History through Song Lyrics: Unconventional Sources

I would like to inaugurate this blog (without considering last week welcome post) with my favorite controversial topic in history: Non-academical history. It does not really matter how it is called, but what does matter is that it exists, and it can be use for a better understanding of history, or a more engaging, touching and easier way to get along with history. Usually, this kind of history, popular or public history, is conceived in a variety of ways. The most common are: museums, and in general the heritage industry, tv shows, and books. But today, I would like to talk about one which is not commonly considered and I, personally, think it is rather interesting and useful.

I remember how in my first year of A-levels one of my classmates made up a funny song about the French Revolution, in order to remember the main events and personalities. And thanks to that, I would never ever forget those things. The issue I am presenting here is music as a source in the learning and teaching of history. Music is an art that has been linked with history since ancient times, and it has been developed through it until the present day, and it will most likely continue the process in the future. We know about the role of entertainment of musicians in the past and nowadays…But what about the rest? It is not the most common of the cases but many artists and bands do create material related with history. Although sometimes it is needed to read deeply through the lyrics, the ideas are still there.

My research has brought together material from diverse places and periods, but I would like to focus on the most modern evidences. 1974 was a critical year in the history of Portugal; after years of dictatorship the country was ready to embrace democracy as their political system. The use of music was crucial for the coordination of the whole movement known as ‘Revolução dos Cravos’ (The Carnation revolution). Those songs used during this revolution have prevailed in history. They are a symbol and they are living history, those lyrics portray the spirit and meaning of the whole event. One of the most famous songs used for this event was “Grândola, Vila Morena”, written by Jose ‘Zeca’ Alfonso, a couple of years before this happened. Despite the fact the song was previous to the event, the Portuguese people identify themselves in that circumstances with these lyrics:

”Grândola, vila morena

Terra da fraternidade

O povo é quem mais ordena

Dentro de ti, ó cidade

…Em cada esquina um amigo, em cada rostro igualdade”

(Could be translated as: Granola, dark land, land of fraternity, your population rules within you, oh city…In everycorner, a friend, in every face equality)

The perfect song for a revolution against the fascist regime that was oppressing the population…The song by which this is remembered.

But this is maybe the most evident case. An even more modern example: in 1990, one of the most celebrated german rock band of all times, The Scorpions, released their album Crazy World, in which their famous song ‘Wind of Change’ was included [5]. Just with a quick look to the lyrics and a bit of historical knowledge, the topic can be disguised: The fall of Berlin Wall, in 1989. Such an important event in western modern history immortalised in a radio hit, famous in the whole world. And the list goes on. Published in May, 1983, Iron Maiden’s album Piece of Mind contains their famous song ‘Die with Your Boots On’. “They die with their boots on, yes they die” lyrics in honor of the disastrous and miserable General G.A. Custer’s death at Little Big Horn. The last example is from the album Lost in Space Part II, the third EP of Tobias Sammet’s metal opera project known as Avantasia, published by Nuclear Blast.The following extract is from the song ‘Promised Land’, which embraces a rather historical and religious topic; the Crusades and the Holy Land:

“Like moths to a flame
Driven by vanity
They been off to Jerusalem
Chasing a dream
Calling on me
We re just trading in needs”

The Crusades, the end of fascism in Portugal, the fall of the wall in Berlin and one of the biggest disasters in the history of war, all in music…All historical. And these are just four, rather recent, examples…We  might question now: what can music offer to the study of history for academical historians (and other humanists) but, also, how can these lyrics been used for students (like ourselves) or for lower levels, where history in most of the cases is not a choice but a must.

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