I was just listening again to Mark Knopfler’s “Done with Bonaparte,” which I like very much, and it reminded me how rarely one hears good songs about history. Obviously, there are the patriotic songs — “The Star-Spangled Banner” is one obvious example — but I mean modern songs that are:
- Explicitly about historical matters (rather than just protest songs about current events, or songs that have brief historical references).
- Good independently of their cultural significance.
My favorite Russian singer-songwriter, Bulat Okudzhava, wrote many about World War II, partly because he fought in the war and partly because he wrote songs for Soviet films, many of which were about the war; but I can’t think of many American ones. Knopfler also has some others, “Baloney Again,” which I quite like, and “Sailing to Philadelphia,” which I don’t like. David Byrne’s “Mommy Daddy You and I” might vaguely be about the immigrant experience, but I don’t see it as sufficiently historical. Paul Simon’s “American Tune” has historical references, but I don’t think it’s fundamentally about history, either.
In any event, if you have some recommendations, please post them below. I’d like to listen to the songs myself, and I think my children might enjoy them, too. (My boys and I just listened to “Done with Bonaparte” together, largely because we had earlier listened to a recorded lecture about the Napoleonic Wars, and I think it helped bring some of the historical material to life.)