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  • Writer's pictureFiona Mountain

This Song is Based on a True Story

My favourite stories in books and films are often the ones that contain a nugget of fact. I’ve just finished reading ‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver, which contains all three of my favourite fiction elements - it’s a time-slip, it’s about a crumbling old house, and it’s based on a real (forgotten) person, in this case the naturalist and correspondent of Charles Darwin, Mary Treat.

The novels I’ve written myself all grew from seeds of truth. Isabella, the Lady of the Butterflies aka Eleanor Glanville, and Henry Jermyn, hero of Cavalier Queen were all real people, consigned to the footnotes of history, while Pale as the Dead and Bloodline were inspired by historical events.

The book I’ve just finished writing, The Keeper of Songs is inspired by a centuries’ old Derbyshire ballad, ‘The Runaway Lovers’ about a real tragedy of doomed love. It’s made me realise that not only do I love novels and movies that are ‘based on a true story’ but songs too.

One of my favourite songs ever, is Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting, about a man who invented a giant contraption to shoot at clouds to make rain. It sounds fantastical but Wilhelm Reich was a real person, who also invented a metal box which he claimed harnessed a person’s sexual energy for health benefits. He was taken away by men in a ‘big, black car’ and died in prison in 1957.

There are lots more modern pop songs based on real historical figures or events. Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson has a great way of telling a historical story within three or so minutes of a heavy rock song! ‘The Empire of the Clouds’ is inspired by the airship disaster of 1930. The Trooper is inspired by the Crimean War and Passchendaele is about, weirdly enough, the battle of Passchendaele.

Here are a few more:

  • Rasputin by Boney M - the Russian mystic and self-proclaimed holy man who befriended the family of Emperor Nicholas II.

  • Fotheringay by Sandy Denny - Mary Queen of Scots

  • The Death of Love by Cradle of Filth - Joan of Arc

  • Candle in the Wind by Elton John - Marilyn Monroe

  • Pompeii by Bastille & Cities in Dust by Siouxsie and The Banshees - the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

  • The New York Mining Disaster by the Bee Gees - the event in 1941

  • American Pie by Don McLean - the plane crash in 1959 that killed Buddy Holly and Richie Valens.

  • Casey Jones by The Grateful Dead - a Railroad engineer who rode the cannonball express to his death in 1900

  • Red Alert by Saxon - the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant

  • Hudson by Vampire Weekend - Henry Hudson, an English sea explorer who disappeared in 1611.

  • The Infanta by The Decemberists - Maria Teresa in the court of Louis IVX

  • Tempest by Bob Dylan - the Titanic disaster

  • Cortez the Killer by Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés

  • All and Everyone by PJ Harvey - the battle of Gallipoli

  • Released this year, Seth Lakeman whole album A Pilgrim's Tale tells the epic tale of the Pilgrim Fathers on the 400th anniversary of the historic Mayflower voyage.

  • When the Levee Breaks by Led Zeppelin - the Mississippi River Flood of 1927

  • Dust Bowl by 10,000 Maniacs - the severe dust storms of the 1930's that destroyed Midwestern farmland

  • The Big Three Killed My Baby by the White Stripes - this song is about the struggle of 1960s American automobile entrepreneur Preston Tucker to open a new company!

I’m sure there must be lots more examples?

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