Songs hold a lot of power, telling stories about people, places, emotions, and a host of other topics - including history. Songs about historical events may offer insights into a time long ago. They can also evoke a memory of a not-too-distant historical happening.
Much like historical movies, historical songs may take license in their content - to minimize, emphasize, or simply avoid key facts. Historically accurate songs, on the other hand, can surprise you with just how much they get right. A lot of mainstream songs about war, for example, include details that can almost transport you into the heat of battle. Songs about historical figures may create a personal connection with that individual, building newfound affinity or disdain.
Here's a list of songs that are surprisingly accurate - which one grabs your attention with its historical truth?
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What It’s About: "Buffalo Soldier" tells the story of African-American cavalry and infantrymen who fought for the United States during the late 19th century. Largely tasked with securing the expanding American West, Buffalo Soldiers fought against Native Americans during the American-Indian Wars until the 1890s and in the Caribbean as part of the Spanish-American War in 1898.
What It Gets Right: Bob Marley and the Wailers correctly describe the Buffalo Soldiers as "taken from Africa, brought to America," with many of the men having formerly been slaves.
Where It Falls Short: "Buffalo Soldier" accurately depicts the circumstances and activities of its namesake group. Just as the song indicates, Buffalo Soldiers did fight in conflicts like the Battle of San Juan Hill. The poignant lyrics point out how Buffalo Soldiers went from "Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival" in servitude only to take up arms "in the war for America."
- Photo: Geffen2292 VOTES
What It’s About: Aptly named, "American Witch" tells the story of the Salem witch trials. The trials began in 1692 and lasted until the following year, with roughly 200 individuals accused of witchcraft during the proceedings.
What It Gets Right: The lyrics of Rob Zombie's "American Witch" incorporate details derived from firsthand accounts of events leading up to the trials. Bridget Bishop, one of the 20 individuals executed during the trials, was associated with a mysterious, evil creature - "the body of it looked like a monkey, only the feet were like a cock's feet with claws" - imagery echoed in the first verse of the song.
Throughout the song, Zombie cries out about “20 innocents” for whom "we pray for... bow down [to]... hang high... [and] accused," a proper reference to the 20 people who perished during the trials.
Where It Falls Short: All facts are apparently accurate, complete with a description of the accused witches' final moments, standing "Alone on the hill and ready to die." The hill in question is Gallows Hill, the site where Bishop and 18 additional convicted witches were hanged.
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What It’s About: In a song about the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, "The Longest Day" presents a visceral, haunting, and graphic account of events.
What It Gets Right: "The Longest Day" includes some interesting wordplay, referencing "Overlord, your master, not your God." Operation Overlord was the codename for the Allied D-Day offensive. Details from the lyrics line up with firsthand accounts of the battle, as well, with “Oh the water is red" attesting to memories of "The sea around... red with blood."
Where It Falls Short: All facts of "The Longest Day" are accurate, with men turned "paper soldiers to bodies on the beach" amid blood, sand, and bullets. Roughly 4,000 Allied troops perished on D-Day, individuals who, according to the song, met the "ghostly hand" of a Valkyrie on their way to Valhalla.
What It’s About: The Battle of New Orleans was fought in January 1815 - two weeks after the War of 1812 had officially come to an end. Johnny Horton's "The Battle of New Orleans" tells the story of the conflict, a decisive a battle that resulted in outmatched US soldiers soundly defeating their British counterparts.
What It Gets Right: The ragtag group of American forces at New Orleans in 1814 were equipped with whatever weapons they could find, including the "squirrel guns" referenced by Horton. As British troops approached, soldiers led by future president Andrew Jackson "stood beside our cotton bales," an accurate description of the fortifications built around New Orleans.
Where It Falls Short: At the time of the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson was a major general, not “Colonel Jackson," as indicated in the song. Jackson was a major general in the Tennessee militia as early as 1802, and received a commission as major general in the US Army until 1814, largely due to his successes during the War of 1812.
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What It’s About: The fire that broke out at the Montreux Casino in Switzerland on December 4, 1971, resulted from an incident during a Deep Purple concert. As Deep Purple played their song "King Kong," a concert-goer purportedly fired a flare gun, setting a nearby wooden roof on fire. The fire was devastating for the casino, although there were only minor injuries reported.
What It Gets Right: As witnesses to the entire event, Deep Purple got the details right when they wrote "Smoke on the Water." The casino, called the "gambling house," did burn down as "Funky Claude was running in and out pulling kids out the ground." The Claude in question was Claude Nobs, co-founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival, who helped rescue some people in the fire. As the band looked out across Lake Geneva, they very literally saw smoke on the water.
Where It Falls Short: Widely believed to have been started by a flare gun - a fact included in the song - there was some dispute over the cause of the fire. Concert-goer Peter Schneider asserts that the fire actually started by a "boy throwing lighted matches in the air, and one of them got stuck on the very low ceiling... So the fire started right above where the boy was sitting on the low-lying ceiling beams."
- Photo: Columbia Records6222 VOTES
What It’s About: Released in 1975, Bob Dylan's "Hurricane" recounts the unjust prosecution and incarceration of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. Carter, a boxer from New Jersey, was convicted (twice) of triple homicide in 1967, ultimately spending 19 years in jail for crimes he didn't commit. While Carter wasn't released from prison until 1985, his case received widespread attention during the 1970s.
What It Gets Right: Dylan had Carter's autobiography in hand when he wrote "Hurricane," a resource that allowed him to draw upon the titular figure's view of events. The names in the song refer to real players like Alfred Bellow and Arthur Dexter Bradley - two career criminals who claimed to have seen Carter at the scene of the crime. All the names are real, which was controversial, with bartender Patty Valentine suing the singer for defamation of character.
"Hurricane" includes lyrics that reflect the social context within which Carter was accused and convicted, an issue that remains at the forefront of conversation in 2020: "If you're Black you might as well not show up on the street/Less you wanna draw the heat."
Carter and his fellow defendant, John Artis, were initially detained simply because they were in a car that resembled the one involved in the shooting. Even after a witness failed to identify them as the offenders, they remained under suspicion.
Where It Falls Short: Dylan calls Carter a “Number one contender for the middleweight crown," a designation that remains somewhat unclear. While he did fight for the middleweight championship against Joey Giardello in 1964, Carter won four fights in 1966 and was ranked fourth in the world.