Five misinformed rock songs
Of all the occupations listed on Bono's resume (humanitarian, hotel owner, British Knight, world bank advisor, anathema to any rock fan under thirty), one that has never been considered was historian. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 44 years ago today, an event the U2 singer attempted to document in the 1984 song "Pride (In the Name of Love)."
In the lyrics, Bono sets the scene for the tragic killing by stating that it was "early morning, April 4." Dr. King was actually shot at 6 p.m. in the evening. This fact has since been pointed out to Bono, but it's mostly laughed off as a comical footnote and has not prevented the song from being played seventeen times a day on classic-rock radio. In honor of this timeless error, we give you the five other rock songs that could use a fact-checker.
5. "The Hurricane" - Bob Dylan
Chronicling the arrest and conviction of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a middleweight boxer who had been serving a life sentence on a triple murder charge since 1966, the song pointed to a racist police department and an inept court as explanation for the jailing of an innocent man. Many praised Dylan's return to political activism, but there were those who criticized the abundance of poetic license used when retelling the story of the murders and Carter's arrest.
After finishing an initial recording of the song, Columbia Records attorneys insisted Dylan return to the studio and change the lyrics -- lest he get sued. In the original song, Dylan had colorfully added that the two men on the scene (Alfred Bello and Dexter Bradley) had "robbed the bodies" of the dead, which was completely untrue, and Columbia feared legal action. Even after the changes, there were still many factual discrepancies, most notably the line where Carter is described as a "number-one contender," when in reality he was ranked ninth at the time.
4. "Cotton Fields" - Lead Belly
One of the most beloved blues songs in history, this Lead Belly tune has been covered by everyone from Harry Belafonte to the Beach Boys. And whenever they have sung about the pain and beauty of the land "down in Louisiana/Just a mile from Texarkana," they are unwittingly misinforming you. Texarkana is a good thirty miles from anywhere in Louisiana. Non-rock-star historians tell us that the city of Lead Belly's birthplace -- the land he darkly romanticizes in the song -- was Moorinsport, Louisiana, a city that is, troublingly, not "just a mile from Texarkana," but a whopping 64 miles from Texarkana.
3. "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" - Billy Joel
Following in the footsteps of Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection (a concept album about the American West, written by a British dandy), Billy Joel released his breakthrough album Piano Man in 1973. The hit single of the same name was a report of Joel's days as a lounge singer in L.A. When writing this tune, Joel could play around with fact and fiction, romanticizing and exaggerating. When the songwriter applied the same tactic three tracks later for the song "The Ballad of Billy the Kid," the storytelling liberties weren't as digestible.
There were already a lot of holes in the history of Billy the Kid long before people like Emilio Estevez and Billy Joel began interpreting the myth their own ways. But historians have put together a good chunk of the young gunslinger's biography, and what we do know contradicts almost every detail of Joel's impressionistic song. Here are just a few examples of why Billy Joel shouldn't teach a history class.
Billy Joel Fiction: From a town known as Wheeling, West Virginia ...
Fact: Historians aren't exactly sure where the Kid was born, but there's no evidence to suggest WV. If anything, experts believe he was probably born in New York City.
Billy Joel Fiction: He started with a bank in Colorado.... He robbed his way from Utah to Oklahoma....
Fact: Billy the Kid never robbed a bank. He just shot people. The songwriter most likely confused his protagonist with another outlaw of the time, Jesse James.
Billy Joel Fiction: One cold day a posse captured Billy/And the judge said "String him up for what he did!"/And the cowboys and their kin/Like the sea came pourin' in/To watch the hanging of Billy the Kid
Fact: Billy the Kid was shot to death in the middle of the night, ambushed in the dark by Sheriff Pat Garrett.
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2. "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" - Eric Bogle
Most popularly known by the cover version by the Pogues on 1985's Rum Sodomy & the Lash, this song gives a fictionalized account of an Australian soldier fighting in the Battle of Gallipoli during the First World War. The graphic imagery and anti-war tone have made this anti-war song a nationalistic favorite. Left-leaning Americans like Joan Baez and Garrison Keillor have also covered the song.
Requiring a sea route to Russia, The Battle Of Gallipoli was an attempt by the Allied Forces to overthrow the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey) and capture the capital of Constantinople. The Australian protagonist in And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda describes in vivid detail "How well I remember that terrible day/How the blood stained the sand and water/And how in that hell that they called Sulva Bay/We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter."
Unfortunately, no Australian soldiers were involved in the attack at Sulva Bay. The attack was carried out by the British. When the error was pointed out to songwriter Eric Bogle, he said that he was aware of it, but in the end included the bit about Sulva Bay because he needed a rhyme for "terrible day."
1. "Take Me Home, Country Roads" - John Denver
Every state loves to have a song written about them. And what the Mamas & the Papas did for California, and what the Dandy Warhols did for Minnesota, the gentle-faced Mr. Denver did for West Virginia in the 1971 song "Take Me Home, Country Roads." As anyone who is from the state can attest, West Virginians go apeshit every time that song is played. And that's why it's the official song of West Virginia University, played before every home game for the last forty years. Politicians quote it when campaigning in the area, and shopping malls blast it year-round.
Though for whatever reason these (assumed to be) able-minded people have never taken exception with the lyrics describing the state's beautiful "Blue Ridge Mountains/ Shenandoah River," two landmarks more accurately associated with Virginia proper. An argument could be made that the two sites do slightly overlap the very tip of the West Virginia panhandle; but a more plausible argument arrives when one considers that the pothead singer probably got West Virginia confused with western Virginia.
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