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  • Writer's pictureGabrielle Bossy

What's in a Song: 8 Songs of Historic Significance

Every good song tells a story but once in a while, artists will tackle a truly significant historical event. Of course, that’s my favourite. Below, you’ll find eight of the very best.

1. Rasputin- Boney M

Follow along as the band recounts the man and the myth that is Grigory Effimovich Rasputin. In this Russian-inspired song, Boney M. tells of the influence of this revered Holy Man over the Russian monarchy.

2. Passchendaele- Iron Maiden

As one of the most notorious battles in World War I and our nation’s history, the Battle of Paschendale is sung about in this Iron Maiden ballad of horror, triumph and despair.

3. Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald- Gordon Lightfoot

In this song, our nation’s greatest storyteller (don’t argue with me) lyricizes the story of this Great Lakes freighter caught and sunk in a storm in 1975. All 29 crew members were lost to sea and Lightfoot’s nuances here are absolutely brilliant.

4. Ohio- Neil Young/ Crosby Stills Nash and Young

Ohio is a haunting homage to the Kent State Massacre of 1970. During the university protest of the Cambodian Campaign, the Ohio National Guard killed four university students, not all of whom were part of the protest. The lyrics are brilliantly simple, repeating “four dead in Ohio”.

5. Black Day in July- Gordon Lightfoot

Lightfoot wracks up a second song on this list with Black Day in July. This song tells the story of the Detroit City Riot of 1967 and the tense race relations in the city which led to this tragic riot. This riot ended in the loss of both civilians and police service alike. Lightfoot has no fear as he writes “In the mansion of the governor/ there’s nothing that is known for sure/ the telephone is ringing/ and the pendulum is swinging/ and they wonder how it happened/ and they really know the reason/ and it wasn’t just the temperature/ and it wasn’t just the season.”

6. We Didn’t Start the Fire- Billy Joel

You probably knew this was on this list. Billy Joel doesn’t cover just one historical event but several in this classic tune which has had people determined to memorize its lyrics since it was written in 1989. How many can you pick out?

7. When the Levee Breaks- Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie

I bet you thought this was a Led Zeppelin song (after all, their cover is flawless) but this classic blues tune was actually written by Memphis Minnie and her husband Joe McCoy in 1929 about the Great Flood of Mississippi. This is often considered the most destructive flood in American history and displaced hundreds of thousands of African Americans from their homes towards relief camps and northern migration.

8. Zombie- The Cranberries

This song was written in correspondence to the 1993 Warrington Bombings by the IRA in Warrington, England. The first bomb did not kill anybody but the second injured several and killed two children. This song points to these very sad, violent deaths with poignant lyrics.

What are your favourite historic songs readers?

Peace, love & history.

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