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What's your favorite topical song?

Friday, October 31, 2008 - 12:02 PM

When I was in high school, I found a record by a comedian I’d never heard of – someone who was apparently big in the 50s – named Stan Freberg. Even though I didn’t get all the references to what were apparently pop culture figures and phenomena of the an earlier generation, Freberg’s musical gifts were apparent, and his wacky takes on songs like “The Great Pretender” and “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” struck me as borderline genius. It seems that musical and comedic gifts often go hand in hand. Think of Steve Martin and his banjo, for example, or Eric Idle and his various songwriting endeavors, with and without his friend George Harrison.

When you add politics to the mix, as Harry Shearer has done in his new album, “Songs of the Bushmen,” it reminds me of something else: John Cleese once said on Fresh Air with Terry Gross that much of his comedy came from feelings of rage that he didn’t otherwise feel comfortable expressing. At some point, Shearer’s angry, pointed barbs about Bush’s administration will be dulled by time; so the question is, do songs like this come with a “best before” date somehow stamped on them? Stan Freberg’s songs are still funny because they play on archetypal images of how musicians behave and how the creative process and the practicalities of a song can clash. It seems to me that how well comic songs do over time depends on how independent the music and comedy is from the specific times and people that inspired them.

Like Stan Freberg, Shearer has evident musical gifts – but anyone who’s seen him in “Spinal Tap” or “A Mighty Wind” already knows that. On the new album, he takes on everything from classic rock to blues, from jazz to Beethoven. The musicians are terrific. But will the comedy survive when the Bush administration has faded away? Given the length of the current presidential campaign, figures like John Bolton and Karen Hughes already seem like ancient history, and songs about them somewhat quaint. But then there’s a song like “Who Is Yoo?” – which blatantly rips off the Who’s classic song “Who Are You?” and recasts it as a funny indictment of John Yoo’s infamous memos on the possible uses of torture. A song like this may still be relevant, unfortunately, when Yoo’s name has faded into history’s footnotes.

Do you have any favorite “topical” songs from bygone years that still sound good today? Or is this type of song doomed to a short shelf life just by its very nature?


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Comments [12]

Mike J

Though there are undoubtedly hundreds of great songs and many artists who have written on the subject, I immediately thought of David Bowie. I can think of a few off the top of my head:
We Are The Dead (Diamond Dogs)
My Death
Rock and Roll Suicide, and my favorite...

Nov. 19 2008 02:22 PM
Jerome Bass


Nov. 12 2008 04:43 PM

Freda Payne - "Bring the Boys Home"
Marvin Gaye - "What's Happening Brother", "Back in the World"
Bob Marley - "Get Up, Stand Up", "Exodus", "War"
Curtis Mayfield, "If There's a Hell Below"
James Brown, "Living in America"

Nov. 03 2008 01:11 PM

I haven't heard that Christine Lavin song, Elizabeth, but the way you describe it it must have a new lease on life.

Nov. 03 2008 09:11 AM

Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)."

Nov. 02 2008 08:18 PM

Christine Lavin
"We Are The True Americans"

This song is hilarious. I first heard it in high school - my friend who had very New York (and cool) parents had it on c.d. I memorized it, of course. Now, it seems even more pertinent.

The fact that it's told from the point of view of a Republican and why she's right makes it better.

Nov. 02 2008 08:54 AM
Dan H


I recently re-discovered "Dialogue PArts 1 & 2" by Chicago. The lyrics could be written today - particularly the exchange where the older guy says "Don't you get worried the way the war keeps dragging on?", and the younger guy replies "I hope the President know what he doing - I don't know, I just don't know."

Nov. 01 2008 01:06 PM

current fave:
Isle of Joy, as done by Bobby Short

Always makes my forget what's wrong with the city.
Maybe this is a "Place" song and belongs to a differing category, so be it.

Nov. 01 2008 11:36 AM

A Hard Rain Gonna Fall

Nov. 01 2008 11:05 AM

As for a comic political song, it's hard to beat Tom Lehrer's "So Long Mom (I'm Off to Drop the Bomb)." (Years later I found it was based on a WWII song that went "Goodbye Mama, I'm off to Yokohama.")

Nov. 01 2008 09:17 AM

Whether or not I remember those "bygone years," some songs still resonate with me; just last week I was singing Les Rice's "Banks of Marble" to myself. There are so many songs I like that it's hard to choose among them, but here are a few:

I Ain't Marching Anymore, by Phil Ochs
The Times They Are a-Changin' by Bob Dylan
Bring Them Home, by Pete Seeger
Last Train to Nuremberg, by Pete Seeger
We Didn't Know, by Tom Paxton
Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation, by Tom Paxton
The Albatross, by Malvina Reynolds
So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh, by Woody Guthrie
Sixteen Tons, by Merle Travis (a big hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford in the 50's)
The Fish Cheer and I-Feel-like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag (Country Joe and the Fish's "Vietnam Rag")
Won't Get Fooled Again, by Pete Townshend

Nov. 01 2008 09:03 AM
joe gerardi



Oct. 31 2008 02:29 PM

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