A Public History Mixed Tape: Famous Figures

My colleagues have filled the Lakefront Historian with a number of critical reviews of historical fiction films.  And this year there so were many films to choose from: Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Lincoln, Django Unchained, and others we didn’t even get to. But another popular medium of public history has recently caught my attention: music. I’ve been keeping a long list of songs about historical events and people. Below are just a few of those focusing on famous figures. They range from past presidents (and there are a LOT of those) to French monarchs in genres as broad as country to indie pop. How such songs both reflect and shape popular memory deserves its own line of inquiry on this blog. (In fact, read Rachel Boyle’s excellent review of Fun.’s music video “Some Nights.”) I hope you enjoy this mixed tape and keep your eyes peeled for more to come.

“Andrew Jackson” by Wallace House
“FDR in Trinidad” by Ry Cooder
“Hurricane” by Bob Dylan
“Abe Lincoln” by Best Friends Forever
“James K. Polk” by They Might Be Giants
“Alexander Graham Bell” by Sweet
“Killer Queen” by Queen
“Louis Quatorze” by Bow Wow Wow
“Eisenhower is the Father” by Best Friends Forever
“Holland, 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel
“Sacré Charlemagne” by France Gall
“Ballad of Ira Hayes” by Johnny Cash
“Cortez the Killer” by Neil Young & Crazy Horse
“So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” by Simon & Garfunkel
“We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel (Sorry, I had to sneak this in.)

What are your favorite songs about historical figures and people(s)?

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11 thoughts on “A Public History Mixed Tape: Famous Figures

  1. I am a huge Mark Knopfler fan and he has a bunch of historically inspired songs that I just love: Done with Bonaparte, Sailing to Philadelphia, Boloney Again, Back to Tupelo, Remembrance Day, to name a few. Another interesting genre is songs about remembering: I Go Back by Kenny Chesney, Every Ghetto Every City by Lauryn Hill, Strip My Mind by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and This is Us by Knopfler & Emmylou Harris. Several years ago I taught a college seminar on history and memory in American culture, and I will never forget (ha ha) our discussions about music and memory!

  2. Anonymous

    I really appreciated “Cortez the Killer” and the “Ballad of Ira Hayes” but did you consider including “Viva la Vida”? I don’t know, it doesn’t mention a specific historical figure but their antiquity mambo-jumbo could open further discussion.

  3. F. J. Padrones

    I really appreciated “Cortez the Killer” and the “Ballad of Ira Hayes” but did you consider including “Viva la Vida”? I don’t know, it doesn’t mention a specific historical figure but their antiquity mambo-jumbo could open further discussion.

  4. I like this topic – it’s always interesting to see how different bands, and even different genres memorialize historical figures and events. My personal favorite didn’t make the list: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot. A little different from the others as it was written when the event was still in very recent memory, but I think it would still count!

    1. Would you happen to have any falimy photo’s that were taken in Sterling that you would be willing to share? I live in Sterling and am interested in the history. Any photo’s that also include buildings are of interest.I remember your Aunt Francis and Uncle Dugan and Butch, they lived down the road from me when I was growing up.

  5. kimconnelly

    I learned this the other day from a “Missed in History Class” podcast. The Beatles’ (can I get an Amen) “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” was inspired by a playbill John Lennon found in an antique shop. The playbill was created for the ringmaster and African-Briton Pablo Fanque’s circus.

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