So maybe Memorial Day is really to honor solely fallen servicemen and servicewomen in the United States. But we wanted to make a list of the top ten songs memorializing just about anyone to give us a little more to choose from. So whether it be a fallen loved one, fellow musician, fictional character or national figure, all songs about the deceased are fair game. So in the words of everyone’s favorite dead collector, “Bring out yer dead”.
Editor’s Note: This list was originally posted in 2012 for Memorial Day.
10. The Black Keys – “Unknown Brother”
Backstory: This song was written as a tribute to a brother-in-law of Dan’s that he unfortunately never met. The young man died at age 17, while he was still in high school due to cancer. We are a bit unsure of the exact details of why the two never met, but he obviously had a big impact on the rest of the family’s lives. Through the stories that exist, the pictures that exist, and this beautifully soulful song, his memory will live on.
Why We Love It: It’s hard to resist the classic sound of this tune. Like a few other songs off Brothers, it instantly transports you back to the soulful 60’s era and with the sincerity of the lyrics and delicate vocals, it’s hard not to let your heart sink into this track and feel Dan’s pain for his lost brother and hopefulness that he will indeed meet him someday.
9. Elton John – “Candle in the Wind”
Backstory: Originally meant as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, Sir Elton managed to turn “Candle in the Wind” into a cash cow 24 years after its original release by releasing a version as tribute to Dianna, Princess of Wales. The version in tribute to Princess Di is the biggest-selling single of all time.
Why We Love It: “Candle in the Wind” is just one of many examples of what make Elton John one of the greatest hit-makers of all time. With the right environment, like seeing him live or a Princess Di montage, the song never fails to give even the biggest scrooge a little chill.
8. Puff Daddy ft. 112 & Faith Hill – “I’ll Be Missing You”
Backstory: Following Notorious B.I.G.’s 1997 what was best friend and frequent collaborator Puff Daddy to do? Create a chart-topping single, that’s what. With the help of once-hot-but-now-forgotten R&B group 112 (alright “Peaches & Cream” is pretty awesome) and Biggy’s widow, Faith Evans, Puff created a smash-hit without Biggy’s help for the first time. All it took was his best friend’s death. Interesting side note: Puff performed this song at the Concert for Dianna, making this the second song on our list that has been reassigned to Princess Di posthumously.
Why We Love It: What’s not to love? You have Puff’s slick production, including samples of “Every Breath You Take” by The Police and the American spiritual “I’ll Fly Away”. You have the actual widow of the subject of the song belting away on the track. Puff’s delivery also allows slow-tongued white boys like myself to “rap” flawlessly over the track.
7. M. Ward – “Requiem”
Backstory: It’s hard to tell if this song was actually based on a real man or not. With the amount of ferocious passion M. Ward displays in this song, you would assume it was based off an old relative that died in war, but there isn’t any evidence out there that we can find to strongly support that. The nature of the album and even the title does also show promise to that theory. Although this is still just someone’s interpretation, here is one description that I thought fit the song almost perfectly: “this song makes me think of a grandfather who served in a World War, someone who likes to tell his stories, share his kindness not expecting anything in return, and hold his grandchildren on his lap, maybe sit in a big comfortable chair and smoke his pipe, a man who is old and wrinkled and stubborn as heck but very lovable…what a nice man.” Although not technically accurate, we like this interpretation.
Why We Love It: This track exudes dignity and honor. It is essentially the Ron Swanson of songs, and if you watch Parks and Recreation, you know that Ron Swanson is modeled after every dignify-able man there ever was. The song will have you screaming the lyrics from the first time you ever hear it. Live, it’s an incredible animal of a song as well. M. Ward is a brilliant Americana musician and this is one of his most passionate tracks. Whoever it is actually based upon must have been one helluva man.
6. J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers – “Last Kiss”
Backstory: “Last Kiss” was originally written by Wayne Cochran, and later covered by J.Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers (and also Pearl Jam and others). Wayne Cochran was inspired by living by a busy highway which claimed many lives. Coincidentally, J. Frank Wilson’s manager, Sonley Roush, died in a car accident shortly after suggesting Wilson cover the song.
Why We Love It: “Last Kiss” is one of the staples that those who ever listened to “oldies” radio grew up on. It just has that infinitely classic, simple sound that defines the era leading up to the British Invasion. Wilson’s version also is a bit of an anomaly on this list for sounding so upbeat when singing about a tragic death.
5. Roy Orbison – “Leah”
Backstory: There is really not much to be found as far as backstory goes for “Leah”. The only explanation is that Leah is a fictional character created when artists used to rely on imagination more than realism. “Leah” is simply a made-up narrative about a man dreaming about his lost love and only being able to spend time with her in his dreams.
Why We Love It: From Orbison’s vocal delivery of the first couple lines where he combines “hey” and “Leah” into one word (kind of like “heylia”), to the simple narrative structure, “Leah” is an Orbison classic. “Leah” reminds us all of a simpler time in music in general and is a sentimental favorite.
4. U2 – “Pride (In the Name of Love)
Backstory: U2 is a band that consists of a bunch of white Irishmen, so I find it interesting that they would make a song about Martin Luther King Jr. Not bad, just interesting. Apparently, “Pride” was originally supposed to be about Ronald Reagan’s pride in the American military (this is not a joke), but was changed to be about MLK Jr.
Why We Love It:“Pride” is just power from front to back. Starting with Edge’s patented scaling guitar and ending with Bono’s powerful vocals, “Pride” brings the whole package. This is all without mentioning one of the more iconic chorus’s in U2’s extensive catalogue.
3. My Morning Jacket – “Dondante”
Backstory: Jim James wrote “Dondante” about a childhood friend from Louisville, KY that passed away much too soon. This backstory was first revealed, to my knowledge, during the taping of VH1’s Storytellers. James confided that this friend gave him his first guitar and was visibly moved to genuine tears.
Why We Love It: The backstory of “Dondante” just makes it that much more chilling to listen to. This track is the height of Jim Jame’s wailing coupled with a relaxed bit of drum and guitar soloing. For anyone who got to see “Dondante” live during the Z tour, the experience now carries that much more emotional weight.
2. Bob Dylan – “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”
Backstory: This song came at a time when racism was still an issue at large. Hattie Carroll was a black barmaid that was killed by a local tobacco farmer in one of the most legendarily racist counties in the States. He only served a six month stent in prison afterwards … after drunkly beating numerous black employees of the Emerson Hotel with a cane, including 51 year-old, mother to eleven, Hattie Carroll. Dylan wrote this song in Hattie’s honor and still considers it one of his best tracks, performing it regularly almost 50 years later.
Why We Love It: It is a song alone in its category. It portrays exactly what happened and directly calls the nation to action. It’s only actual release was a live version recorded in 1964 and released on the most infamous (mostly due to this song in particular) releases of the Bootleg series. It’s truth, it’s passion, and it’s message puts this song in a league of its own, and nothing in popular music can reach its parallel for what it’s trying to accomplish.
1. Neil Young – “The Needle and the Damage Done”
Backstory: Uncle Neil wrote this track to address the heroin addiction of many of his contemporaries, and in particular his Crazy Horse guitarist, Danny Whitten. Neil and Crazy Horse were able to survive these crazy days, but unfortunately, Danny Whitten was not able to do the same.
Why We Love It: For anyone who has known someone with a serious drug addiction (pot doesn’t count unless the person was keestering it), “The Needle and the Damage Done” probably hits a little too close to home. Not many people are able to address such a heavy issue as drug addiction with the subtlety that Neil Young was able to on this classic track.
Todd: Sonic Youth – “100 %”
Backstory: Sonic Youth dedicated this noise-pile to Joe Cole, who was a roadie for Black Flag and the Rollins Band. Cole was shot and killed during a burglary attempt, when him and Henry Rollins were walking home from attending a Hole concert at the Whiskey A Go Go. Further proof that what your mother always told you is true: “Nothing good can ever come from attending a Hole concert”
Why Todd Loves It: Raw, uncontrollable, and like the album title suggests, dirty. It is the epitome of an early Sonic Youth track, and the guitar can make someone seize. It’s the opening track of a great album, and sets the tone for the remaining tracks. It took awhile for Todd to absorb the lyrics, but ultimately, it struck him as one of the more sincere and meaningful tracks of the early Youth.
Wes: Johnny Cash – “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”
Backstory: Written by Peter La Farge before being popularized by Johnny Cash, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” tells the story of, that’s right, Ira Hayes. Ira Hayes is one of the six servicemen who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Why Wes Loves It: Wes is notoriously racist toward Native American Indians, and just really enjoys Johnny Cash calling Ira Hayes a “whiskey-drinking Indian”.
Austin: Gordon Lightfoot – “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”
Backstory: Most of the backstory of this American tragedy is contained in the song itself if you give it a listen. “Wreck” tells the story of the wreck of a ship-liner, The Edmund Fitzgerald, from beginning to end, and is poetic all the way through.
Why I Love It: I think most people will at least be vaguely familiar with this song from when they were a kid. I was reintroduced to Gordon Lightfoot’s masterpiece in college. My roommate and I became so enamored with it we bought it on vinyl and damned if we didn’t put that record on almost every evening as a capper on our night.