Friday, April 20, 2012

Best History Songs

What's the best song based on historical events?  I look for the best mixture of accurate and evocative lyrics with music reflective of its theme.  One candidate is The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band (and see yesterday's post on the passing of Levon Helm).  Please ignore the Joan Baez version which become an AM radio hit but mangled the lyrics, obliterating some of the precise historical references from the original.  Pride by U2 also fits the bill even though it's more indirect in its approach to the murder of Martin Luther King and contains a glaring inaccuracy in its lyric (see if you can find it), but is so emotionally resonant it gets away with it.  Then there are songs like Zombie, by The Cranberries, about the troubles in Ireland. What are your favorites?

My vote is with Al Stewart's Roads to Moscow from the 1970s.  Accurate, evocative and complex, reflecting the tragedy of a Russian soldier caught between the two blood brothers - Hitler and Stalin - and ground up by them in the most murderous conflict in history.  The song takes its protagonist from the beginning of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 to the wars' ending in 1945.  The first half of the song (through "the morning road leads to Stalingrad, and the sky is softly humming") takes us through 1941-2 when the Soviets are on the defensive.  The next section jumps to April 1945 with the climactic Soviet assault on Berlin (and today is the 67th anniversary of the day the "final approach" began to Berlin), and then comes the return home, which has an unexpected twist and one of the most poignant last verses of any song ever written.

"Roads To Moscow"

They crossed over the border the hour before dawn
moving in lines through the day
Most of our planes were destroyed on the ground where they lay
Waiting for orders we held in the wood
Word from the front never came
By evening the sound of the gunfire was miles away

Softly we move through the shadows, slip away through the trees

Crossing their lines in the mist in the fields on our hands and our knees

And all that I ever

Was able to see
The fire in the air, glowing red
Silhouetting the smoke on the breeze

All summer they drove us back through the Ukraine

Smolensk and Vyazma soon fell
By Autumn we stood with our backs to the town of Orel
Closer and closer to Moscow they come
Riding the wind like a bell
General Guderian stands at the crest of the hill

Winter brought with the rains, oceans of mud filled the roads

Gluing the tracks of their tanks to the ground, while the skies filled with snow

And all that I ever

Was able to see
The fire in the air, glowing red
Silhouetting the snow on the breeze

In the footsteps of Napoleon, the shadow figures stagger through the winter

Falling back before the gates of Moscow, standing in the wings like an avenger
And far away behind their lines, the partisans are stirring in the forest
Coming unexpectedly upon their outpost, growing like a promise
You'll never know, you'll never know, which way to turn, which way to look you'll never see us
As we steal into the blackness of the night you'll never know, you'll never hear us

And evening sings in a voice of amber, the dawn is surely coming

The morning road leads to Stalingrad, and the sky is softly humming

Two broken tigers on fire in the night

Flicker their souls to the wind
We wait in the lines for the final approach to begin
It's been almost four years that I've carried a gun
At home, it will almost be spring
The flames of the tiger are lighting the road to Berlin

Quickly we move through the ruins that bow to the ground

The old men and children they send out to face us, they can't slow us down

And all that I ever

Was able to see
The eyes of the city are opening
Now it's the end of a dream

I'm coming home, I'm coming home , now you can taste it in the wind the war is over

And I listen to the clicking of the train wheels as we roll across the border
And now they ask me of the time that I was caught behind their time and taken prisoner
They only held me for a day, a lucky break I say
They turn and listen closer
I'll never know, I'll never know, why I was taken from the line with all the others
to board a special train and journey deep into the heart of holy Russia

And it's cold and damp in the transit camp and the air is still and sullen

and the pale sun of October whispers the snow will soon be coming
And I wonder when, I'll be home again and the morning answers never
And the evening sighs and the steely, Russian skies go on,

The ending of the song refers to the Soviet treatment of soldiers who were either captured by the Germans or temporarily surrounded in one of the massive encirclements by the Wehrmacht in the early part of the war (1941-2).  Four million Soviet soldiers were captured by the Germans of whom three million died in captivity.  In comparison, the death rate for American and British POWs held by the Germans was 1% (for those held by the Japanese it was more than 35%).  Those who survived and returned home were seen as traitors, interrogated and imprisoned.  Soviet soldiers caught temporarily in the encirclements were also interrogated and in most cases sentenced to terms in Gulag labor camps.  Many did not survive.  The Soviets didn't treat their soldiers well at any point during the war.  With documents available since the fall of the Soviet Union we now know that in the first 18 months of the war, the Soviets executed 160,000 of their own soldiers for offenses such as cowardice and desertion.  In comparison, the U.S. suffered 300,000 combat deaths during the entire war and executed one soldier for desertion. 

During the 1970s I saw Al Stewart play Roads to Moscow at the Orpheum Theater in Boston.  The song ended with a multi-screen depiction of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, who had been recently expelled by the Soviet Union after smuggling a manuscript of The Gulag Archipelago to the West.  Solzhenitsyn, while in the Soviet Army, received a 10 year sentence to the Gulag for telling a joke about Stalin.

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