What’s in a song? For a short list of enduring classics, there’s more than enough inside those three minutes, give or take, to warrant an entire “biography.” There are books about “Louie Louie,” “White Christmas” and, sampled by Kanye West on his Yeezus album, the anti-lynching lament “Strange Fruit.” They’re all anthems of a sort—hymns, rallying cries and commemorative ballads that unite troops to a cause or a shared emotion.
The past year saw the publication of several such books, including titles devoted to the social significance of Martha and the Vandellas’ Motown classic “Dancing in the Street,” the boob-tube ubiquity of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and the Civil War-era “song that marches on,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Here’s an album’s worth of songs for the ages that inspired their own biographies.
Rosen, currently New York Magazine’s music critic, opens his book on the widely recorded and lucrative of pop songs by noting that, of all the lasting songs composer Irving Berlin wrote (“Blue Skies,” “God Bless America,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business”), this holiday perennial could be the one folks are least likely to know Berlin penned. “It’s hard to comprehend the song having been written at all,” Rosen writes. Then he explains just how it happened.
“Some are convinced the Irish are not serious about anything other than saying goodbye,” Malachy McCourt writes in his ode to this heart-tugging, barroom sing-along. He devotes most of his pages to dissecting the lyric’s meaning and its traditional renditions, bypassing such richly cornball recordings as Conway Twitty’s hopped-up rock ‘n’ roll version from 1960.
AP editor-at-large Ted Anthony dug deep into the folk origins of “House of the Rising Sun,” the wrong-side-of-the-tracks weeper made famous by the Animals, with versions by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Dolly Parton, Cat Power and many more. His book is part musicology, part travelogue from New Orleans to Kentucky and back.
Mark Kurlansky, the master of the microhistory (“Salt,” “The Big Oyster,” etc.), has alternated his gustatory interests with reminiscences from his formative years in the activist ‘60s. Ready for a Brand New Beat traces the path of a Motown hit that was just intended to get people dancing but, instead, became the soundtrack to a radical era.
A contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Margolick explains how the eerie ballad helped spark the early flames of the Civil Rights Movement. He recounts the story of songwriter Abe Meeropol, who conceived a powerfully grotesque kind of protest song equating the bodies of lynching victims with the title phrase “Strange Fruit.” Time magazine named it the Song of the Century.
Standells singer and onetime Mouseketeer Dick Dodd, who died last November, had never set foot in Boston when he first sang the song that gave his band its calling card. A garage-y ode to a city peppered with frustrated women and filthy rivers, “Love That Dirty Water” was written by producer Ed Cobb. This biography of the song was published during the second of three Red Sox championship seasons of the new millennium, which have established the song as a Boston sports tradition.
It seems almost unbelievable now, but Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was not widely noted upon its release in 1984. It took cover versions by John Cale and, later, Jeff Buckley to illuminate the song’s ambiguous genius. After appearing in “Shrek” and on every singing competition known to man, Cohen himself called for a temporary moratorium on his own song.
Rock scholar Marcus has eaten many of his meals off the enigma that is Dylan. In his plunge into the depths of “the greatest pop single ever made,” Marcus looks back at pre-pop hand-me-downs such as “Railroad Bill” and “New Minglewood Blues” before deciding that “Like a Rolling Stone” “probably owes more to Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 ‘Howl’ than to any song.”
Veteran rock critic Marsh has a rollicking good time making mock-scholarly study out of the garage classic known for its unintelligible lyrics (which attracted an FBI obscenity investigation). It tells “the story of rock ‘n’ roll in a nutshell,” he claims. OK, let’s give it to ‘em, right now!
Unmistakably rooted in the Civil War, Julia Ward Howe’s lyrics for this traditional patriotic song were crafted without particulars of time and place, making the “glory, glory, hallelujah” of this battle song endlessly adaptable. Johnny Cash and Whitney Houston sang it, and Elvis incorporated Mickey Newbury’s version of the song into “An American Trilogy.”
As Shaw tells it, Woody Guthrie was freezing by the side of the road, looking to hitch a ride, when he decided to pen a rebuttal to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” The song frankly ticked him off, so Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land” in response. In the process, he set a model for another great American tradition – the diss track.
James Sullivan is an author, a regular Boston Globe contributer and an editor for Rolling Stone’s webite. You can follow him at @sullivanjames.