Here are 10 rock and metal songs about U.S. history.
On July 4, 1776, 13 American colonies that broke away from imperial leadership in Great Britain issued the Declaration of Independence, formally introducing the foundation of the United States government.
The nearly 250 years of history that has shaped and defined the U.S. is complex, which is not unique across recorded human history. The fight and struggle for individual freedom is one of the purest human pursuits, and one that is underscored by oppression, tragedy and violence.
The songs below mostly represent the more negative elements of the country’s past, both distant and recent. That’s because the stories and events recollected are true, as unkind, embarrassing or as shameful as they may be. We’re also dealing with heavy music, which often confronts harsh realities, underpinned by aggressive music.
READ MORE: 10 Metal Songs That Make a Great History Lesson
Our reality is that war and the fight for equality is a common link amongst people of all nations, even those with the most boisterous declarations of basic human rights for all.
We can’t change history — the cold, hard fact is that the events described in these songs are real, uncomfortable and that’s all part of life. Learning how to manage emotions, reflect and hope that we can write new history to show how we as a collective society can progress and find that elusive ideal of world peace is perhaps the biggest lesson we can take away from all this.
Sabaton, “Primo Victoria”
About: D-Day in Normandy
Appears on: Primo Victoria (2005)
Known best as D-Day and, more formally, as Operation Overlord, it marks the biggest seaborne invasion in all of history as the Allied powers stormed the beaches of Normandy, France in a 1944 effort to liberate the country from Nazi control. The success of the invasion is one of the most significant turning points of the century’s history.
Sabaton, who author songs exclusively about war and in a history buff type fashion, wrote about this event on “Primo Victoria,” the title track to their 2005 debut. It remains one of their most popular songs today.
Key lyric: “In the dawn they will pay / With their lives as the price / History’s written today / Now that we are at war / With the axis again / This time we know what will come / 6th of June 1944 / Allies are turning the war / Normandy state of anarchy / Overlord”
About: Genocide of indigenous people in the U.S.
Appears on: Among the Living (1987)
The systemic genocide of indigenous people in the now North American territory pre-dates the U.S., going back to the 1600s. Even so, the U.S. maintained the practice, decimating populations and their culture through the early 1900s.
One of Anthrax’s biggest songs highlights the savagery at hand while offering an empathetic outlook on the tragedies that have transpired and that people as a whole cannot be defined by geological borders.
Key lyric: “Territory, it’s just the body of the nation / The people that inhabit it make its configuration / Prejudice, something we all can do without / The flag of many colors is what this land’s all about”
Testament, “The Evil Has Landed”
Appears on: The Formation of Damnation (2008)
Sept. 11, 2001 was a day that shook the U.S. and many around the world. A terrorist attack executed in inconceivable fashion caused a permanent shift in global relations and tensions. For U.S. residents in particular, it is a defining moment in life where the mere thought of the two hijacked planes being flown into the two World Trade Center towers brings back powerful emotions.
On their 2008 album featuring the return of Alex Skolnick and Greg Christian, Testament recall the tragedy with vivid, literal detail while assuring that we will rebuild and come together through it all.
Key lyric: “The towers got hit / A steel bird with wings of destruction / As the buildings split / The skyline had been deconstructed”
Rush, “Manhattan Project”
About: U.S. development of atomic weaponry
Appears on: Power Windows (1985)
As the world sees it, perhaps nothing defines the U.S. more than war. Boasting the globe’s most powerful and dominant military force of the modern age, the country remains the only one on Earth to have ever dropped a nuclear bomb on another nation. And the U.S. dropped two of them on Japan, one on Hiroshima (Aug. 6, 1945) and the other on Nagasaki (Aug. 9, 1945), each ultimately provoked by Japan’s attack on U.S. military base Pearl Harbor.
“Manhattan Project” was the name of the special project in which the U.S., who enlisted nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer (among many others) to develop the world’s first nuclear arms. Rush break down the project into four sections on this namesake song, positing that the world the explosion is another “big bang” moment that establishes a brand new trajectory, referencing the moment regarded as the birth of our universe.
Key lyric: “The big bang, took and shook the world / Shot down the rising sun / The hopeful depend on a world without end / Whatever the hopeless may say”
Rage Against the Machine, “Killing In the Name”
About: Police beatings of Rodney King, resulting Los Angeles riots
Appears on: Rage Against the Machine (1992)
“Killing in the Name,” the firebrand track off Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled 1992 debut is a song not so much about a historical moment, but influenced by one and speaks to an even wider issue.
In 1991, after a high-speed pursuit, police officers severely beat Rodney King, a Black man, striking him with batons over 30 times, in addition to several kicks and being tased after not appearing to be resisting arrest. None of the four officers tried in court for use of excessive force were sentenced, triggering nearly a week of deadly rioting in Los Angeles as citizens were outraged by the verdict.
These events directly inspired the Rage song, which takes the issue further by linking members of the Ku Klux Klan with law enforcement, who seek the position with the aim of abusing their power and oppressing those who are not white.
Key lyric: “You justify those that died / By wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites / Some of those that work forces / Are the same the burn crosses”
Fit For an Autopsy, “Black Mammoth”
About: Dakota Access Pipeline
Appears on: The Great Collapse (2017)
The Dakota Access Pipeline is an oil pipeline that was the subject of widespread protests as it runs straight through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation Preserve in North Dakota and poses a threat to the safety of local water supplies. It even brought Lamb of God vocalist Randy Blythe to the front lines of the battle between protesters and “Big Oil”/the federal government.
Protecting and managing our natural resources is paramount to the survival of the species, especially as water supplies elsewhere are drying up, which will prompt mass migrations to more hospitable places. And sending the pipeline through the preservation — a patch of land as a sorry consolation for genocide of indigenous people — is, well, patently fucked up.
It’s a fitting matter for The Great Collapse, the Fit For an Autopsy album about how shitty we are to our own planet.
Key lyric: “Tread on sacred terrain, envenomed and ravaged / The peace upon the plains, seized by the savage / Primitive practices, uproot and vanish / Modern barbarians, new rite of passage”
Alkaline Trio, “Prevent This Tragedy”
About: West Memphis Three
Appears on: Crimson (2005)
In 1994, three teenagers (Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin) were convicted for the 1993 murder of three boys from West Memphis, Tennessee. It was alleged a Satanic ritual was involved and there has long been debate about credibility of the evidence. After signing a plea in 2011 while still maintaining their innocence, the trio were released from prison.
There’s still debate about a wrongful conviction as new DNA testing is sought and Alkaline Trio confront the case on “Prevent This Tragedy” (released before the Three’s release) focusing on the death sentence Damien Echols was handed.
Key lyric: “Here we are again with handguns for hearts / They had a master plan, wanted to tear us apart / Nothing to hold, all hope deleted / Our demise has been completed now”
My Chemical Romance, “Skylines and Turnstiles”
Appears on: I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love (2002)
The events of 9/11 triggered different responses and emotions in everyone. While many of those experiences overlap, Gerard Way was able to pull inspiration from tragedy as well. Life is short, as they say, and it’s that notion that dawned on the singer who then felt compelled to start a band as a result.
Way was in his early 20s when the hijacked planes struck New York City’s “twin towers,” claiming the lives of nearly 3,000 people. It’s a raw, extreme and shocking thing to process while still learning about the ways of the world at large and Way channeled his emotion into “Skylines and Turnstiles,” a song he wrote immediately after the attack. It prompted him to call up some pals and My Chemical Romance was born.
Key lyric: “After seeing what we saw / Can we still reclaim our innocence? / And if the world needs something better / Let’s give them one more reason now”
The Doors, “Unknown Soldier”
About: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Appears on: Waiting for the Sun (1968)
In a bit more of an abstract way than other songs presented here, The Doors’ “Unknown Soldier” exemplifies the outward symbolism that arose from The Tomb on the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery.
It first served as the grave of one unknown World War I service member, erected in 1921, and later as the grave site of a total of three unknown service members with additions in 1958 and 1984. Guarded 24/7, its symbolism has grown to offer reflection on military service as a whole as well as the memory of service members whose remains were never found or identified.
This cut from The Doors isn’t about the Tomb itself and takes on a cynical overtones, noting how life at home continues despite the loss of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
Key lyric: “Breakfast where the news is read / Television children fed / Unborn living, living dead / Bullet strikes the helmet’s head / And it’s all over / For the unknown soldier”
Body Count, “Black Hoodie” + “No Lives Matter”
About: Shooting of Travyon Martin / Black Lives Matter movement in wake of police killing of George Floyd
Appear on: Bloodlust (2017)
Speaking truth to sociopolitical issues and, in particular, racism at large, is not new for Ice-T, which he acknowledges he’d been doing for 20 years already in “Black Hoodie.” The song lays it all pretty bare — that there was no need for Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman to shoot unarmed 17-year-old Travyon Martin after he had already called the police.
Since Martin was wearing a black hoodie, Martin appeared suspicious to Zimmerman, who later shot and killed the teen while claiming self-defense. He was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges until Florida’s controversial stand-your-ground law.
On the same record, Body Count mock the “All Lives Matter” response to the Black Lives Matter movement, calling out the lazy retort as ignorant and one that dilutes the true issue. This dialogue ripped open after George Floyd was killed by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, leading to his death.
Chauvin and others were convicted for their actions, a verdict that was celebrated by many as it was a rare moment where justice was finally served regarding a matter of extreme police brutality.
Key lyrics: “Got on a black hoodie, it’s hood up on my head / I didn’t have a gun so why am I dead? / You didn’t have to shoot me and that’s a known fact / And now I'm laying face down with bullets in my back” (“Black Hoodie”)
“America’s always been / A place that judge my skin / And racism is real as fuck / Ain’t no way to play that off / And in the eys of the law / Black skin has always stood for poor / This is basic shit / They know who they fucking with” (“No Lives Matter”)
Iron Maiden, “Run to the Hills”
About: Genocide of indigenous people in the U.S.
Appears on: The Number of the Beast (1982)
Set to a speedy gallop that really invites the idea of being chased/driven out of a territory, this rollicking Maiden track not only highlights the senseless slaughter of an entire people, but also shows how terribly those still alive were treated. The introduction of alcohol to the indigenous tribe members further suppressed them and, amid the bloodshed, sexual abuse and extortion of children also took place.
Key lyric: “Soldier blue in the barren waste / Hunting and killing’s a game / Raping the women and wasting the men / The only good Indians are tame / Selling them whiskey and taking their gold / Enslaving the young and destroying the old ”
Drive-By Truckers, “The Sands of Iwo Jima”
About: The Battle of Iwo Jima
Appears on: The Dirty South (2004)
The five-week Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945 resulted in casualties in great numbers for both the U.S. and Japan. With superior air support, the U.S. gained control of two airfields in the final year of the Pacific War. It is also the sight of the iconic photo of six U.S. marines raising a flag together over the battle’s rubble.
This battle was depicted in the 1949 film Sands of Iwo Jima, starring iconic actor John Wayne.
On the Drive-By-Truckers song titled after the movie, the lyrics are centered around the life of a soldier once the war is over and they’ve returned home. Those who served will often attend reunion events, sharing stories and emotions through bonds no ordinary person would be able to comprehend, as the track notes.
Both the battle and the film are referenced in a powerful, poetic way.
Key lyric: “And I thought about that movie, asked if it was that way / He just shoot his head and smiled at me in such a loving way / As he thought about some friends he’ll never see again / He said, ‘I never saw John Wayne on the sands of Iwo Jima’”
About: The Trail of Tears
Appears on: The Final Countdown (1986)
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act, which sought a forced exile of more than 60,000 members of five tribes — Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw — from their native lands to the west of the Mississippi River. The reason? To more easily mine gold. This is known as the Trail of Tears.
A non-title track hit off The Final Countdown, the 1986 album by Swedish arena rockers Europe, “Cherokee” demonstrates how far-reaching this piece of U.S. history is.
Key lyric: “They lived in peace, not long ago / A mighty Indian tribe / But the winds of change / Made them realize, that the promises were lies”
Iced Earth, about half of 'The Glorious Burden'
Before Iced Earth leader Jon Schaffer became a traitorous loser who attempted to overthrow American democracy by being among the first to breach the Capitol building on Jan. 6. 2021, he teamed up with former Judas Priest singer Tim “Ripper” Owens (who replaced Rob Halford for a brief spell) on The Glorious Burden.
The record is conceptual in nature, each song tackling a different piece of military history, with a handful fixated on U.S. events, including “Declaration Day” (American Revolution), “When the Eagle Cries” (Sept. 11, 2001), “The Reckoning” (revenge for Sept. 11 attacks), “Valley Forge” (Revolutionary War), and the “Gettysburg (1863)” trilogy (Battle of Gettysburg).
Nowadays, Schaffer, a professed lifetime Oath Keeper (the militia group whose leader Stewart Rhodes was sentenced to 18 years in prison for seditious conspiracy and other charges) is cooperating with the federal government as part of a plea bargain while he awaits his own sentencing.