of reading and studying history. A roadie working with his tour crew was particularly fond of books dealing with Spain’s history. He lent Strummer books about Spain’s civil war and Basque’s contemporary war tactics, and he was inspired to write the tune ‘Spanish Bombs.’
Related: Explore the world with our playlist of the best songs about countries.
Desolation Row – Bob Dylan
When Bob Dylan’s father was a young boy living in Minnesota in the 1920s, three men passing through the town of Duluth were jailed and accused of assault. Before any trial took place, the men were broken out of jail and subsequently hung for the crimes they were accused of committing. Postcards featuring pictures of the hanging were sold locally. Dylan would often play it live, though ‘Desolation Row’ was never released as a single.
Lay Down – Melanie & The Edwin Hawkins Singers
Melanie Safka was an unknown artist when she stepped onto the famous Woodstock stage on the very first day of the festival in 1969. Before her performance, there was a ceremony involving the crowd holding lit candles. The flickering flames coupled with rain that began falling during her set inspired her to write ‘Lay Down.’ Woodstock was the catalyst for Safka’s artistic career.
Black Day in July – Gordon Lightfoot
The Detroit Rebellion was a series of riots in Michigan during the summer of 1967. Lightfoot, known for incorporating history into his songwriting, covers the controversial incident with his song ‘Black Day in July.’ Despite the riots receiving a large amount of media coverage due to the time’s socio-political state, Lightfoot’s song was banned in over 30 states by radio stations.
More songs about history:
- Boston Tea Party – The Sensational Alex Harvey Band
- Tupelo Blues – John Lee Hooker
- Long Hot Summer – Tom Robinson Band
- Remember – John Lennon
- Yankee Rose – David Lee Roth
- The Rising – Bruce Springsteen
- Yellow and Rose – James Taylor
- Little Mary Phagan – Rosa Lee Carson