20th century events immortalised in song
The Great Dust Storm: Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie’s first album, Dust Bowl Ballads, brought together a swag of songs inspired by the singer-songwriter’s life in Depression-era Oklahoma. The first song on the album described the severe drought that devastated the US in the 1930 and led to what became known as Black Sunday. One of the worst climatic events in US history, the great dust storm ‘fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down / We thought it was our judgement, we thought it was our doom’.
Woodstock: Joni Mitchell
The song that captured the essence of the 1960s was written by someone who didn’t witness the era’s defining event: Woodstock. Joni Mitchell wrote the song while stuck in a New York hotel room, watching reports of the festival on TV. According to David Crosby, who covered the song with CSNY and was there, she nailed the feeling of being there better than anyone who made it to the festival. Every line is memorable, from ‘I came upon a child of God’ to ‘We are stardust, we are golden / We are billion- year- old carbon / And we got to get ourselves back to the garden’.
Monterey: The Animals
Joni wasn’t the first to write a song about a music festival. Two years earlier, the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival was the event of the Summer of Love. Many acts gave it their best in career-defining performances, including Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Burdon was so blown away by his own gig that he wrote a song in tribute. The lyrics name-checked Burdon’s fellow musicians at the festival, including the Byrds and the Dead, while instruments such as the sitar and distorted guitars captured their signature sounds.
Ohio: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Few opening lines send a shiver as chilled as ‘Tin soldiers and Nixon coming’, the uber- protest song penned by Neil Young in response to the Kent State University shootings of May 1970. When a group of around 2000 unarmed uni students gathered at the campus to protest the Vietnam War, they were met by approximately 67 rounds of bullets fired by 29 guardsmen. Four students were killed and nine were wounded.
Armstrong: Reg Lindsay
Australian country music all-rounder Reg Lindsay wrote more than 500 songs in his 50- year career, but ‘Armstrong’ was perhaps his best-known release. It commemorates, of course, the time in 1969 when all the world stopped to watch ‘a man named Armstrong walk upon the moon’. Lindsay didn’t pen the song though; that honour goes to John Stewart of the Kingston Trio.
Eve of Destruction: Barry McGuire
Written in 1964 by PF Sloan, ‘Eve of Destruction’ was history’s most successful protest song, reaching #1 in 1965 and knocking ‘Help’ by the Beatles off the top of the charts. Inspired by the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the song eerily prefigured the increasing conflict in Vietnam with the lyrics ‘You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’ / You don’t believe in war but what’s that gun you’re totin’.
American Pie: Don McLean
When was the day the music died? It was 3 February 1959, when a plane crash changed the future of rock and roll forever by taking the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. The song was Don McLean’s tribute to music’s loss of innocence, and he dedicated the American Pie album to Buddy Holly. The song also flash-forwards to describe the mayhem and murder that eventuated 10 years later at the Rolling Stones’ free concert at Altamont.
Smoke on the Water: Deep Purple
In December 1971, the Montreux Casino in Switzerland caught fire during a Mothers of Invention concert – when ‘some stupid with a flare gun’ fired at the casino’s highly flammable rattan ceiling. Smoke from the fire cast a pall over Lake Geneva (hence the song’s title), and the entertainment complex where Deep Purple were due to record their next album was destroyed. All was not lost though: the Stones lent the band their mobile recording studio and the try-out riff of choice for zillions of wannabe rock guitarists was in the can.
Smiley: Ronnie Burns
Sleepy Melbourne got political in 1969 when the Johnny Young-penned ‘Smiley’ became a hit for local singer Ronnie Burns. A rare example of the Vietnam War being name-checked in an Australian song, ‘Smiley’ was written when Australia’s most famous conscript, fellow pop star Normie Rowe, was sent ‘off to the Asian War’.
Abraham, Martin and John: Dion
Two defining events of the 1960s would have to be the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. Most famously recorded by Dion in 1968, this song was written by US songwriter Dick Holler as a tribute to a third victim of assassination, Bobby Kennedy, who was murdered while campaigning in mid-1968. The song gave a massive boost to both Dion, whose career until then had been flagging, and to Holler, who hitherto had been best known for his novelty song ‘Snoopy vs the Red Baron’.