Whether its remembering the past, aspiring to be more than what we are or reaching for unreachable goals, the music of yester-year and today contributes to the oral traditions of humankind by preserving moments in time where people came together and sometimes were torn apart. For me, music allows me a free pass into history through the eyes of the artists that create it. The lyrics mixed with upbeat or somber notes can move a nation to act in protest, question what is truth, and pays tribute to those that paved the way for change. Some songs foreshadow a future that’s doomed to repeat itself while others uplift the spirit in times of trouble or pain. Oral traditions have been around for millennium as a way to pass down the history of a people and enable future generations to hear the tales of times long ago. The following songs exemplify the art of oral tradition using music as its instrument for awareness and change.
On July 26, 1956, the House of Representatives voted 373 to 9 to cite Pete Seeger and seven others (including playwright Arthur Miller) for contempt, as they failed to cooperate with House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in their attempts to investigate alleged subversives and communists. Pete Seeger testified before the HUAC in 1955. In one of Pete’s darkest moments, when his personal freedom, his career, and his safety were in jeopardy, a flash of inspiration ignited this song. The song was stirred by a passage from Mikhail Sholokhov’s novel “And Quie Flows the Don”. Around the world the song traveled and in 1962 at a UNICEF concert in Germany, Marlene Dietrich, Academy Award-nominated German-born American actress, first performed the song in French, as “Qui peut dire ou vont les fleurs?” Shortly after she sang it in German. The song’s impact in Germany just after WWII was shattering. It’s universal message, “let there be peace in the world” did not get lost in its translation. To the contrary, the combination of the language, the setting, and the great lyrics has had a profound effect on people all around the world. May it have the same effect today and bring renewed awareness to all that hear it. (Thespadecaller on YouTube)
As Marvin once said of it, “To be truly righteous, you offer love with a pure heart, without regard for what you’ll get in return. I had myself in that frame of mind. People were confused and needed reassurance. God was offering that reassurance through his music. I was privileged to be the instrument.”The initial idea for “What’s Going On” came to Four Tops member Obie Benson when he was in San Francisco in 1969.“They had the Haight-Ashbury then, all the kids up there with the long hair and everything,” he told MOJO. “The police was beating on the kids, but they wasn’t bothering anybody. I saw this, and started wondering what was going on. ‘What is happening here?’ One question leads to another. ‘Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas?’ And so on.” Marvin added his own touch to the socially charged song and despite the wishes of his record label and Berry Gordy the song slipped through becoming an immediate sensation when it was released in 1971. ( Performing Songwriters)
According to the man himself Johnny Cash, the theme of his album The Man Comes Around is “the human spirit more than the spiritual or godly spirit, the human spirit fighting for survival. It probably reflects a little of the maturity that I’ve experienced with the pain that I’ve suffered with the illnesses that brought me so close to death.” The title track The Man Comes Around was inspired by a dream Cash had about Queen Elizabeth who called him a “thorn tree in a whirlwind.” Wanting to find the meaning, Johnny started looking to the Bible for the meaning and wrote the song. It is partially sung and partially spoken, containing numerous Biblical references, predominantly from the Book of Revelation. The song never names “the man” who will come around, though the obvious inference would be the second coming of Jesus Christ. According to the song, when the man comes around, there will be judgment for some and salvation for others. A series of images depict the horror and confusion of that judgment day. These things, his farming life and his family’s religion, were never strayed too far from in Cash’s career. Much of Cash’s music echoed themes of sorrow, moral tribulation and redemption, especially in the later stages of his career.
The Battle of New Orleans was a real event. Near the end of the War of 1812, British troops attacked the city, but were defeated by American forces. The song was written by Jimmy Driftwood, an Arkansas high school principal and history teacher who loved singing and writing songs. He often wrote songs to help students learn about historical events like this battle. A catchy tune plus a history lesson equals the best definition of how music transforms the oral tradition.
This song is a hymn to the suffering of the Cherokee nation. In May 1838, ignoring earlier decisions of the Supreme Court, the American Government forcibly relocated the bulk of the tribe at gunpoint to what was later to become Oklahoma. At one point President Andrew Jackson remarked infamously, “Justice Marshall has made his decision. Let him enforce it.” Unsanitary conditions, the elements and marauding whites devastated the tribe’s numbers, and some 4,000 died en route, many of the bodies being left unburied by the roadside on what became known as the “Trail Of Tears.” “Indian Reservation” (“The Lament Of The Cherokee Reservation Indian”) is a song written by John D. Loudermilk. It was first recorded in in 1959 by Marvin Rainwater, and released as “The Pale Faced Indian”. Rainwater’s MGM-release stayed unnoticed. The first hit version was a cover of 1968 by Don Fardon, a former member of The Sorrows and it went to #20 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart and #3 on the UK Singles Chart. In 1971 Paul Revere & the Raiders released it on the Columbia Records label and it became #1 on the U.S. chart.
During spring of 1982, the band watched the launching of the Columbia Space Shuttle from Cape Kennedy, Florida (see Songfacts for “Red Sector A”). Rush drummer/lyricist Neil Peart wrote this as a result of the experience. “It was an incredible thing to witness,” said Peart, “truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” This was dedicated with thanks to astronauts Young & Crippen and all the people of NASA for their inspiration and cooperation. They were the astronauts on the first shuttle flight, which launched, April 12, 1981. (SongFacts)
This song deals with the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The line in the lyrics that mentions “The law passed in ’64” is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law was supposed to prohibit discrimination in public places, the government and employment.The lyrics in this song deal with the need to resist complacency and never resign yourself to racial injustice as the status quo.The rapper Tupac Shakur used this as the basis for his song “Changes,” which is a look at racism and urban life from a black perspective. This song was co-written with Bruce Hornsby’s younger brother John. This was one of Hornsby’s first songs and also his most successful. (SongFacts)
Springsteen wrote this in response to the September 11 attacks on America. The entire album deals with it in some way, often from the point of view of the victims. Many of the songs that came out soon after September 11, 2001 in the US were calls for revenge and dripped with patriotism, but this is a much more introspective look at the events, as Springsteen attempts to reflect the many different emotions caused by the tragedy. In addition to anger, many Americans felt grief, frustration, and bewilderment in their efforts to deal with it. (SongFacts)
This was inspired by the IRA bombing in Warrington, Cheshire in 1993. Two children, Jonathan Ball and Tim Parry, were killed. The IRA (The Irish Republican Army) is a militant group determined to remove British troops from Northern Ireland. Lead singer Dolores O’Riordan claimed that “Zombie” speaks about “The Irish fight for independence that seems to last forever.” The lyrics even say, “It’s the same old theme since 1916.” Like the responsive works of Yeats, Heaney and U2, the Cranberries claim they wrote “Zombie” to be a “Song for peace, peace among England and Ireland.” (Andrew – Seattle, WA) On August 31, 1994, just a few weeks after this song was released, the IRA declared a ceasefire after 25 years of conflict, leading some critics of The Cranberries to wonder if the IRA was willing to call a truce to make sure the group didn’t release any more songs about them. (SongFacts)
The Zoot Suit Riots began in Los Angeles in 1943, sparked by rising tensions between the American servicemen stationed in Southern California and the Los Angeles Mexican-American community. The event sparking this was the murder of Jose Diaz in 1942, a case referred to as the Sleepy Lagoon murder case.
Wide Awake was a direct attack on the Bush Administration who failed to react quickly enough and tried to avoid dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (hence the line, “Pull the sheet over my eyes, so I can sleep tonight”).
One of many chart topping songs, Chain Gang gives the audience a catchy tune and clever lyrics inspired by an actual chain gang Sam Cooke met on the highway while on tour in one of the Carolinas. Even lending itself to legend, supposedly Sam and his brother felt sorry for the men giving them some cartons of cigarettes and not to mention a great story to tell the folks at home.
Thought of as a protest song, Bob Dylan wrote Dust in the Wind as a series of rhetorical questions about peace, war and freedom. In June 1962, the song was published in Sing Out!, accompanied by Dylan’s comments:
“There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind – and it’s blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some …But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know . . . and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong. I’m only 21 years old and I know that there’s been too many . . . You people over 21, you’re older and smarter.”
As one of a few positive and popular military songs of the 1960s, the ballad style song about the Green Berets actually hit #1 in the U.S. for five weeks around March of 1966, the #1 hit on the Hot 100s end of the year chart for 1966 and No. 21 song of 1960s despite the unpopularity of the Vietnam War. The Ballad Of The Green Berets by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler was a real life active duty member of the United States Army Special Forces known as the Green Berets but in 1965 suffered a severe punji stick injury that ended his combat medic tour in Vietnam. Back in the U.S. recovering, Sadler wrote and eventually published a printed form making its way to Robin Moore an author who wrote The Green Berets. The two men together shortened the 12 verse original down to a song friendly length so Sadler could record it.
In the book Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History, Stephen Stills tells the story of this song’s origin:
“I had had something kicking around in my head. I wanted to write something about the kids that were on the line over in Southeast Asia that didn’t have anything to do with the device of this mission, which was unraveling before our eyes. Then we came down to Sunset from my place on Topanga with a guy – I can’t remember his name – and there’s a funeral for a bar, one of the favorite spots for high school and UCLA kids to go and dance and listen to music.
[Officials] decided to call out the official riot police because there’s three thousand kids sort of standing out in the street; there’s no looting, there’s no nothing. It’s everybody having a hang to close this bar. A whole company of black and white LAPD in full Macedonian battle array in shields and helmets and all that, and they’re lined up across the street, and I just went ‘Whoa! Why are they doing this?’ There was no reason for it. I went back to Topanga, and that other song turned into ‘For What It’s Worth,’ and it took as long to write as it took me to settle on the changes and write the lyrics down. It all came as a piece, and it took about fifteen minutes.”
The lyrics to the song We Didn’t Start the Fire by Billy Joel list historical personalities and events from 1949 until 1989. The song lays out a list of heavy hitters that include celebrities, events and politicians that influence the respective decades they resided in and the overall influence of historical reference to generations before us and the generations who follow that led to what the world is today. As the words read:
“We didn’t start the fire, No we didn’t light it, But we tried to fight it, We didn’t start the fire, But when we are gone, Will it still burn on, and on, and on, and on…”
(Explanation of the Song and Historical Facts by Ron Kurtus)
A controversial song, They Don’t Care About Us by an equally controversial man Michael Jackson released in 1996 to much scrutiny as the subject matter focuses on human rights abuses of the past and ongoing. The New York Times reported the song contained racist and anti-Semitic content on June 15, 1995, just a day before the album’s release. The publication highlighted the lyrics, “Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/ Kick me, kike me, don’t you black or white me.” Jackson responded directly to the publication, stating:
The idea that these lyrics could be deemed objectionable is extremely hurtful to me, and misleading. The song in fact is about the pain of prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man. I am not the one who was attacking. It is about the injustices to young people and how the system can wrongfully accuse them. I am angry and outraged that I could be so misinterpreted.
The controversy persisted until Jackson issued another apology and accepted that some might be offended refusing to change the lyrics opting to drown out the offensive words. The New York Times failed to acknowledge the use of other slurs on the albums and for that matter many other artists and songs which use or contain racial slurs such as Notorious B.I.G. and even John Lennon.