Famous Songs With Dark Historical Meanings

A little bit of tragedy goes a long way. While life's more terrible events might not seem like the best place to launch a creative endeavor, pain can provide great inspiration for artists and musicians. Hidden beneath the soaring guitars of your favorite songs, you can find a fair amount of information about historical events both large and small. Here are some tunes that deal with some pretty dark parts of human history.

Polaris - "Hey Sandy"

The theme song for Nickelodeon's The Adventures of Pete & Pete is a hazy anthem to freedom and summertime...or at least it seems to be. The song, performed by Miracle Legion (under the pseudonym Polaris), includes a passage of garbled lyrics, and to this day, singer Mark Mulcahy refuses to elaborate on what he's actually saying. Song analysts have figured out that Mulcahy is singing about the death of Sandra Scheuer, who was shot during the infamous Kent State shootings, which is obviously not totally appropriate subject material for a light-hearted kids show, so the singer remains mush-mouthed.

Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young - "Ohio"

Neil Young was another musician who was deeply inspired by the tragic events at Kent State, prompting him to write the anti-Nixon, anti-violence anthem "Ohio," which chants "four dead in Ohio" in reference to the four unarmed students who were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guardsmen during the incident. The song's criticism of Nixon, who was not actually responsible for the shootings, kept the song off the radio for many years, but "Ohio" still found play underground, and is now regarded as one of the top 500 greatest songs of all time.

DEVO - "Jocko Homo"

The third song in an informal trilogy about the Kent State shootings, "Jocko Homo" was the first DEVO song ever written. Future DEVO members Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale were both present at Kent when guardsmen fired into their crowd, and the experience was transformative. Casale quickly transformed from a self-described hippie into a pessimist after witnessing the deaths of his friends, and DEVO's overarching theory of de-evolution was quickly formed, positing that people were reverting to primitive, violent, ape-like forms instead of becoming more enlightened. "Jocko Homo," which loosely translates to "ape-man," is a direct expression of DEVO's newfound disappointment with the human race after being at Kent State.

Nirvana - "Polly"

It's obvious that Nirvana's "Polly" is about some pretty dark stuff, but Kurt Cobain's inspiration was pulled from national headlines rather than his messed-up personal life. Serial rapist Gerald Friend was originally condemned in 1960 to 75 years in Washington State Prison for the rape and torture of a 12-year old girl, but was released in 1980, only to repeat the same crime in 1987. Nirvana's song rhapsodizes about the dark thoughts of Friend during his second known abduction. Thankfully, both of Friend's victims escaped, and Friend will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol - "Strange Fruit"

The lyrics of "Strange Fruit" don't make any secrets about their meaning, if you're paying attention. Originally written in 1937 as a poem by Jewish teacher Abel Meeropol to protest racism and the violence associated with it, the song was most notably performed by Billie Holiday in 1939. Meeropol stated that the song was inspired by a popular photograph of two young black men hanging from a tree after being beaten and lynched, after being abducted from a jail while awaiting trial for murder. The comparison of fruit to human corpses remains incredibly haunting today.

Pearl Jam - "Jeremy"

Superficially, Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" sounds like it's about a nerdy, picked-on kid coming out of his shell, but the song's video makes the real meaning a little more clear. Eddie Vedder wrote the song about a combination of two school shootings; a 15-year old named Jeremy Delle committing suicide in front of his English class, and a kid named Brian opening fire in an oceanography class at Vedder's own high school. MTV didn't necessarily want to air an anthem for school shooters, so the music video was left ambiguous enough to allow regular play, despite spatters of blood being visible at the end.

The Boomtown Rats - "I Don't Like Mondays"

"I Don't Like Mondays" wasn't as big a hit in the U.S. as it was in Ireland, but the inspiration for the song came straight from San Diego. A mentally impaired 16-year old girl named Brenda Ann Spencer barricaded herself in her house and opened fire on an elementary school across the street, killing two adults and injuring nine children. When she was asked about her motivation for shooting at the school, she remarked that she didn't like Mondays, and that the shooting would "liven things up a bit." Understandably, Spencer has been denied parole multiple times. Bob Geldof heard the news while on tour, as well as Spencer's inane reasoning, and was inspired to pen the song.

The Cranberries - "Zombie"

The Cranberries' most popular song is obviously about the ravages of war, referring to guns and bombs directly, but more specifically, the song was inspired by two important events in Ireland's history. The main inspiration for the song is the 1993 bombing of Warrington, England by the IRA, which killed two small boys and injured many adults, but the song also refers to the many innocent bystanders who were killed in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. While critics originally thought that the song didn't give the subject the respect it deserved, it's still one of the Cranberries' more memorable hits.

Iron Maiden - "Two Minutes To Midnight"

According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the metaphorical Doomsday Clock is the means by which we measure mankind's imminent path to self-destruction. Songwriter Bruce Dickinson has said that Iron Maiden's song refers to war in general, but the song's title refers to a period in 1953 when the Soviet Union and United States were both testing nuclear weapons, and the world's scientists were pretty sure that we were all doomed. At one minute to midnight, everyone gets their own personal bunker, and at midnight, those bunkers explode, so enjoy your TV shows while you can.