10 Fascinating Songs About Historical Events


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John and I wrote She’s Leaving Home together. It was my inspiration. We’d seen a story in the newspaper about a young girl who’d left home and not been found, there were a lot of those at the time, and that was enough to give us a story line. So I started to get the lyrics: she slips out and leaves a note and then the parents wake up ... It was rather poignant. I like it as a song, and when I showed it to John, he added the long sustained notes, and one of the nice things about the structure of the song is that it stays on those chords endlessly. Before that period in our song-writing we would have changed chords but it stays on the C chord. It really holds you. It’s a really nice little trick and I think it worked very well.

While I was showing that to John, he was doing the Greek chorus, the parents’ view: ‘We gave her most of our lives, we gave her everything money could buy.’ I think that may have been in the runaway story, it might have been a quote from the parents. Then there’s the famous little line about a man from the motor trade; people have since said that was Terry Doran, who was a friend who worked in a car showroom, but it was just fiction, like the sea captain in “Yellow Submarine”, they weren’t real people.

The Daily Mirror story that inspired She’s Leaving Home was about Melanie Coe, then aged 17. Wild child Coe snuck out of her parents comfortable North London home in February of 1967. She was pregnant and afraid of what her mother might do, but had not run off with the father of her unborn child—or “a man from the motor trade,” for that matter—rather with a croupier she’d met. They shacked up for a week before her parents found her. She later had an abortion.

But here’s the weird part: three years earlier Coe had actually met Paul McCartney when he was the judge of a miming contest that Coe won on Ready, Steady, Go! Coe mimed to Brenda Lee’s Let’s Jump The Broomstick and Macca gave her the award. Winning the contest meant Coe would be a dancer on the show for an entire year.

2. Woman, 70, convicted of murder spree as teen, critically hurt in car crash

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An infamous murder-spree convict was critically injured in a car crash late Monday night in Michigan.

Caril Ann Clair, 70, of Stryker, Ohio, survived when her SUV veered off road and overturned. She was taken to Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo where she is expected to recover.

Her husband and driver, Frederick A. Clair, 81, died in the accident, authorities said.

Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek portrayed the murderous couple in the 1973 film “Badlands.”

Fifty-five years ago, Clair (then 14-year-old Caril Fugate) was convicted of going on a deadly rampage throughout Nebraska and Wyoming with her bloodthirsty boyfriend Charles Starkweather, 19.

Starkweather and his jailbait girlfriend blazed a path that left 11 people dead, including Clair's mother, stepfather, 2-year-old sister and eight others.

Their blood-soaked tale seeped deep into the public consciousness, inspiring Terrence Malick's 1973 film "Badlands" starring Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen and Bruce Springsteen's 1982 song "Nebraska."

In late 1957, police found the first of many bodies scattered throughout the region: a 21-year-old gas station attendant who has been robbed, abducted and shot to death, reported teroes.com.

Two months later, police found a married couple's bodies in an outbuilding. Their 2-year-old daughter, clubbed to death by the butt of a gun, was discarded nearby in a cardboard box. The death toll kept piling up.

Starkweather was executed at 20. Clair, who maintained her innocence, was sentenced to life in prison.

3. Let Him Dangle (Elvis Costello)

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Elvis Costello's "Let Him Dangle" tells the story of Derek Bentley, an illiterate, epileptic 19-year-old with developmental disabilities who falls in with the wrong crowd, led by a troublemaking minor named Chris Craig.

In 1953, Craig encouraged Bentley to participate in a robbery in which the two become trapped by police. When the officers ordered Chris to put down his gun, Bentley, who by this time has already been arrested, shouted, "Let him have it, Chris." The instruction was unclear to Craig who fired, injuring an officer. When more backup arrived, the first officer to reach the roof was Police Constable Sidney Miles. He was immediately killed by a shot to the head.

Both men were charged with murder. Craig, because of his age at the time of the crime (16) was sentenced to prison. Bentley, however, has been condemned to death under the English common law principle of "joint enterprise"—his statement to Chris was seen an instigation to begin shooting.

Despite his family's efforts and public support for clemency, Bentley was executed in 1953. Fifty years later, he was granted a royal pardon, and in July 1998 his conviction was finally overturned. Christopher Craig issued a statement welcoming his friend's pardon.

4. Memoir in a Melody: The Tragic Disappearance Behind Fastball’s ‘The Way’

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In our Memoir in a Melody series, Signature writers examine the storytelling of well-known musicians, exploring the autobiographical elements of their famous songs.

If you were anywhere near a radio in 1998, you probably heard "The Way," a jangling, Latin-influenced ballad by Austin rock act Fastball. It was the band’s first big hit, and managed to hold the number one spot on the Billboard Modern Rock chart for almost two months.

"The Way" is an incredibly catchy tune, but there’s something a little spooky about it too. The song’s lyrics -- about an elderly couple who disappears from their home, finding immortality on the road -- seem sweet. That is, until "shadows" on the highway are referenced. The promises that the unnamed couple will never go home, grow old, or be hungry again seem a great deal less reassuring. Perhaps, the listener thinks, the "immortality" they found on the open road is purely allegorical.

Fastball lead singer Tony Scalzo said that he wrote "The Way" in 1997 after reading an article in The Austin American-Statesman about Lela and Raymond Howard, an elderly couple who disappeared on June 29 after leaving their Salado, Texas home to attend an event fifteen miles away in Temple.

The article, "Elderly Salado Couple Missing On a Trip To Nowhere," appeared in the July 2nd issue of the paper and was written by Denise Gamino, a former reporter now employed as a freelance writer. She remembers the Howard case well.

Gamino had been assigned to the state desk during her time with the paper, and said that her colleagues preferred to cover politics, a topic that she had grown tired of after working for many years as a correspondent in DC. When an editor came looking for someone to cover the Howard story, she volunteered.

"I always sought out stories about people no one had ever heard of," said Gamino. "My journalism philosophy was ‘blessed are the nobodies, for theirs is the kingdom of fascinating stories.’"

When Gamino interviewed the family she learned that Lela and Raymond were both in their eighties and had medical conditions that left them prone to confusion. They had apparently made it to Temple, where they were spotted getting coffee at the local WalMart. After that, they disappeared. The Bell County Sheriff’s Office was notified when the Howards didn’t return home that afternoon as expected, and a missing persons bulletin was issued that day.

Their family had no way of knowing it, but by Saturday night the Howards were already 500 miles away in rural Arkansas. The wayward couple was pulled over once for driving without their headlights in Logan County, and then 45 minutes later in nearby Yell County for driving with their high beams on. Neither of the deputies who pulled them over were aware that they were missing, and wouldn’t know until Monday. By that time, the Howards were long gone.

Scalzo said that Gamino’s first article was a starting point for his own version of the story. His would be a happier one, in which the Howards find their youth again and live forever on the open road. Once he had the idea, it didn't take very long to write and record the song.

"I wrote 'The Way' in a couple of hours. It was a working demo similar to what you hear in the recording by the end of the day," said Scalzo. "It did not fit with Fastball's catalog by then. Most of the stuff we were doing was straight Modern Rock/Power Pop. I was just trying to do something a little different, but not very."

While Scalzo and his bandmates were working on "The Way," the search for the Howards had spread out to include much of the southeastern United States. Helicopters flew over the rough terrain of Arkansas to search for any sign of the couple, while relatives and volunteers combed back roads, woods, and ravines. The Howards had some family that lived near Hot Springs, and some held out hope that they might be making their way there, or would be found in the area, lost but unharmed.

Gamino continued her own investigative efforts, tracing their journey in Arkansas best she could and interviewing family members and law enforcement by phone and in person. At one point, she arranged to visit the Howards’ home to look for clues.

She described what she found there as "eerie." The television was unplugged and clothing laid out on the couple’s bed as if the Howards had been in the middle of planning a long trip and abruptly left. Their hearing aids and toiletries had been left in the bathroom, though.

The more she looked, the more it seemed that the Howards had been suffering from more confusion and forgetfulness than their family had been aware. Gamino left their home with more questions than answers.

“If they had planned a trip, why did they leave behind some essentials and not tell their son, who lived next door? This was July but the wall calendar in the kitchen was still turned to the page for February," she said. "The Howards were in their 80s and both had been exhibiting cognitive impairments, so the scene in the house didn't seem to bode well. When I found out the cat they left behind was named 'Happy,' the melancholy spoke for itself."

The search for the Howards came to an end on Saturday, July 12 when hikers discovered the crumpled remains of their vehicle at the bottom of a 25-foot cliff, just off of a stretch of highway near Hot Springs. The area had been searched before, but the crash site was obscured by thick vegetation that made it difficult to see. Bodies found at the site were confirmed as those of Lela and Raymond. They had died from injuries sustained in the crash, which apparently took place the Saturday they left for Temple.

A year after the Howards died, the song they inspired became the first hit single off of Fastball’s second album, 1998’s "All The Pain Money Can Buy." It was followed by two more from the same album: "Fire Escape" and "Out of My Head." Both songs hit Billboard’s Top 100 chart in 1998 and 1999, and the album went platinum.

Scalzo said that he’s grateful for what "The Way" brought him and his bandmates, and attributes Fastball’s longevity to the attention the song earned.

"I enjoy singing it and I never forget the fact that without that one song, Fastball would have just been one of those bands I was in for a few years. Because of fame and success, I get to be an influence to a few folks out there. I am grateful."

5. A Brief History of "When the Levee Breaks"

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When the Levee Breaks is a widely famous and popular blues song dating all the way back to an unprecedented flood that devastated Mississippi in the 1920s. Since then, the track has continued to weave it’s way into popular culture, solidifying it’s place in music history thanks to one of the most iconic rock bands of all time.

Levees were a particularly common theme among the original delta bluesmen. For those unfamiliar with living close to a river, levees are giant mounds of packed dirt, built along the river ways, so during a flood, the water doesn’t immediately spill into the towns and farms. If a river floods too long and too much, however, levees can become saturated and break. If the water level becomes too high, it can flow over the top of a levee.

Levees were and continue to be an everyday way of life in the Mississippi delta, a several-hundred mile area of upper Mississippi that is extremely flat and historically prone to flooding by the mighty Mississippi River.

In 1927, the Mississippi swelled to enormous proportions, smashing through levees and seeping billions of gallons of floodwater into the area, destroying towns, homes, farms, and everything in it’s path. Residents of the delta, (many African-Americans reportedly at gunpoint,) scrambled to build more levees higher. People took shelter on top of levees, the only high points in the area. Desperate measures eventually failed and the swollen river broke through levees, killing hundreds and causing the most expensive natural disaster in American History. Afterwards, conditions worsened. Without a crop to farm, many blacks, who’s only available means of employment in the deeply racist south was often sharecropping, had no jobs and no means of income. Many of their modest homes, rented to them by plantation owners, were gone. A great deal of African-Americans were left defenseless & penniless in ramshackle levee camp tents with no food, no money, and no roofs. As a result, most had no choice but to leave for the North in search a better way of life.

A great many original bluesmen sang about the terrible conditions of the levee “camps”, including Son House and countless prison workers, several recorded by Alan Lomax, but none so famous as Memphis Minnie, who along with Kansas Joe McCoy, recorded “When The Levee Breaks” two years after what became known as the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The song was played in a loose ragtime style, with the narrator worrying about what will happen if the levee that protects him and his home is washed away.

If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ to break
And the water gonna come in, we’ll have no place to stay
Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Thinkin’ ’bout my baby and my happy home

Levee continued to be a standalone snapshot, depicting the fear and damage of the flood from a first-person perspective for four decades before it’s explosion in popularity.

In 1970, Led Zeppelin, a band that had shot to unprecedented meteoric fame, went into the studio to record their fourth album. Much of their musical library thus far had been heavily based on original delta blues, about which the band members were fanatical. A mournful, forty-year old song on breaking levees in the Mississippi Delta was a natural fit.

The band set up in Headley Grange, a house-turned-studio, and famously placed John Bonham’s drums in a hallway/stairwell — which captured a unique “heaviness” that has since been repeated (and sampled) countless times. As the band fed the music to the on-loan Rolling Stones’ mobile recording van outside, they played a slow-burning, goosebump-raising cover of Levee, adding a haunting, backwards-echoed harmonica and subtly bringing in new sounds every twelve bars. The track became a massive hit and nearly immediately solidified the song’s place in music culture.

Since their 1970 release, the song has given rise to countless different interpretations and variations. Bob Dylan’s recent Modern Times album includes a version. Buckwheat Zydeco has a funky, deep-south, B3-heavy cover. Blues guitar rocker Dudley Taft crafted a wild overdriven version on his most recent Left For Dead album. Gov’t Mule often plays a live cover, with furious slide and Hayne’s built-for-blues vocals.

John Bonham’s drums alone have been sampled dozens of times by pop and rap acts, including Eminem, Puff Daddy, Massive Attack, Beastie Boys, Depeche Mode, and many others.

Forty two years after Led Zeppelin’s legendary cover, which was created forty one years after Memphis Minnie’s mournful original, the nearly century old song shows no signs of slowing — it’s footprint indelibly etched into nearly every genre of popular music today.

When the Levee Breaks
Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe, 1929

If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
And the water gonna come in, have no place to stay

Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Thinkin’ ’bout my baby and my happy home

If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
And all these people have no place to stay

Now look here mama what am I to do
Now look here mama what am I to do
I ain’t got nobody to tell my troubles to

I works on the levee mama both night and day
I works on the levee mama both night and day
I ain’t got nobody, keep the water away

Oh cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do no good
Oh cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do no good
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to lose

I works on the levee, mama both night and day
I works on the levee, mama both night and day
I works so hard, to keep the water away

I had a woman, she wouldn’t do for me
I had a woman, she wouldn’t do for me
I’m goin’ back to my used to be

I’s a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan
I’s a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan
Gonna leave my baby, and my happy home

6. Neil Diamond reveals story behind 'Sweet Caroline'

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It was a great story.

For years the lore has been that Neil Diamond's 1969 song "Sweet Caroline" was an ode to the then young daughter of late president John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline.

On Monday, the singer revealed the truth behind the hit.

"I was writing a song in Memphis, Tennessee, for a session. I needed a three-syllable name," Diamond said during an appearance on "Today." "The song was about my wife at the time — her name was Marsha — and I couldn't get a 'Marsha' rhyme."

"Sweet Caroline" has since become a staple track, and in 2013 Diamond announced that he would donate the royalties to One Fund Boston to help those affected by the Boston Marathon bombing.

The song has been played at every Boston Red Sox home game for more than a decade, and there was a spike in downloads after the April 2013 tragedy.

Diamond is releasing his first album in six years, "Melody Road," and said on "Today" that he "was a nervous wreck going into this new album."

7. Polly (Nirvana)

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Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic remembers Cobain writing "Polly" after reading a newspaper article about Gerald Arthur Friend, who was a serial rapist and kidnapper from Lakewood, Washington.

In June 1987, a 14-year-old girl accepted a ride from Friend after a concert and was repeatedly raped and tortured. Luckily, she managed to escape after gaining Friend's trust. He was stopped a day later for a traffic violation and eventually convicted of first-degree kidnapping and rape. He was ordered to serve the remainder of a 1960 sentence (for a previous rape in which he was mistakenly paroled) in addition to a second 75-year sentence.

8. My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)

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In 1985, President Ronald Reagan's state visit to a German World War II cemetery where Waffen-SS soldiers were buried was met with significant criticism from not only the Jewish community but former American GIs. Reagan said the dead at Bitburg were “victims of Nazism also…drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis." Lead singer Joey Ramone (who was Jewish) was outraged and wrote the song with fellow band member Dee Dee Ramone and Plasmatics' keyboardist/bassist Jean Beauvoir in protest.

The song was originally called “Bonzo Goes To Bitburg,” but guitarist Johnny Ramone fought against it, as he was a conservative and fully in support of Reagan. It was eventually changed to “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes To Bitburg).”

9. We Check Up on the Long Beach Addresses in Sublime's Riot Song "April 29, 1992 (Miami)"

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Yesterday marked 20 years since the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King incited several days of violence and looting in South Central Los Angeles. But it's also been 20 years since a similarly motivated uprising erupted in nearby Long Beach, resulting in numerous arrests and causing extensive damage throughout the central and northern parts of town. This rarely gets mentioned in reports of the infamous L.A. Riots.

Chuck D of Public Enemy once famously said that rap music is the black CNN, but in the case of this civil unrest in oft-forgotten Long Beach, it was local ska/punk/reggae/hip-hop/everything band Sublime's song "April 29, 1992 (Miami)" that became the city's own news network.

Released on its 1996 multi-platinum self-titled album, the song reports on the burning buildings and felony committers of the band's hometown in the days following the not-guilty verdict. Using actual Long Beach Police Department radio transmissions and verses that describe personal involvement in the pillaging, it gives a localized account of the Long Beach riots (complete with street addresses of the destruction).

To some, it might seem inflammatory that pseudo-reggae white boys would write a song about participating in racially motivated violence and looting (our friends at the SF Weekly recently wrote that they were "piggybacking on a riot"). But the rioting Sublime writes about is not the iconic Normandie and Florence chaos that continues to define the days following the end of the Rodney King trial. The song is about how the riots affected them and others in Long Beach, a city nearby yet worlds apart from neighboring South Central (and its pent-up racial tension). If you've ever been to the mostly working-class port city of nearly 500,000 people -- which remains the most statistically diverse city in the country -- you know what we mean.

So when Nowell sings, "'Cause everybody in the hood has had it up to here," he's not only talking about disenfranchised blacks or mistreated Hispanics. He's also talking about himself and the rest of the people in Long Beach that had suffered through enough of "this fucked-up situation and these fucked-up police."

  The song (contrary to other discussions of the riots both at the time and during the last week of media attention) says that it didn't matter if you were white, black, Mexican, Cambodian or whatever -- the riots in Long Beach were about "the man" bringing everyone down. And even though it's been debated as to whether or not the members of Sublime actually committed the acts they describe (at least they were probably in town on April 29, 1992, since they played several area shows in the days before), the song also one of the only things out there that gives a white person's participatory perspective on the whole L.A. Riot-related shitshow. Takes some balls, no?

In the spirit of looking back on the riots and the music they inspired, we decided to take a tour of all four of the Long Beach locations listed in the police chatter sampled in "April 29, 1992 (Miami)," a few of which are still standing and most of which are still in areas that would probably have reason to riot again.

10. How a School Shooting Inspired the Boomtown Rats’ ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’

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While Bob Geldof‘s philanthropic efforts remain his greatest contribution to humanity, it should be remembered that he was also the frontman for the Boomtown Rats. They had a string of hits in their native Ireland and throughout the U.K. from the mid ’70s to the early ’80s. Their biggest, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” was inspired by a school shooting that took place on Jan. 29, 1979.

That morning, Brenda Spencer, a 16-year-old with a history of petty theft and violent thoughts, opened fire from inside her house at students outside San Diego’s Grover Cleveland Elementary School across the street. In a 15-minute spell, she fired 30 rounds of ammunition from a semi-automatic .22-caliber rifle her father gave her for Christmas. Principal Burton Wragg and custodian Mike Schar were killed in the attack; eight children and a policeman were wounded.

Spencer, who had told classmates a week before that she “wanted to do something big to get on TV,” then locked herself in the house as the SWAT team descended. The standoff lasted nearly seven hours before Spencer finally surrendered. During that time, a reporter from the San Diego Tribune spoke to her on the telephone. She explained her actions by saying, “I just did it for the fun of it. I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day. I have to go now. I shot a pig, I think, and I want to shoot more. I’m having too much fun.”

Geldof read about the news later that day via Telex machine at the radio station of Georgia State University. The lyrics came quickly, and the song was released six months later. Within a few weeks, it was No. 1 in the U.K. It rose to only No. 73 in the U.S. — the only Boomtown Rats song to chart in America — but it’s possible that radio stations wouldn’t play the song because of its sensitive nature.

Eight months later, Spencer pled guilty to two counts of murder and assault with a deadly weapon, and was sentenced to 25 years to life. She has been denied parole four times since 1993 and will not be considered again until 2019.

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