Music Is Often Born Amid Crisis, So Coronavirus Could Be a Muse for Songwriters

Bruce Springsteen
Bei/Shutterstock

Bruce Springsteen in the press room at the 1994 Academy Awards in Los Angeles on March 21, 1994.

History has proven that hard times can inspire memorable songs.

We'll all be glad when the global coronavirus pandemic is over, but in the meantime, take some comfort in knowing that hard times have historically inspired great songs. If today's songwriters can tap all the emotions that this nightmare has stirred -- from sorrow for those who have been affected to gratitude for the many heroes in this story -- think of the tremendous songs that we'll be hearing in the aftermath.

"Songs are basically a way of expressing feelings, emotions, hopes and dreams," says Linda Moran, president/CEO of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. "In this time of self-reflection, where most people are asking life’s important questions, songwriters are naturally going to delve a bit deeper into their hearts and souls to find a way to express their emotions. These are unprecedented times and as songs are the best at documenting history, I am sure great songs are being created right now."

This quick recap demonstrates how hard times throughout history have often inspired memorable songs.

9/11

Alan Jackson introduced "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" at the CMA Awards on Nov. 7, 2001 -- less than two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" (2002) was also written in response to that tragedy. Both songs received 2002 Grammy nominations for song of the year.

HIV/AIDS Crisis

Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia," which he wrote for Jonathan Demme's 1993 film Philadelphia, perfectly captured the agony of that health crisis. The song won both a Grammy for song of the year and an Oscar for best original song (where it edged out another song from that film, Neil Young's "Philadelphia").

Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager won a 1986 Grammy for song of the year for writing Dionne & Friends' heartfelt "That's What Friends Are For," which resonated strongly as the AIDS crisis unfolded. (They had written the song a few years earlier for a film, Nightshift, that had nothing to do with it.)

Other memorable AIDS-themed songs include Cyndi Lauper's "Boy Blue" (1986), Lou Reed's "Halloween Parade" (1989), Elton John's "The Last Song" (1992), Sarah McLachlan's "Hold On" (1993), George Michael's "Jesus to a Child" (1995) and Paula Cole with Peter Gabriel's "Hush, Hush, Hush" (1996).

Vietnam War

Young wrote "Ohio" in response to the tragedy at Kent State University, in which four students were killed by National Guardsmen during an anti-war rally on May 4, 1970. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recorded the song just 17 days after the event. By the end of June, it was climbing the Billboard Hot 100. Other classic songs inspired by the war include Edwin Starr's "War" (1970, written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield) and Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" (1970, written by John Fogerty).

Other songs weren't written specifically about Vietnam but resonated because of that conflict. Pete Seeger wrote "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" in 1955, but it had its biggest impact during the Vietnam years. The Animals' "We Gotta Get Outta This Place (1965, written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil) was a favorite of American servicemen in that doomed endeavor.

The Civil Rights Movement

Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" (1963), Seeger's "We Shall Overcome" (1963), Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" (1965), The Impressions' "People Get Ready" and "Choice of Colors" (1965 and 1969, respectively, both written by Curtis Mayfield) and Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam (1964) and "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" (1969) are some of the best-known songs from the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, but memorable songs on the topic both preceded and followed that era.

Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" (1939, written by Abel Meeropol) is based on unforgettable imagery: the odd taste of fruit that grows on trees irrigated by the blood of lynching victims.

Such classic hip-hop hits as Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's "The Message" (1982, written by Chifton Chase, Edward Fletcher, Melvin Glover and Sylvia Robinson), N.W.A's "F--- Tha Police" (1988, written by Ice Cube, MC Ren and The D.O.C.) and Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" (1989, written by Carlton Ridenhour, Eric Sadler, Hank Shocklee and Keith Shocklee) carry the message into the modern era.

World War II

Many hits of this era were enriched by the deep sense of yearning caused by forced separations and tremendous uncertainty. Examples include Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" (1942, written by Irving Berlin) and "I'll Be Home for Christmas (If Only in My Dreams)" (1943, written by Kim Gannon, Walter Kent and Buck Ram), The Pied Pipers' "Dream" (1945, written by Johnny Mercer) and Les Brown's immortal "Sentimental Journey," featuring a 22-year old Doris Day (1945, written by Brown, Bud Green and Ben Horner).

The Great Depression

Crosby's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (1932, written by E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney) may be the most famous song associated with this national ordeal. Others include Blind Alfred Reed's "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live" (1930) and Woody Guthrie's "Dust Bowl Blues" (1937) and "Tom Joad" (1940). Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote "Ten Cents a Dance" (a 1930 hit for Ruth Etting) about taxi dancers, but the song's weary tone perfectly captured the Depression era.

Other great albums and songs aren't tied to just one topic. Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (1971), was a virtual people's response to the State of the Union, touching on such topics as drug abuse, poverty, the Vietnam War and ecology.

Aretha Franklin's "Respect" (1967, written by Otis Redding) is claimed as an anthem for both civil rights and women's rights -- and for every other group or individual who wants a little respect (which is to say: everyone).

Sometimes hard times have inspired works of great beauty, almost as a counterpoint to the stresses of the era. Jackie DeShannon's "What the World Needs Now Is Love" (1965, written by Bacharach and Hal David) and Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" (1967, written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss), were both written during the tumult of the mid-1960s. Both songs have claimed the Songwriters Hall of Fame's Towering Song award (as has the aforementioned "A Change Is Gonna Come"). John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band's "Imagine" (1971, written by Lennon) is another lovely song informed by the gap between dreams and reality.

So songwriters: Bring on the songs. Dig deep. Let this frightening, unsettling, maddening time inspire your best work.

Note: Many of these songs have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and/or have been honored by the National Recording Registry. As noted, three received the Towering Song award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

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