Odd confession of the day – when I am at a loss for words, I sit and type, “In 1814, we took a little trip along with Col. Jackson on the mighty Mississipp…. We took a little bacon, we took a little beans and we fought the bloody British in the town of New Orleans…” Yep, the Battle of New Orleans is my inspiration song. It depends on how much my brain needs shaking loose as to how many verses get transcribed. Impressively, I can also type all nine verses of El Paso, but that’s only for extreme writer’s block!

Lyrics are such a part of my conversation that I’ve landed in hot water in a classroom because I began a discussion of Progressive politics, quoting “everything’s up to date in Kansas City, they’ve gone about as far as they can go” from Oklahoma. Imagine everyone using weighty tomes, and even more strained historical theory to make the simple point that as society became more urbanized the dynamic between Tönnies’ gemeinschaft and gesellschaft was exacerbated as the population became more mobile. Will Parker was everyman, facing a new world.

As an aside, I do realize that Tönnies can be derivative, that Max Weber – and his strain for consistency, or hell even Simmel’s concept of ‘being and becoming’ could be thrown in to make the discussion deeper – and yes, talking about Max Weber is more or less my catnip – and I could go on a tangent about his brilliant mind and how his theories can be applied to nearly any subject…. however.

Making my point, I argued that popular culture might not tell the unvarnished, fully footnoted version of history. Yet, it’s relevant. I think, in essence, it functions (not Parsons-like) to make people aware of a cultural meme and it gives the analyst of an “age” insight into the values of that age. For example, in the Johnny Horton classic, Jim Bridger, Horton previews the re-analysis of the Native Americans in historical conversations, “He spoke with General Custer and said listen Yellow Hair. The Sioux are the great nation so treat ’em fair and square. Sit in on their war councils, don’t laugh away their pride. But Custer didn’t listen at Little Big Horn Custer died.”

Songs have served as gateways for as long as I can remember – and when I was trying to learn history as a kid, music fleshed the world of an era. I remember learning songs on the piano in order to make a story about WWII… Lili Marlene and her street lamp, those white cliffs of Dover and that lonely apple tree. The songs anchored a history and enriched its resonance. From “the world turned upside down,” in the American revolution to Brendan James in the Gulf —


history in 16 bars:

  • King Tut (Steve Martin) — now if you didn’t know he was a boy king, that animals of the Nile were in the tomb — and perhaps that he gave his life for tourism — the incomparable Steve Martin taught you a valuable lesson in ancient Egypt — if the “wild & crazy” Steve isn’t your schtick — check out his bluegrass version with the Steep Canyon Rangers.
  • Pompeii (Bastille) — other than several references to lava clouds, the song has almost as much to do with history as the band’s name reflects the French revolution (lead singer’s birthday is 7/14)…
  • Brave Wolfe (Mark O’Connor & Wynton Marsalis) — I get so delighted when I come across a French & Indian War reference — so pivotal and so neglected. This lovely piece talks about the fall of Montcalm & Wolfe on the plains of Abraham in the battle of Quebec — so on my list of places I long to see!
  • Me & Paul Revere (Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers) — retelling of the mad dash from the point of view of Revere’s horse — not a common viewpoint, but more historically accurate than you may imagine!
  • Johnny has Gone for a Soldier (Mark O’Connor & James Taylor) — love this English folk song, and there are myriad versions. O’Connor & Taylor recorded this one for the PBS series, Liberty and it is longing, heartfelt, and makes you all shivery…
  • Battle of New Orleans  (Johnny Horton) — as a kid, there’s a line a about “opening up our squirrel guns & really gave ’em … well, …” that just delighted us…
  • The Erie Canal (Laurie Berkner) — throw a mule named Sal, and you’ll hit a version somewhere of this traditional favorite — kid’s singer, Laurie Berkner has an awesome straightforward rendition, with lots of rhythm and humor. Springsteen’s is a little earnest.
  • Johnny Reb (Johnny Horton) — I am so restraining myself — there could be ten Horton songs — this one is very “lost Cause,” and tells something about the ’50s  — nice touch though with Lincoln & Dixie
  • El Paso (Marty Robbins) — westward expansion, the porous divider that was/is the Rio Grande, and amazingly hot Felina.
  • Jim Bridger (Johnny Horton) — I went through a mountain man obsession as a little girl — Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, my parents were fans of Grizzly Adams
  • John Henry (Pete Seeger) — another multi thousands of covers song, yet there is something perfect and timeless about Seeger’s retelling of America’s industrialization..
  • Casey Jones (Warren Zevon) — once you build the railroads, you have people who live on the rails… and and heroic drivers of those powerful engines. The Dead recorded both the traditional folk song, and another written by Jerry & Robert Hunter (’69). Zevon’s cover of the latter is spot on.
  • North to Alaska (Johnny Horton) — shhh… how many of you went and checked out books about the Yukon Gold Rush because of this song?  Ok, it may have just been me, but it is so cool — and that leads to stories about Balto, diphtheria and the origins of the Iditarod… great turn of the century manifest destiny stuff!
  • The Boll Weevil (the Weavers) — before Progressive ideology was taking root in the more urban areas, the devastation of large swathes of agricultural acreage sets the stage for a more Populist world view — the two are both essentially reformist in nature, with populism being less theoretical and more concerned about basic societal needs…. look at the origins of someone like Huey Long versus the more academic William Jennings Bryan — and you can get all that from “a little black bug, that comes from Mexico they say…”
  • This Land is your Land (Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings) — utterly subversive, deliciously adoring — one of the most truly American songs ever created. Woody Guthrie is an American icon, and this cover illustrates the timelessness and the universality of his work!
  • Tom Joad part 2 (Woody Guthrie) — I love Talking Dust Bowl Blues, but this one quotes Steinbeck, and tells the story of preacher Casey & the greatest “least of these” line in literature!
  • Sink the Bismark (Johnny Horton) — OK, this is the last — tells the story of the sub versus destroyer battle in the North Atlantic — you know you totally get “Lend-Lease” after listening
  • Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (Gordon Lightfoot) — the 1975 tragedy and the subsequent hit song captured the imagination of the entire world… Shipping on the Great Lakes became interesting suddenly….
  • Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes (Paul Simon & Ladysmith Black Mambazo) — would Apartheid have been as universally condemned, as resolutely sanctioned without the popularity of Graceland? Would people have known its horrors so widely?
  • Change is Gonna Come (Beverly Knight) — the Civil Rights movement encapsulated in 5 verses — she is a worthy successor to such greats as Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin — gorgeous, throaty voice!
  • We Didn’t Start the Fire (Billy Joel) — survey of 20th century American history — once I made the girls look up the references…. and its Billy Joel!

If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.–> Rudyard Kipling

Take care,

2 thoughts on “Reading & Writing: if you hum a few bars…

    • True — for the longest time, I couldn’t watch him sing. He just looked like every single, (don’t get me wrong) wonderful phrase was bringing him enormous pain — I got over it, and he seems a little mellower now
      How are you doing — it has been forever?

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