From U2's Sunday Bloody Sunday to Early B's History of Jamaica, the historical pop song has been tackled by artists working in every genre. Sometimes tinged with the political, sometimes dispassionate and removed, these songs might draw from recent events, or those of the distant past. The narrator might be a bystander, as in Bob Dylan's The Hurricane, or central to the action, like the doomed prospector of Natalie Merchant's San Andreas Fault.

But to what extent can pop teach us about the past, and how accurate are pop musicians when they write about historical events? We took some favourite historical tunes and placed them before a panel of historians. Here's what we they told us...

PJ Harvey - On Battleship Hill (2011)

In On Battleship Hill from PJ Harvey's Mercury Prize-winning Let England Shake, an unknown narrator visits one of the sites of the Gallipoli campaign 80 years after World War One, and discovers that nature has taken over.

Dr. Sarah Irving, teaching fellow in history at King's College London, says that this seems plausible. "Most of the Gallipoli site has been allowed to return to a state of 'managed wildness', with nature to some extent retaking it, but with the trenches clipped to keep them visible and with viewing platforms, gravesites, memorials, etc."

PJ Harvey has described the Galipolli campaign as "shocking, needless waste", and the song seems to point towards a feeling of sorrow evoked by the landscape left behind by war. Irving thinks the song evokes "a common reaction of melancholia and regret for the events in general, which I assume would be one of the main ways most people would react to this site".

She adds: "The idea of nature being cruel seems odd to me, when it is human beings - or, more specifically, elite men with half-baked military ideas - not nature which sent thousands to die pointlessly and miserably at sites like this."

Accuracy: 9/10

The Band - The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (1969)

The song says more about the way the Confederacy has been remembered in the white South than it does about the Civil War
Dr Adam Smith

The Band's Robbie Robertson reportedly wrote this song - about a Confederate soldier at the end of the American Civil War - using research from the Woodstock library. While Virgil Caine is a fictional protagonist, the story is anchored by real events. Dr Adam Smith, Professor of History at UCL, verifies both the existence of the Danville Line, the railroad where Caine serves, and Stoneman's cavalry, who captures it.

The first verse includes this lyric: "In the winter of 65, we were hungry, just barely alive." Smith says: "Some people in the South were starving before that - from 1863 onwards. But the winter of 1865, in the aftermath of defeat, was certainly very hard. The harvest was massively frustrated by lack of men to bring it in, as well as destruction in the war."

However, the song is wrong about the fall of Richmond, Virginia. It did not fall on 10 May, 1865, but 2 April. "The significance of 10 May was that it was the day when the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was captured by union troops," Smith says.

Smith thinks Virgil Caine is an accurate portrayal of a working class Southern man in 1865, but adds: "This kind of neo-Confederate nostalgia says more about the way the Confederacy has been remembered in the white South, and beyond, than it does about the Civil War." He enjoys the song's melody, but believes it has been adopted "as a white supremacist anthem, despite having been covered by Joan Baez, which tells you that this is a complex subject".

Accuracy: 5/10

The song says more about the way the Confederacy has been remembered in the white South than it does about the Civil War
Dr Adam Smith

The Darkness - Barbarian (2015)

In The Darkness's Barbarian, a 9th century Viking invasion of East Anglia sees the death of Edmund the Martyr at the hands of the Sons of Ragnor, led by Ivar the Boneless.

For medieval experts like Professor Julia Barrow of the University of Leeds, the scarcity of records makes the song's events difficult to verify. "No contemporary source says Ivar was part of the Great Heathen Army that attacked England 865 and later, though he may well have been one of its leaders," she says. "We have even less information about Edmund. Quite a few coins survive with his inscription on, so he presumably was king of East Anglia for several years. All we know about him is that he died in the latter part of 869 when the Great Army (Vikings) defeated the East Angles."

She adds: "The Danes/Vikings don't start being termed 'barbarians' until later on. The normal term for them in Frankish sources was 'Nortmanni' or 'Northmen', though they were sometimes called 'pagans' or 'pirates'. 'Barbarians' as a vogue insult for populations thought to be at a lower cultural level is really a 12th century development.'

Still, Barrow concludes: "The song is a lot more accurate than Abbo of Fleury's Passion of St Edmund, written in the late-10th century."

Accuracy: 7/10

Billy Joel - We Didn’t Start the Fire (1989)

[GUIDANCE: contains flashing images]

Joel is juxtaposing some serious things with pop culture references
Graham Noble

Billy Joel wrote his 1989 hit by drawing on 40 years of American history from 1949, the year of his birth.

The chronology of the song's references are painstaking. Beginning with the inauguration of Harry Truman and ending with the "rock and roller cola wars" between rival soft drinks manufacturers, it's a rapid fire, but somewhat personalised, account of 20th century American history. "Noam Chomsky would have written a rather different song," says Graham Noble, Head of History at Kent College, Canterbury.

"Joel is obviously juxtaposing some serious things with pop culture references. Maybe that's saying something about how his life is influenced in different ways. It has a big American bias, of course, but maybe understates the rights struggles of the period. Not much on feminism or Native Americans. African-American civil rights are understated. Vietnam gets Dien Bien Phu but not My Lai, which is a more shameful episode for the US. There's very little in the song that offers criticism of US policy or acknowledgement of defeat - it is sanitised, while appearing to be critical."

To Noble, the song's refrain may suggest that common people are not in control of great events. "There's sort of a weary acceptance of 'things happening'," he says. "The unique thing about the post World War Two period is the ability to destroy the earth with nuclear weapons. This underpins a lot of the Cold War references in the song."

Accuracy - 10/10

Joel is juxtaposing some serious things with pop culture references
Graham Noble

Patti Smith - Amerigo (2012)

Patti Smith's song is a poetic retelling of Amerigo Vespucci's journey to the New World, quoting directly from a famous letter supposedly written by Vespucci to Pier Soderini in 1497.

Unfortunately, the letter is a 15th century example of fake news. "Although Vespucci did indeed travel to the New World, this particular source is pretty dubious," says Catherine Fletcher, Associate Professor of History at Swansea University. "It draws on Amerigo's own, already problematic accounts, but seems to have been sensationalised for a publisher who knew that New World voyage tales could make a lot of money, with added lurid detail of cannibalism and crocodiles to ensure extra sales."

She adds: "Nonetheless, it's interesting to see how Smith makes use of it. One of the major issues in studying colonialism is that so much of what we know is written by the conquerors. Smith sticks with that - the song is all in Amerigo's voice. The indigenous people here don't speak - we just see them through the white man's gaze as he watches them dance. That's accurate to the source, but given that, unlike historians, Smith has the creative space to make things up, it also feels like a lost opportunity."

A crucial omission highlights the restrictions of the pop song format for full historical scope. "At the end of his first voyage, the real Amerigo and his shipmates seized over 200 Native Americans as slaves," Fletcher says. "Thirty-two of them died on the voyage back to Europe; the rest were sold. The real Amerigo was a slave-trader. Smith never tells us that."

Accuracy: 2/10

The Rastafarians - Occupation (1981)

The lyrics draw on historical material and are roughly consistent with dominant historical accounts
Dr Saima Nasar

Occupation from the 1981 album Orthodox by former California-based reggae group The Rastafarians begins with a simple judgement about Mussolini's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia: "Occupation by Mussolini, it was wrong." What follows is a sometimes personal, but mostly faithful account of the events following that invasion.

Dr Saima Nasar is a lecturer in the History of Africa and its Diasporas at the University of Bristol. She says that the song gets its figures pretty much correct. Mussolini did invade Ethiopia on 3 October, 1935. Following this, Haile Selassie did appeal to the League of Nations, in June 1936. "Although population statistics can be difficult, various sources do assert that Italy had a population of 42 million by 1935 and Ethiopia had a population of roughly 12 million," Nasar adds. "These are, in fact, the figures that Selassie gave in his speech to the League of Nations."

The song states that the order for the invasion came from the Vatican. This has not been proven: "The Vatican feared that a military or diplomatic defeat for Mussolini would lead to the collapse of fascism and a communist take-over in Italy, or to fascist Italy being driven into the arms of Nazi Germany. John F. Pollard in The Vatican and Italian Fascism asserts that 'though the bulk of the Italian clergy and laity gave enthusiastic, patriotic support to the imperial conquest of Ethiopia in 1935-6, and in some cases justified it on the grounds of bringing Christianity and civilisation to 'barbarians', the Vatican remained publically aloof.'"

Nonetheless, Nasar thinks that "the lyrics draw on historical material and are roughly consistent with dominant historical accounts".

Accuracy: 8/10

The lyrics draw on historical material and are roughly consistent with dominant historical accounts
Dr Saima Nasar

Robert Wyatt - Stalin Wasn't Stallin' (1982)

Originally recorded in 1943 by The Golden Gate Singers, Stalin Wasn't Stallin' was revisited by Robert Wyatt in 1982. The song depicts unabashed gratitude from America to Stalin's Soviet Union. By covering it during the Cold War, Wyatt seemed to be commenting on shifting alliances, giving it a sly new significance.

Historically, though, the lyrics are largely unreliable. Their simplistic descriptions of the "Russian Bear", the "noble fighting Yank" and both countries' entries into World War Two are described by Kent College's Graham Noble as "total nonsense".

"In August 1939, Stalin's foreign minister signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and later grabbed half of Poland as a reward," he says. "It paved the way for Hitler's invasion of Poland a week later, and the French/British declaration of war. This is not mentioned in the song."

Another omission is British involvement in the Allies' successes. "Both Russia and America were vital to victory," says Noble. "But, without Britain 'standing alone' against Nazism in 1940, Hitler would have overrun Western Europe and the temptation for America to leave the Nazis and Soviets to fight it out between themselves would have been greater."

Also, the original song's rose-tinted view of American-Soviet relations is an overstatement, Noble says. "The wartime suspicions of 'Yanks' and 'Soviets' were always in place and came bubbling to the surface in the Yalta Conference, for example. There were many suspicions about the USSR and Communism throughout the war. Consider the attack on union rights in America and the emergence of the red Scare in the immediate post-War period."

Accuracy: 1/10

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