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Fourth of July rocks: 10 songs inspired by American history

Fireworks over Minneapolis as onlookers pondered America's sorted historical past.

Fireworks over Minneapolis as onlookers pondered America's sorted historical past.

Hot dogs. Fireworks. Poetic explorations of an often grisly national history set to song. Those are the three things Americans think about every Fourth of July, and City Pages is here to supply a playlist suited to the latter. Patriotically shout your favorite omissions in the comment section.  

"Strange Fruit" — Billie Holiday

The song is practically a historical event in and of itself. A solemn, haunting account of Southern lynchings at the turn of the century, “Strange Fruit” is one of the earliest protest songs and a riveting indictment of America’s bloody legacy of racism. Oh, plus it was recently resurrected by Kanye West for mass millennial consumption. 

"Battle of Hampton Roads" — Titus Andronicus

Based on a pivotal naval battle that took place at the tail end of the American Civil War, the song serves as the gloriously epic closer on Titus Andronicus' gloriously epic 2010 album, The Monitor. Much like America, it’s abrasive, brooding, and very, very loud. 

"When the Levee Breaks" — Led Zeppelin

Originally written by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, “When the Levee Breaks” is a momentous retelling of the great Mississippi flood of 1927 — the most devastating river flood in American history. Also: Apologies for the inclusion of a British band; suck it forever, King George. 

"The Day the Niggaz Took Over" — Dr. Dre

Released shortly after the 1992 L.A. riots took place, Dr. Dre’s relentlessly bleak “The Day the Niggaz Took Over” was a rallying cry for West Coast gangster rap amid an ever-contentious social climate. RBX’s verse alone is enough to warrant high praise. 

"Desolation Row" — Bob Dylan

Leave it to Dylan to take the 1920 lynching of three black men in Duluth, Minnesota — a tragic blip in the grand annals of American history — and use it as the framework for a nine-minute-long acoustic epic. Naturally, there’s still testy debate among Dylan scholars regarding what “Desolation Row” is actually about. Then again, the actual intent of the majority of Dylan’s songs is debatable, really. 

"The Day John Kennedy Died" — Lou Reed

Reed was a sophomore at Syracuse University when America's idyllic Camelot was rattled by history’s perhaps most infamous and well-documented assassination. 

"Reagan" — Killer Mike

Denigrating rhymes about Ronald Reagan are one of the more tired tropes permeating modern hip-hop. But Killer Mike’s “Reagan” is a sophisticated and lyrically dense diss track that eviscerates the conservative demigod — from the Iran-Contra Affair to the War on Drugs — with unmatched intelligence and style. 

"Living with War" — Neil Young

September 11, 2001, and the ensuing Iraq War inspired an obnoxious abundance of fuzzy-headed vapidity with regard to protest music. But Neil Young’s incendiary “Living with War," the title track from his 2006 album, remains some of the best work of the era, not to mention the weathered window-rattler’s storied career. 

"Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" — Gordon Lightfoot

The title leaves little to the imagination, which is just fine. Lightfoot’s artistic account of the 1975 sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior is a reliably wondrous ditty that is more delightful than it has any right to be given the crushing subject matter. 

"Rosa Parks" — Outkast

Named after the iconic civil rights leader, “Rosa Parks” is a widely celebrated staple of '90s hip-hop that introduced the Atlanta duo’s puckish Southern boogie to the masses.