Songs about real people are all around us, and this month we asked you about your favorite real-person song. Here are the top 20 you all voted for, along with a deeper story of each song and person involved.
20. Drive-By Truckers | “The Living Bubba”
“The Living Bubba” comes off of the 1998 debut from Drive-By Truckers, Gangstabilly. Patterson Hood has referred to the song as one of the finest the band has recorded. The song is an homage to the Atlanta songwriter Gregory Dean Smaller, who died of AIDS in the late 90s.
19. Don McLean | “American Pie”
This American classic remembers the monumental day the “music died” in 1959, when Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens perished in a tragic plane crash. It’s the first song off of Don MClean’s 1971 album of the same name.
18. Frank Turner | “Sister Rosetta”
Frank Turner’s “Sister Rosetta” comes off of 2019’s No Man’s Land, celebrating the life of the influential Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who is considered the “Godmother of Rock and Roll.”
17. U2 | “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”
Written during a time when Bono was heavily reading the biographies of American Civil Rights leaders, U2 put this song second on their 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire, singing about “one man come in the name of love” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
16. Lou Reed | “Walk On The Wild Side”
In this classic from Transformer (1972) Holly came over from Miami. F-L-A, hitchhiking her way across the U.S.A. running into all kinds of people along the way. The song is actually a tribute to Andy Warhol’s “factory” of friends at the time, including Reed himself.
15. They Might Be Giants | “James K. Polk”
One of the great presidential songs ever written, this one comes off of 1996’s Factory Showroom, and is about the 11th president, James K. Polk. “In four short years he met his every goal. He seized the whole southwest from Mexico.”
14. The English Beat | “Stand Down Margaret”
This politically charged song from 1980’s I Just Can’t Stop asks then prime minister Margaret Thatcher (1979 – 1990) to “stand down – as in get off your soapbox. Get off your high horse. Stop trying to talk down to people. You don’t really know that much more than them, anyway.”
13. Neil Young | “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)”
From Rust Never Sleeps (1979), this classic song is inspired by, of all people, Devo’s frontman Mark Mothersbaugh. The song bookends the album, with “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)” appearing first.
12. The Neville Brothers | “Sister Rosa”
Rosa Parks is best known for her participation in the Montgomery bus boycott, and The Neville Brothers honor her story with this song from Yellow Moon, released in 1989. It begins on that day in “December 1955” when “our freedom movement came alive.”
11. The Jim Carroll Band | “People Who Died”
Jim Carroll was a famous American author and musician best known for his 1978 book The Basketball Diaries. The song comes off of the 1980 album Catholic Boy, with Carroll and the band remembering their friends.
10. Special AKA | “Free Nelson Mandela”
“Free Nelson Mandela” comes from Special AKA, released in 1984, protesting the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, which occurred in 1962. Over its trademark ska beat, the band pounds home the line “I’m begging you, free Nelson Mandela.”
9. Johnny Cash | “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes”
Ira Hayes was a celebrated Native American Marine during World War II and Cash remembers him on the 1964 album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.
8. Mojo Nixon | “Elvis Is Everywhere”
Mojo Nixon’s “Elvis Is Everywhere” is the lead track off of 1987’s Bo-Day-Shush!!! and pretty much speaks for itself, reminding us of Presley’s influence. And remember: “Everybody’s got Elvis in them… except one person: The evil opposite of Elvis – the Anti-Elvis.”
7. David Bowie | “Andy Warhol”
Warhol shows up again on this list, this time courtesy of Bowie and 1971’s Hunky Dory. Rumor has it that the first time Bowie played this song for Warhol, the artist “loathed it.”
6. Todd Snider | “D.B. Cooper”
The story of D.B. Cooper came to popularity in 1971, when a man by the pseudonym Dan Cooper hijacked a Portland to Seattle plane, attempting to extort money and parachuting out, prompting a massive manhunt and FBI investigation. Todd Snider’s version of the story comes off of Happy to Be Here, from 2000.
5. R.E.M. | “Man On The Moon”
R.E.M.’s “Man On The Moon” appeared in the 1999 film of the same name and 1992’s Automatic for the People, celebrating the unique life of comic, wrestler, and performance artist Andy Kaufman. Said Michael Stipe of the song in 2017: “I never thought I was going to write a song about Andy Kaufman and the moon landing, but it ended up being a song about faith, timelessness, spirituality, time and space, death, and darkness.”
4. Pink Floyd | “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Pts. 1-5)”
Written for Pink Floyd founding member Syd Barrett on the band’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here, the track contains the immortal lines: “remember when you were young, you shone like the sun.” Barrett left the band in 1968 due to mental illness and excessive use of psychedelics, changing the course of the band’s sound.
3. Peter Gabriel | “Biko”
This homage to the South African anti-apartheid activist Bantu Stephen Biko appears on Peter Gabriel, from 1980.
2. Replacements | “Alex Chilton”
The Replacements were hugely influenced by Big Star, and this song is a shout out to Chilton in the very best way: “and children by the million sing… for Alex Chilton!” The song appeared on Pleased to Meet Me, from 1987.
1. Bob Dylan | “Hurricane”
One of Dylan’s most recognized songs, off of 1976’s Desire, he puts to lyrics the story of Rubin Hurricane Carter, a famous middleweight boxer who was falsely convicted of a 1966 triple murder, along with his friend John Artis. Both served nearly 20 years in prison. The song helped Carter and Artis gain significant public support. Carter was freed in November 1985.