Everyone knows about the songs of the WWII years. “The White Cliffs of Dover,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and “Rum and Coca-Cola” certainly boosted morale abroad for those in the service and their loved ones back home.
Another genre is music ABOUT the war. Songs in the postwar period have sprinkled in references, either deeply personal or universal, of this global cataclysm.
The staff at the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy has long kept an informal list of these songs and we wanted to put them into playlists, the first of which is below. Each song has its own brief description provided by a staff member. We hope you enjoy our selections!
“Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones (Beggars Banquet, 1968)
We start our playlist with one of Rock’s best-known songs by one of the most famous groups of all time, a track that shows how events throughout history have been incorporated into music. Inspired by a translated work by French poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire (which was gifted to Mick Jagger by his then girlfriend Marianne Faithful), Jagger wrote the song from the Devil’s perspective. This song incorporates tragic and horrific moments in history, from Christ to the Kennedys, but made this list because of the startling and vivid line “I rode a tank, held a general's rank, When the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank.” - Jeremy Collins
"Night of the Long Knives" by AC/DC (For Those About to Rock, 1981)
This is the penultimate track on AC/DC's follow-up to their monster LP, Back in Black. Although not technically about World War II, the song touches on a major event in Nazi Germany prior to the war, the 1934 “Night of the Long Knives,” when Adolf Hitler wiped out the leadership of his SA (the Stormtroopers), along with 100s of other real or imagined enemies. While AC/DC is not known for being a political band, the lyrics sung by Brian Johnson deal with themes of betrayal and disorientation. And if you just want power chords in your life, Angus and Malcolm Young deliver as always! - Jason Dawsey, PhD
“ME 262” by Blue Öyster Cult (Secret Treaties, 1974)
This track, about Nazi Germany's Messerschmitt (ME) 262, the world's first operational turbojet fighter, appeared on their Secret Treaties album. Typical of BÖC, this up-tempo tune is a quirky, even bizarre exploration of a German pilot's mindset in the closing weeks of World War II. "ME 262" has humor (in the opening verse) mixed with rage, as the airman goes out to meet attacks by the Royal Air Force and undoubtedly to his own death. Blue Öyster Cult never shied away from controversial subject matter, but at the end of the day this song just rocks! “It was dark over Westphalia in April of ’45.” - Jason Dawsey, PhD
“Sands of Iwo Jima” by Drive by Truckers (The Dirty South, 2004)
Written by guitarist Patterson Hood, the name of the song is taken from the iconic movie starring John Wayne. The singer is watching the movie with his uncle, a WWII veteran. He asks his uncle, was the war really like that? His uncle replies “I never saw John Wayne on the sands of Iwo Jima.” The DBTs remain one of the most socially conscious bands around and in this particular song they take a look back at a monumental chapter in the history of the United States. - Dan Olmsted
"The Ballad of Ira Hayes" by Johnny Cash (Bitter Tears, 1964)
Written by folk singer Peter La Farge and recorded by Johnny Cash on his concept album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian album, "Ballad" was a huge hit for Cash. Although the song has been covered by many other artists, including Bob Dylan, Cash's version is the most famous and, arguably, the best. It describes Ira Hayes, a member of the Pima Nation of Arizona, who served in the Battles of Bougainville and Iwo Jima with the United States Marine Corps. On Iwo Jima, Hayes participated in the second flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, the event immortalized by Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer Prize-winning photo. The song narrates the story of Hayes's tragically short life and the continuing struggles of the Pima people for justice. No collection of songs about World War II would be complete without it! - Jason Dawsey, PhD
“Manhattan Project” by Rush (Power Windows, 1985)
Written by drummer and lyricist Neil Peart, the song takes the listener through the creation of the first atomic bombs. The song begins with the team of scientists, led by Robert Oppenheimer, who created the bomb and concludes with the dropping of the bomb from the Enola Gay on Japan. “Big Bang took and shook the world. Shot down the Rising Sun.” Listen to how the crescendo builds in the song, until the end with the dropping of the bomb. - Dan Olmsted
“Military Madness” by Graham Nash (Songs for Beginners, 1971)
Though seen as Vietnam protest song, which it is, Nash’s “Military Madness” brings in his own personal history. With her husband off in the British Army, Nash’s pregnant mother was evacuated from Salford, England (a town outside of Manchester) and sent to Blackpool. There she gave birth to Graham on February 2, 1942 in a hotel that was transformed into an improvised hospital. Nash sings of the destruction wrought on his home country during World War II and worries that the same thing was happening to his adopted nation, the United States. - Jeremy Collins
“When the Tigers Broke Free” by Pink Floyd (Final Cut, 1983)
Perhaps one of the most autobiographical songs in Rock history, Roger Waters wrote this song about his father, Eric, who was a member of the 8th Royal Fusiliers, Company Z, and whose unit was wiped out during a German counterattack at the Anzio beachhead on February 18, 1944. Roger was only 5 months old. The song, which was rejected for inclusion in the album The Wall, as it was deemed too personal to Waters’ life story, did indeed open the feature film of the same name with a flashback to the front lines, as “Pink’s” father prepares for battle. - Jeremy Collins
“Leningrad” by Billy Joel (Storm Front, 1989)
The track is about a Russian poet whom Joel met, Viktor Razinov, while touring the Soviet Union. Razinov lost his father in World War II and Joel explains what it was like growing up during the Cold War era, “I was born in ’49, a Cold War kid in McCarthy time.” This is a poignant song which reminds us how World War II led to the Cold War. - Dan Olmsted