Four Classic Songs with Major Historical Inaccuracies

Billy Joel is not exactly a Billy the Kid scholar
Four Classic Songs with Major Historical Inaccuracies

Songwriters, at least the ones who fancy themselves deeper than the standard “shake your ass” fare, love to write about history, but because they’re also cool, they don’t love reading books. As a result, a lot of songs about historical events miss some small details. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not shot in the early evening, as U2 claimed; at Waterloo, Napoleon did not surrender; and George Washington probably didn’t have 30 goddamn dicks. But some of them get things so wrong that it veers into slander territory — or at least necessitates a summer-school refresher course.

‘Hurricane’ by Bob Dylan

Dylan gets the gist of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s story right — famous Black man wrongfully imprisoned for murder — but the fact that his song is largely dialogue that rhymes should be your first clue that he’s not lifting it straight from the primary sources. For one thing, Carter’s career had taken a decided downturn at the time, and he’d lost about half of his last 15 fights. Pretty far from the “number-one contender for the middleweight crown.”

He also wasn’t exactly a man who “didn’t like to talk all that much” about how good he was at punching. He bragged about it constantly and even admitted with pride to knocking out a horse, which also renders the line about how much he’d like to retire “up to some paradise where the trout streams flow and the air is nice and ride a horse along a trail” a little suspect. As for being “in South America, fighting for his name,” no one has any idea what that’s about.

Initially, Dylan wanted to extend his poetic license beyond its legal limits. He had to re-record the song after his record label got worried that a line describing the two main witnesses against Carter robbing the victims’ bodies, which no one had even accused them of doing, would get them sued. They eventually were sued by one witness, but the case was thrown out because Dylan’s description of her was (according to her) just untrue, not defamatory.

‘The Ballad of Billy the Kid’ by Billy Joel

While Dylan at least got the broad strokes right, Joel basically scribbled all over the canvas of “The Ballad of Billy the Kid.” Even a cursory glance at the biography of the infamous outlaw tells you that just about everything Joel sings is incorrect. He was born in New York, not West Virginia; he didn’t rob banks, much less from Utah to Oklahoma; as a member of the Regulators, he famously did not ride alone; and he was sentenced to be hanged, but he escaped and tragically failed to shoot the sheriff. Hopefully, we don’t have to get into why he couldn’t have been a legend “east and west of the Rio Grande.”

Joel is well aware of all this. In 1975, he explained that the song “was an experiment with an impressionist type of lyric. It was historically totally inaccurate as a story, (and) it wasn’t supposed to be listened to as a story.” 

Well, then maybe call it “The Ballad of Johnny the Haberdasher,” William.

‘Indian Sunset’ by Elton John

You’d think a white English dude would look at the life of Geronimo and think, “You know what? I might not be the guy to tell this story,” but you would know nothing about white dudes. John apparently saw no problem singing from the perspective of a fictional Native man, with all the “that’s our word” implications thereof, even though songwriting partner Bernie Taupin couldn’t figure out what tribe said Native man was in. He mentions the Iroquois, but the landscape he describes is distinctly prairie-ish, which would be pretty unfamiliar to a member of an Iroquois tribe, who mostly lived in New York.

Both of those places, incidentally, were pretty far from where Geronimo lived, which was Arizona. It was so hard to travel from the east to the west in the 1800s that they made whole video games about it, but this fictional guy sure got around. To be fair, he only heard about Geronimo’s death, so maybe he wasn’t that close, which could explain why he doesn’t know that Geronimo wasn’t gunned down when he surrendered. He was taken prisoner and lived another 20 years until he died of pneumonia. There were approximately a billion atrocities committed against the Native Americans — why make one up?

‘Casey Jones’ by the Grateful Dead

To the classic rock fan, the name Casey Jones is associated with two things: driving that train and being high on cocaine, which is a suuuuuper shitty way to smear someone who’s an honest-to-goodness folk hero. Jones was the engineer of a train headed from Memphis to Mississippi when it infamously crashed into another train on the same track in 1900, but he was almost certainly not also riding a different kind of rail.

That little embellishment just popped into the head of Grateful Dead songwriter Robert Hunter, and he even tried to substitute other phrases, considering Jones had no known history of drug use, but “there was no other line for that song.” He simply had no choice but to slander a man who chose not to jump to safety and stayed behind to slow down the train and ensure that he was the only casualty of the crash. Which he was. What a legend.

The problem was that he literally became one. It didn’t even take 10 years for folk songwriters to start singing “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” which got endlessly tweaked over the intervening century until most versions barely resembled the real accident, though almost none of them accused him of being a careless cokehead. The Grateful Dead even played a version of “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” which was wholly different from their hit song but still not the most respectful out there. 

At least he got a cooler portrayal on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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