Songs for History Majors

Songs for History Majors… Now that I have your attention… Let’s party down!!!

I majored in history because… I like it.  When people would invariably ask me, “What are you going to do with that?”… I would shrug my shoulders and privately wonder, What is this ‘do’ thing of which you speak?

Thirty years ago – having by then taught history for 15 years – I wrote,

History offers an accessibility unmatched by any other subject.  On some college campuses, history gets a bad rap as the refuge of “jocks who shouldn’t have been admitted here in the first place” or a haven for the aimless or misguided.  There’s something in this that I find oddly honorable.  History can never be accused of being pretentious.  It welcomes all and I like that.

While listening to tunes over the Holidays, Ry Cooder’s “FDR in Trinidad” came out of the speakers. I wondered, What in the world moved the younger Ry to write such a song?  Then I got to wondering why, aside from protest songs, there’s such a shortage of history tunes.  Then I got carried away…

So, if you have a Spotify account, go to “Songs for History Majors” – like the subject itself, open to all – and give a listen.  In no particular order:

  1. “FDR in Trinidad” by Ry Cooder. Off Into the Purple Valley (1971) – The charisma that was Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945, 32nd POTUS)… “We were struck by his modest style. And was intrigued by the famous Roosevelt smile.  Everybody was glad to welcome Roosevelt to Trinidad.”
  1. “You Know the Rest” by Steve Earle. Off El Corazon (1997) – Remember The Alamo!    “Davy Crockett went out to Texas to fight at the Alamo. Ol’ Will Travis never told him that Texas was Mexico.  It was a bloody mess. You know the rest.”
  1. “Watergate Blues” by Howlin’ Wolf. Off The Back Door Wolf (1973) – Just imagine… Professor Chester Burnett! “Guard walkin’ the beat. Checkin’ all the ‘dohs.’  Found a little piece of tape. Now the whole world gonna know.”
  1. “New Frontier” by Donald Fagen. Off The Nightfly (1982) – OK, Boomers! Almost makes me long for the “duck-and-cover” days of The Cold War! Remember fallout shelters?  “Yes, we’re gonna have a wing-ding; a summer smoker underground.  It’s just a dug-out that my dad built; In case the Reds decide to push the button down.”
  1. “The Great Nations of Europe” by Randy Newman. Off The Randy Newman Songbook (2016) – So hard to pick just one Randy Newman song for this topic that I have thrown a couple extras into the playlist. “The great nations of Europe, Had gathered on the shore.  They’d conquered what was behind them and now they wanted more.  So, they looked to the mighty ocean. And took to the western sea.  The great nations of Europe in the sixteenth century.”
  1. “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.” Off Bringing It All Back Home (1965) – Ditto Newman on the so-hard-to-pick-just-one thing. Ditto on the bonus thing.  Played this constantly as a high school frosh.  “But the funniest thing was when I was leaving the bay, I saw three ships a ’sailing, they were all heading my way.  I asked the captain what his name was and how come he didn’t drive a truck. He said his name was Columbus, and I just said, ‘Good Luck.’”
  1. “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen. Title track off 1984 release – Can’t pick just one quote from this statement about the Vietnam War.  So, here’s 2: 1) “Got in a little hometown jam. So, they put a rifle in my hand. Sent me off to a foreign land. To go and kill the yellow man.”… 2) “I had a brother at Khe Sanh, Fighting off the Viet Cong. They’re still there, he’s all gone.”
  1. “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder. Off Songs in the Key of Life (1976) – Stevie’s tribute to the individual who would receive my vote as the coolest person of the 20th century comes with a mini jazz history lesson. “Music knows it is and always will be one of the things that life just won’t quit. And here are some of music’s pioneers that time will not allow us to forget: Well there’s Basie, Miller, Satch-a-mo, and the king of all, Sir Duke. And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out, there’s no way the band can lose.”
  1. “Grandpa was a Carpenter” by John Prine. From Sweet Revenge (1973) – This version off Souvenirs (2000) – Love how John Prine captures one way that people grab ahold of their political views.  RIP, Sir, and Thanks!  “He voted for Eisenhower, cuz Lincoln won the war.”
  1. “The Fish Cheer / I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To Die Rag” (1967) by Country Joe & The Fish – If you lived during the Vietnam era, you remember this song. If not, feel the humor that often accompanied the protest perspective.  “Come on all you big strong men. Uncle Sam needs your help again. He’s got himself in a terrible jam. Way down yonder in Vietnam.  So, put down your books and pick up a gun, we’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.”
  1. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band. Off The Band (1969) – An 80% Canadian band captures the agony of the U.S. Civil War a century after the fact. “In the winter of ’65, We were hungry, just barely alive. By May the 10th, Richmond had fell.  It’s a time I remember, oh so well.”
  1. “Trouble in the Fields” by Nanci Griffith. Off The Dust Bowl Symphony (1999) – Whenever I hear this hauntingly beautiful song, I cannot help but imagine Henry Fonda and scenes from “The Grapes of Wrath.” Had a tough time choosing between this tune and “The Wing and The Wheel” from the same album. (You’ll find both on the playlist.)  “Our parents had their hard times 50 years ago.  When they stood out in these empty fields with dust as deep as snow.”
  1. “Black Friday” by Steely Dan. Off Katy Lied (1975) – Although there is some debate as to which Depression (1860s or 1930s) this song is about, Messrs. Becker and Fagen made a living out of puzzling their fans. In either case, the imagery speaks for itself:  “When Black Friday comes, I’ll stand outside the door. Catch the gray men as they dive from the 14th floor.”
  1. “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” by Abbey Lincoln. Off You Gotta Pay the Band (1991) – Ms. Lincoln’s version of this classic ode to financial depression and hard times is excellent. “Once I built a railroad, I made it run. I made it run against time. Once I built a railroad, and now it’s done. Hey, Brother, can you spare a dime?”
  1. “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie (1940) – After tiring of hearing Kate Smith’s saccharine-sweet version of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” on the radio one too many times, Guthrie wrote this song in reaction. “This land is your land and this land is my land. From California to the New York island. From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters. This land was made for you and me.”
  1. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot – Off Summertime Dream (1976) – A great songwriter makes us feel like we were there.  “With a load of iron ore 26,000 tons more than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty. That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed when the gales of November came early.”
  1. “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday (1939) – The angriest song ever recorded. In 1999, Time Magazine named it “Song of the Century.” A must-hear for any post-adolescent American.  “Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…”
  1. “Nixonland” by Chuck Prophet – Although I suspect that Mr. Prophet (an overlooked songwriter!) does not share much in common with Richard Nixon (1913-94, 37th POTUS) beyond the fact that both were southern California-born, he’s written a song about his fellow native son. “My 4th grade class took a field trip once. To pay tribute to the man. Did I ever tell you that I was born in the heart of Nixonland?”
  1. “New Speedway Boogie” by The Grateful Dead. Off Workingman’s Dead (1970, 2020 remaster) Supposedly written in response to the disaster that was the Altamont Speedway Concert of December, 1969. “Now I don’t know, but I was told, In the heat of the sun a man died of cold. Keep on coming or stand and wait, With the sun so dark and the hour so late.”
  1. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” by Marvin Gaye. Off What’s Going On (1971) – Hard to believe that 2021 marks the 50th birthday of this masterpiece album.  Stuck between this tune and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).” Both are on playlist.  “Rockets, moon shots. Spend it on the have nots. Money, we make it. ‘Fore we see it, you take it.”
  1. “Quarantine Blues” by Steve Poltz (2020) – A song for future historians. “I’m feelin’ kinda grouchy; I’m in love with Doctor Fauci.”


  • “Acadian Driftwood” by The Band. Off Northern Lights-Southern Cross (1975)
  • “Murder Most Foul” by Bob Dylan. Off Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020)
  • “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan. Off Desire (1976)
  • “Louisiana 1927” by Randy Newman. Off Good Old Boys (1974)
  • “Sail Away” by Randy Newman. Off Sail Away (1972)
  • “Kingfish” by Randy Newman. Off Good Old Boys (1974)
  • “The Rising” by Bruce Springsteen. Off The Rising (2002)
  • “The Wing and The Wheel” by Nancy Griffith. Off The Dust Bowl Symphony (1999)
  • “Cortez the Killer” by Neil Young. Off Zuma (1975, 2016 remaster version)
  • “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” by Marvin Gaye. Off What’s Going On (1971)

Onward, Malcolm Gauld