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7 Powerful Songs From History That Capture the Zeitgeist

These songs offer a glimpse into the past.

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  • Billie Holiday at the Downbeat Jazz Club in New York City, 1947.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Jazz great Louis Armstrong once famously remarked that “Music is life itself”. A well-written song has the power to move, inspire and even challenge us. Here are seven songs which carry such a strong message that they have become indelibly associated with a particular moment in history. 

“Over There” by George M. Cohan

George M. Cohan reputedly composed the iconic World War I song “Over There” on his way to work one day in April 1917, shortly after discovering that the USA had joined the war against Germany. He cleverly based the tune on a standard three-note bugle call, which made it instantly memorable. Its repetitive lyrics, encouraging young American men to enlist (but making no reference to the realities of the horror of war), tapped into the patriotic fervor that gripped the country at the time. 

Related: 10 World War I Novels That Shed New Light on the Conflict

The song was recorded by several leading artists of the day, including Broadway star Nora Bayes and the legendary Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. Sales of the sheet music also proved incredibly popular, with an estimated two million copies having flown off the shelves by the end of the war. 

“Over There” enjoyed a significant revival during the early 1940s following the US entry into World War II and to this day is revived at times of national crisis.

“Battle Cry of Freedom” by George F. Root

Many campaign songs were composed during America's Civil War, of which “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is possibly the best-known today. However, during the second half of the 19th century it was another song, “Battle Cry of Freedom”, which enjoyed huge popularity and came to embody the Civil War era. Indeed, when the sheet music for the song was first released, its publisher was unable to keep up with demand, despite having 14 printing presses on the go. 

Related: 9 Best Civil War Movies

The song was written in one day by George Frederick Root, in response to a call to arms by Abraham Lincoln in July 1862. In the same way that “Over There” would so effectively tap into the patriotic fervor accompanying America’s entry into World War I, “Battle Cry of Freedom” provided the perfect rallying call to those supporting the Union and abolitionism. Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, so it is perhaps telling that Root’s rousing tune, with different lyrics, was later adopted by those loyal to the Confederacy cause. 

“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday

The lyrics of “Strange Fruit” were adapted from a 1937 poem by a Jewish schoolteacher named Abel Meeropol, who was moved to write it after seeing a graphic photograph of two young Black men hanging from a tree following a racist lynching in Indiana. Meeropol was the first to set the poem to music and turn it into a protest song, using the horror of lynching as a potent symbol for racial discrimination. The “strange fruit” of the title chillingly refers to lynching victims themselves, whose swinging bodies are compared to fruit hanging from the tree.

Related: Illuminating Books About the History of Race in America

However, it was the incomparable Billie Holiday who brought the song to a much wider audience when she recorded her own version of the song in April 1939. Columbia Records, with whom she usually recorded, refused to have anything to do with the song that would become her biggest hit, and it was eventually released through the Commodore label.  

“Strange Fruit” is today regarded as a catalyst for the beginning of the civil rights movement. With its powerful anti-racist stance, the song alienated some hugely influential figures. As a result, the singer faced persecution for the rest of her life, a topic which is covered in the recently released biopic, The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

“Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets

During the mid-1950s, a youthful generation was finding its voice for the first time, and teenage life would never be the same again. By today’s standards it may seem tame, but Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” was once groundbreaking. It's widely regarded as the song that brought rock and roll into the mainstream. At the time of its release, the song represented a significant departure from the crooners and big dance bands who had dominated the music charts previously.

The song was originally released as a B-side in May 1954, but came to more widespread prominence when it featured in the soundtrack for the 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle. Director Richard Brooks is said to have chosen the song because he believed its brash and untamed energy perfectly captured the mood of the movie, which was about a group of juvenile delinquents at an inner-city school. As the first chords of “Rock Around The Clock” were played during the movie’s opening credits, teenagers are said to have risen from their seats and started dancing in the aisles in movie theaters across the nation.

“San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)” by Scott McKenzie

John Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas wrote this famous hippie anthem for his friend Scott McKenzie, which became a huge global hit during the summer of 1967.

The song was originally conceived as a way of promoting the 1967 Monterey International Pop Music Festival. However, it came to immortalize the 100,000 hippies, or “flower children”, who descended on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco during what became known as the “Summer Of Love”. The hippie culture professed to reject the materialism and conservatism of traditional society through peace and love. For some, this meant attending pop festivals and anti-war rallies, while to others it represented an opportunity to experiment in free love and psychedelic drugs. 

Related: 9 Fascinating Vietnam War Books

By autumn it all was over, with most returning home to college and work. In truth, the mood had soured and the San Franciscan authorities, faced with law and order and overcrowding issues, were glad to see them go. Yet Scott McKenzie’s hippie anthem will forever encapsulate that unforgettable summer when a generation of young people believed anything was possible.

“War” by Edwin Starr

This anti-war protest song was made famous by Edwin Starr in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War.

“War” was originally recorded by the popular Motown act The Temptations, but the record label baulked at releasing the group’s version as a single, concerned that the song’s message might alienate some sections of its fanbase. The label turned instead to Edwin Starr, and it proved to be an inspired choice. Starr’s powerful and dramatic vocal delivery married perfectly with the song’s anthemic chorus, “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin!” 

The song became the soundtrack for the Vietnam War protest movement, in addition to enjoying considerable mainstream success. It reached the #1 spot in the Billboard Top 100 and proved to be a huge hit globally. Sadly, its message remains all too relevant today.

“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye

“What’s Going On” was inspired by an incident of police brutality witnessed by Four Tops member Obie Benson at an anti-war demonstration in California during the summer of 1969. Benson, together with Motown staff writer Al Cleveland, wrote the song and then offered it to Marvin Gaye, as it was considered too controversial for the Four Tops to record. 

Gaye made the song his own, retaining the references to war and brutality, but adding a plea for understanding, which resonated deeply with the early 1970s peace movement. The single was released in January 1971 and became a massive hit.

When the singer released an album of the same name the following year, the track list also included Mercy, Mercy Me”, one of the earliest environmental protest songs. 50 years after the album’s first release, the issues which it addressed are still vigorously debated today.