History songs

Brett Holman at Airminded has posted up a video of the Aussie pub band Weddings, Parties, Anything performing their song ‘A Tale They Won’t Believe’. As Brett explained in a previous post, the song is about a celebrated incident in Australian history, the cannibalism of the bushranger Alexander Pearce. Quite aside from Robert Hughes’ version of it in The Fatal Shore, this is an episode which I think I saw Victoria Wood describing in a programme she did about the Empire. Pretty well known, therefore.

Brett also points out – and the video highlights – that the song totally goes off in a packed pub. This set me thinking about history songs: can anyone come up with an example of a song about an incident in modern (or earlier) British history that would get the same reaction?

A few things:

1) I’m talking about a song which references the past, not a song that’s a reaction to a contemporary moment and subsequently been seen as ‘summing up an era’. Save that for your guest appearance on ‘I love the 1980s’.

2) I’ve said ‘British’, but I’m willing to cast the net pretty widely, so if it relates to British history we’ll have it, even if there’s no way the band themselves would count themselves ‘British’. This means that, even though it doesn’t rock out, I can reference ‘Navigator’ by the Pogues, which I think is a great history song.

3) The only person I can think of who might come close is the bard of Barking, Billy Bragg. His version of Leon Rosselson’s ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ is pretty definitive, I think, even if he doesn’t get much reaction out of the audience here.

But singing about The Diggers and starting a song with ‘In 1649…’ is a brave way to go, let’s face it.

Even so, I have to say that, whilst I have a soft spot for Billy, his views on patriotism and a lot of his music, I’ve always liked his historical songs rather less than the rest of his work. It gets too preachy for me, and the gap between his politics and mine gets too big. ‘Between the Wars’ is a classic example: eliding, I think, the 30s and the 80s to not much purpose.

But not a bad song to set on a syllabus on the problems of the British Left and defence policy in the twentieth century. Anyway, it’s disqualified from here on the basis that you can’t imagine it causing drinks to be spilled, except possibly in the rush to get out of the pub.

4) There is a total ban on ‘Willie McBride’ on the basis that although it’s First World War related, it’s bloody awful. Although if you’re of a strong constitution, the comments by viewers on this youtube version will remind you of the continuing political significance of the remembrance of the war in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

I’m not sure if I’m particularly working on a point here, or just using it as an excuse to look up songs online. But if we can’t come up with a British equivalent, damnit, we’ll just have to write one ourselves. Now, who can think of a good rhyme for ‘Post war consensus’?


17 Responses to History songs

  1. Victoria Carolan says:

    Not exactly answering your question but on a quest for songs maritime came accross Glasgow Caledonian University’s site for their Centre for Political Song, http://www.gcal.ac.uk/politicalsong/overview/history.html – sad to say there is no audio, just the lyrics but I was rather taken with ‘We can’t live in a Trident Submarine’, ‘Harsh realities of Making a living in a Post-Industrial Economy’ ‘Were you really surprised about Enron?’ and ‘Brown Spotted Teeth (a song opposing fluoridation)’

  2. How about Victoria by The Kinks?

    Then there’s The Buff Medways, whose whole image was based on British history – they wore Victorian and WW1 army uniforms on stage and on album covers, their name is partly a reference to the East Kent regiment, and they called one of their albums 1914. Saucy Jack was all about Jack the Ripper, and they also did a Link Wray style instrumental called Mons Quiff, apparently named after a British Army hair style – one of the few WW1 inspired tunes not to be a) a horrible dirge and b) about the Christmas truce. Sadly I can’t find either of these on YouTube.

    Also too obscure to be on YouTube is The Fall’s Kurious Oranj, highlight of their 1988 concept album about the Glorious Revolution (no, really!), but here’s another track from the same album:

  3. Chris Williams says:

    It’s a bit specialised, and there’s fewer of us pogoing than there used to be, but every so often phrases like “This is a song about the invasion of the Netherlands in 1572′, ‘Right, now we’re going to burn Joan of Arc’, or ‘Bomber Harris! 1 2 3 4’ can have the same effect. Cause: Blyth Power:

    Chumbawamba also managed to get very big rooms rocking with a song about Auschwitz, adapted from an original short story by Primo Levi. They were helped by the fact that it’s possibly the best tune ever.

  4. Brett says:

    It’s a good question. It took me a while, but I think I came up with one (using your exception given in point 3): U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”? Though according to Wikipedia it’s not really about Bloody Sunday: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunday_Bloody_Sunday_(song)#Background.2C_writing.2C_and_recording
    Oh well.

    Approaching the question from a slightly angle, “A Tale They Won’t Believe” was written in the late 1980s, a decade when there were quite a few songs on the charts referencing, if not Australian history, then “Australianess”. I posted vids for a few of them at http://airminded.org/2007/09/20/great-southern-land/ but there are others I could have used — the best known overseas would have to be “Land Down Under” by Men at Work. I think these were the product of a specific moment in Australia, when we were becoming more self-confident as a culture, but also perhaps brash and assertive. Nowadays, nobody seems to write songs like that, or if they do, they’re not hugely successful.

    So maybe Britain has long since passed that phase in its development, and is too mature to push itself in that way? Nobody could get away with writing a “Rule, Britannia” today — for that matter look how “Cool Britannia” fared … That doesn’t quite explain why songs about British history don’t inspire anybody to rock out, but maybe it’s a part of the answer.

  5. Stuart Mitchell says:

    After reading this blog for longer than I care to remember, I’ve finally taken the bold step of actually writing a comment! Huzzah! Now onto the point…

    I’m not entirely sure this fills all the requirements set, namely going off in a packed pub, but The Decemberists, not Russian as you might expect but an American band from Oregon, have made a living off using historical events and settings in their songs. Two of their songs immediately jumped to mind:

    The Soldiering Life:

    And When the War Came:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fw2n65QSSa0 (advanced apologies for the DIY video accompanying it, It was the only album-quality version of the song I could quickly find)

    Now I know, When the War Came is not strictly British History – in fact it’s not British History at all, but it is far more indicative of the Decemberists than the rather pedestrian Soldiering Life. The focus on the anecdotal (here the Botanical Institute) backlit by larger historical events (Seige of Leningrad) almost sets the song as a/an historical novel. Which…

    Is why I find the Soldiering Life all the more interesting if only for it’s almost upbeat presentation of the First World War. Given the literature background Colin Meloy (lead singer) has it surprised me that this was what he took from the war novels. It’s noteworthy that they’re American as well, it contrasts well with the British band GoodBooks:


    I’m sure there’s something to be said here about cross-Atlantic perceptions of the Great War. Given both songs are broadly speaking, dealing with the same event, it’s notable that the British effort, despite it’s misleadingly upbeat tempo, focusses on the death of ‘Jack’. In fact going further, the juxtaposition of his family background, his not-too-bad-experiences with the Germans implied by him smoking with them on Christmas day, and his own death (accompanied by the building cacophony towards the end of the song) set this in a very orthodox, All Quiet fashion. And without wishing to go all Fussellian here, I can’t help but feel the song is tinged with a sardonic irony evinced in the line “And what did we learn second time round? / Never Again / Never Again”. Returning to the point in hand, does the absence of an ‘American’ Somme or Ypres make it easier to emphasise the other aspects of wartime experience? I would naturally think, of course it does, but having been unfortunate enough to have paid good money to go and see the film Lions and Lambs I can’t help but feel the American perceptions of the Great War are rather more complex. If anyone knows any good books on this area, I’d be more than receptive to recommendations!

    Anyway this ‘comment’ has gone on for quite long enough! But speaking generally I think songs can form important pieces of historical evidence, not only as a measure of how history, and indeed current events, are interpreted (which quite often is through a certain political lens viz. Rage Against the Machine) but also on the subsequent reactions to the songs. So Dan, you may have just wanted to look up songs but I reckon there’s a tangible point buried in there as well.

    Postcript: If anyone actually liked, the Decemberists (and could stand Meloy’s ‘unorthodox’ voice) I’d recommend the album Picaresque.

  6. trenchfever says:

    Now, I _knew_ that would get a response. Of course, I ‘forgot’ to include the wonder that is Iron Maiden’s 8 and a 1/2 minute tribute to the fallen at ‘Paschendale’ (their spelling). With lots of home made videos, that’s here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c20-fm_WNew.
    Stuart – welcome on board – hadn’t seen the Goodbooks one, will add that to the presentation that already features the Maiden: it’s a nice example of people coming up with their own myths to fit to a family story. Although they don’t actually make it clear that he was smoking German cigarettes with live Germans during a truce. Maybe he was smoking looted fags after a successful assault featuring well coordinated artillery fire and fire and movement tactics from his platoon?
    Viki – the Trident lyrics are priceless.
    Chris – keen on Blyth Power and a bit ashamed I’ve not come across them before. There’s a decent video for ‘Cider Dreaming Time’ here: http://youtube.com/watch?v=i8EwWKiYAiI
    Gavin – the best bit about that Victoria video is that the audience getting down to the account of the glories of the British Empire is in Providence Rhode Island!

  7. Chris Williams says:

    – slaps forehead – I completely forgot The Farm’s _Altogether Now_ which is about the 1914 Christmas Truce.
    And it got to no.7 in 1984, when you had to sell several tens of thousand singles to do that. It was later a hit in 2004 when it got picked as the anthem for the England team in Euro 2004. But by then you could get in the charts with sixteen downloads and ringtone, so who cares?

  8. I’m not sure of the full title- “British Soldier” or more plainly “Soldier” but this is firmly linked with recent times, possibly too recent for your criteria.

    Some dodgy Youtube comments but it can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLhaevBSiEE



  9. Jack says:

    Perhaps another technical breach of your first rule, but I am compelled to argue for the inclusion of that indescribably bizarre piece of pidgin English disco-pap which is ‘Belfast’ by the mighty Boney M: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=Djil2tVDFxQ

    Seriously – I’ve long thought it extraordinary that an act like that (from Germany!) would even touch on such a historical-political subject (albeit almost incomprehensibly) at the very height of The Troubles. And get to Number 8. Without being banned by the BBC. Surely a contribution to the Contemporary History of our now happily devolved nation? Should we have responded in kind by getting Kelly Marie or the Brotherhood of Man to sing in German about the partition of Berlin?

    It’s not quite up there with ‘Rasputin’, of course http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=kvDMlk3kSYg&feature=related But then, how many works of art are? (Cole Porter in Studio 54 with balalaikas – plus the most audacious key-change in the history of popular music.)

    A few years ago a friend and I laughed at how much Boney M had done for our education. We reckoned that knowledge of those two songs alone would probably have been enough to have scraped our generation at least an E Standard Grade in both Modern Studies and History. I shudder to think what it could get you now.

    There is also a case for ‘Letter from America’ by The Proclaimers as a commendable attempt to squeeze the entire socio-economic history of Scotland from the Highland Clearances to the 1980s into one song: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=d-OzdiaJZkw And it does make grown men and women weep, punch the air and dribble at the mouth (in a different, more quintessentially celtic, way than Boney M can.) Subtitles available for the phonetically challenged: http://www.seeklyrics.com/lyrics/Proclaimers/Letter-From-America.html

  10. John says:

    They’ve never really specialized in setting large rooms alight with their music (their audience tends to be select in a Spinal Tap sort of way), but the wonderful Mekons have quite a few songs to their name that deal with episodes from British history that make me rock out, such as the Trimdon Grange Explosion, Johnny Miner (about the miners’ strike), Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem (about medieval pilgrimages), and Sometimes I Feel Like Fletcher Christian, to name but a few. I suppose you’d expect the more folk-y bands to cover historical material, even when they’re folk-punk – or poke funk – like the Mekes.


  11. trenchfever says:

    Some excellent suggestions here, although some seem to be abandoning the idea that the songs should actually excite dancing. On that basis, Boney M might shade it, although ‘Belfast’ doesn’t really make any sense. Rasputin is indeed a work of wonder… but not really ‘British’, is it? What I think we need is a dance version of ‘Oliver Cromwell’ (here, with first year undergraduate-style spellings of crucial words: http://youtube.com/watch?v=ObI4eaK_GIA). Surely one of the young people could get onto that? You could then have a Jackie/Jocky Wilson on TOTP moment, with an enormous picture of Raymond Burr behind the band.

    Even then, it wouldn’t really be a patch on The Pogues’ response: http://www.pogues.com/Releases/Lyrics/LPs/PeaceAndLove/YoungNed.html

    I also note that Steeleye Span did a whole album with songs about Luddism and two about Peterloo. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloody_Men_(album). It won’t cause you to disturb your hairdo.

    I wonder if there are two problems here. Maybe it takes conflict to make a good song, which is why so many of the potentially good ones here are either about strikes, or the English Civil War, or the bastard English oppressing you. But anybody intelligent enough to write a decent historical lyric in the past thirty years or so has been sensitive to the risks of extreme nationalism, and so has found it easier to celebrate dissent or rebellion without making them ‘British’ or ‘English’ (no Jack, I am not using those interchangeably). One of the reasons I value Billy Bragg is his determination to reclaim Englishness for the Left – but who would try to do that now for ‘Britishness’, other than our PM? And he’s not given to rocking out.

  12. andy collier says:

    i am just about to sing my first ww1 programme of songs at the leightron buzzard narrow gauge railway ww1 weekend on monday starting at 11am . i also a ww2 singer but these ww1 songs are etched on the memory of many people and sung lots in ww2 in my humble view

    andy collier 01234 766228

  13. andy collier says:

    i am just about to sing my first ww1 programme of songs at the leighton buzzard narrow gauge railway ww1 weekend on monday starting at 11am . i also a ww2 singer but these ww1 songs are etched on the memory of many people and sung lots in ww2 in my humble view

    andy collier 01234 766228

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