In honor of Oxford University Press publishing the paperback edition of Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution, I thought we might strike up a playlist. The annotations make it a long entry, so if you’re in the mood for some Friday fun, please follow me below the fold. In the meantime, pick up a copy and add it to your syllabus today.
I should start by saying that there isn’t much musical, historical, or thematic rhyme or reason to this list (which I first created in 2007 when the hardcover edition was published): I just wanted a CD-length playlist inspired by the book, drawn from songs I already owned (although I did hunt down a couple more). Under my self-imposed rule, the songs had to have “rebels,” “rising”, “city,” “cities,” or the name of one of the book’s five cities (Boston, New York City, Newport, Charleston, and Philadelphia) in the title. I also included songs that corresponded with the introduction and epilogue. Where songs are named for a specific city, they are in chapter order; the three “rebels” songs precede the three “rising” songs. Here’s the book’s table of contents if you’d like to follow along.
1. “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” Jay-Z (2001) or “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” Bobby “Blue” Bland (1974)
The first of these songs, of course, samples the second. Choose Jay-Z’s version if you prefer a faster tempo and a more current sound, and if you don’t mind the off-color language, poor gender politics, and braggadocio of hip-hop. Choose Bobby “Blue” Bland if you prefer a slower-paced song about lost love, a song that evokes the palpable nature of the city’s physical setting. Either way the song’s title fits with the book’s introduction: I wrote my dissertation on the revolutionary movement as it unfolded in the cities because I felt, historiographically, that there’d been “no love” for the topic for quite a while.
2. “Rebel, Rebel,” David Bowie (1974)
There’s a reason why the idea of “rebels” appeals so much to rock musicians. David Bowie sings here about teenagers, transgressive sexuality, and annoying your parents. A rebellious spirit certainly animated a lot of eighteenth-century Sons of Liberty, too, particularly among the youth. J. L. Bell has written a bit on this theme.
3. “Boston,” Augustana (2005)
A pretty song by a California group with a nice piano melody about loss and dreams. Due to its inclusion in TV soundtracks, this song had started to get radio play just as I moved to Tufts University (which has a beautiful view of the Boston skyline from the roof of the library). Like many people, the narrator of this song seeks out the city for the anonymity it provides.
4. “Rebel Rouser,” Duane Eddy (1958)
An instrumental track, one that will be familiar to a lot of folks because it was on the soundtrack to Forrest Gump. Also, I like the title’s pun: Samuel Adams’s enemies certainly thought of him as a rabble rouser, but in the decade of James Dean, rousing rebels suddenly seemed like not such a bad thing. This song evokes the rebellious potential of rock, by one of the genre’s original guitar gods.
5. “New York City,” moe. (2001)
My younger brother has been following this jam band from upstate New York since the 1990s, and I once managed to get the whole band (though the then-drummer is now long gone) to sign a t-shirt for him. I’ve seen moe. in concert in at least four different states. The chorus rings out, “New York City I’m coming home again.” I like this paradoxical idea about the cities, as expressed in rock music: on the one hand, they’re places to escape and hide; on the other hand, the craziness of the cities also makes them “home” for people who like a little craziness in their lives.
6. “Fool for the City,” Foghat (1975)
If there’s anyone who’s a fool for the city, it’s me.
7. “Back in the New York Groove,” Ace Frehley (1978)
An irresistible song. “It’s gonna be ecstasy, this place was meant for me.” Try strolling down the streets of New York City when you’ve got this in your iPod: it’s transformative.
8. “Rebel Yell,” Billy Idol (1984)
Billy Idol thought of the title for this song when he saw members of the Rolling Stones passing around a bottle of Rebel Yell bourbon from Kentucky, so the origins of this song probably have more to do with the Civil War than the American Revolution. (And yet Idol puts a twist on it: “She don’t like slavery, she won’t sit and beg.”) Still, this song sits in between two songs about New York City, and my chapter on NYC was all about alcohol. So it all fits.
9. “An Open Letter to NYC,” The Beastie Boys (2004)
I felt like changing up genres (and this song is all about the dynamic nature of the city), and I also like the idea that this song serves as a lovely rejoinder to former Atlanta Braves closer Johnny Rocker’s execrable comments about riding the Number 7 subway. Another fun fact about me: when I lived in Brooklyn Heights during the summer I started work on my undergraduate senior thesis, I stayed in the house next door to where one of the Beastie Boys grew up. By the way, it was exceedingly difficult not to load up this playlist with songs about New York; there are a lot. I also didn’t want to be too clichéd (“New York, New York”) or too obscure. In the book I mention New York City’s role as the terminus for mail from London, hence my choice of a song with “open letter” in the title.
10. “Living for the City,” Stevie Wonder (1973)
A socially conscious, seven-minute epic about the alienating nature of cities, particularly for African-Americans, which is something I tried to capture in Rebels Rising. The line was later sampled by Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.”
11. “Newport Nightmare,” Skulker (2000)
I cheated here, in that Skulker is (actually was) an all-female Australian band, and presumably they’re referring to Newport, Australia, and not Newport, Rhode Island. In my defense, though, the English weren’t always very imaginative in their place names as they conquered different parts of the world, and also, finding songs with “Newport” in the title is pretty difficult.
12. “Bad Moon Rising,” Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
Here’s a song for the Loyalists, who saw lots of bad omens in the Revolution. Many right-thinking people feel the same way as The Dude in The Big Lebowski did about his cherished CCR tape.
13. “Charleston,” Bad News Bears (2007)
This is easily the most obscure track, by a couple of guys from Philadelphia with an upbeat pop sound, but those smaller colonial cities just don’t apparently inspire as many tributes. I can’t make out the lyrics well enough to hear whether the song has anything to do with Charleston.
14. “Paradise City,” Guns N’ Roses (1987)
Another song that plays with the paradox of cities: they’re far from the pastoral “paradise” that Thomas Jefferson envisioned, and yet, as Axl sings, “won’t you please take me home.” (Then again, the song’s chorus is thought to be about heroin, so let’s not overthink things.) The urchin living under the street in this song bitterly rejects Benjamin Franklin’s notion that the journey from rags to riches is possible (or even desirable) for everyone. Also, dude, stadium-sized guitar riffs!
15. “The Rising,” Bruce Springsteen (2002)
Another song about a narrator’s difficult and troubling journey. Say what you will about The Rising being anticlimactic after his previous albums, blah blah blah. But American historians are captivated by Springsteen: see Louis P. Masur previewing his upcoming book and Eric Alterman’s work re-reviewed. This piece is a companion to “My City of Ruins,” below.
16. “Philadelphia Freedom,” Elton John (1975)
Technically this song is a tribute to Billie Jean King and her tennis franchise, but there’s a reason that people pair the words “Philadelphia” and “freedom” together in the first place, and it ain’t just alliteration. Anyway, like many of the songs in this playlist, Sir Elton’s tune plays with the idea of striking out on a journey and making a home away from home in the city. People who study sexuality often find that there’s something particularly liberating about the urban setting. Maybe Clare Lyons and George Chauncey were onto something. In any case, to all my gender-conscious buddies, I hope the inclusion of Elton John and David Bowie make up for Jay-Z’s slurs.
17. “House of the Rising Sun,” The Animals (1964)
What would an American Revolution playlist be without the British Invasion? Granted, this song is about a house in New Orleans (“the ruin of many a poor boy”), but it’s got the word “rising” in the title, and I like this song. The wikipedia entry for this song is actually quite interesting. The heroic Library of Congress rescued this folk song from obscurity, and I like stories where librarians are the heroes.
18. “Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll,” Blue Oyster Cult (1972)
I’ve long been fascinated by fire and firefighting in eighteenth-century American history. This song and the next are intended as companions to the epilogue of Rebels Rising, which discusses the destruction or abandonment of many American cities during the Revolutionary War.
19. “My City of Ruins,” Bruce Springsteen (2002)
See above. The Rising was Bruce’s post-9/11 album. By coincidence, I was actually reading up on the burning of New York City in 1776 at the Winterthur Library on September 11, 2001. This fact still creeps me out when I think about it. Later on I saw Springsteen in concert and I was right in front (probably no more than a bus-length away from the stage), which was one of the better concert experiences I’ve had. Also the song ends with Bruce repeatedly enjoining us to “rise up,” which seemed a fitting end to the playlist.
Well, there you have it. There’s at least one song from every decade since the birth of rock and roll. The list is dominated by the years 2000–2007 (the years in which I did most of the writing of the dissertation and the book), with the 1970s (the bicentennial decade, when the study of revolutionary political mobilization flourished and then died) coming in second place. There’s also a decent mix of British and American artists, with one Aussie group thrown in. We don’t hear too much from women in this mix, which is a little sad now that I reflect on it. Most of these songs would rest most comfortably on a classic rock radio station, but the playlist reaches out to a few branches of the rock family tree (and heck, by definition, it’s hard to find country songs written about cities).
Here’s the real question, though: what would a Tyranny of Printers playlist look like? I’m not so grandiose as to start my own meme, but if this playlist inspires anyone else in the early American history world to come up with a single-book-themed playlist, I’ll consider this post a success.