Topical song  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A topical song is a song that comments on political and/or social events. These types of songs are usually written about current events, but some of these songs remain popular long after the events discussed in them have occurred. Typically, these songs offer a mix of narrative and commentary, although some (such as Neil Young's song "Ohio", reacting to the Kent State shootings) assume that the events are so well known that only commentary is called for.

Topical songs are often (but needn't be) protest songs. Two examples whose titles should be self-explanatory in this respect are "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" by Bob Dylan (c. 1963) and "The Marines Have Landed on the Shores of Santo Domingo" by Phil Ochs (1965). However, they may also celebrate the events described, such as the 1936 calypso "FDR in Trinidad" (a.k.a. "Roosevelt in Trinidad") recorded by several artists in Trinidad at the time (probably most famously by a singer who went by the name Atilla) and covered decades later by Ry Cooder, or Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock", about the Woodstock Festival.

Generally speaking, one would call a song "topical" only if the events referred to were at least reasonably recent at the time the song was written. Thus, Al Stewart's songs about historical events are generally not considered topical. However, "Biko" by Peter Gabriel, written in 1980, three years after Steve Biko's death in a South African prison, would generally be considered topical because the anti-apartheid struggle of which Biko was part was still in full flower when the song was written. Tom Paxton's 1978 song "The Death of Stephen Biko" is an earlier topical song about this incident. Paxton is one of many topical songwriters who emerged out of the acoustic folk genre, and he has been recording songs and commenting on events in the news since the early 1960s.

Tom Lehrer's 1965 album That Was The Year That Was consisted entirely of satirical topical songs on topics ranging from Nuclear proliferation ("MLF Lullaby") to the Second Vatican Council ("The Vatican Rag"). He originally wrote these songs for the television show That Was The Week That Was; most of them were written and first performed in the very week of the events referred to. The album also contains a song — "Folk Song Army" — which takes a satirical look at protest songs.

Although English-language topical songs are more associated with the political left than the right, this is by no means a given. Two examples of right-wing topical songwriters are Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler, whose "Ballad of the Green Berets" reached #1 on the Billboard charts for five weeks in 1966 and was also Billboard's #1 single for that year; and Toby Keith, who has written numerous songs in favor of aggressive U.S. military policies in reaction to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Although Merle Haggard is not particularly on the right politically, his 1969 song "Okie from Muskogee" was seized upon by the cultural right for its putdown of hippies.

The tradition of topical songs extends to many parts of the world. Some examples from non-English-speaking countries include "Rock 'n' Roll-Arena in Jena" by German singer Udo Lindenberg, "Criogenia salvează România" ("Cryogenia saves Romania") by the Romanian band Taxi and "Fora da ordem" ("Out of order") by the Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Topical song" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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