Tennessee Mountain Stories

Lessons from Lyrics

Now y’uns know I love old music – we’ve talked about it here several times before.  So it won’t surprise you that my modern, fancy phone pipes into the wireless earpiece Bob Wills, Bill Monroe and The Spears Family.  I sing along, tap my toe and often don’t even think about the actual lyrics – well until the Spears sing “He’s Still in the Fire” and that one makes me cry (and maybe shout) everytime.

Bob Wills.jpg

Bob Wills is the king of Western Swing music and if you can listen to him while you’re exercising the time will fly and you’ll be amazed how many miles or reps you’ll get in.  I was walking with Bob this week and really got to thinking about the words he was singing and I realized that these old songs can teach us a ton of history.

Bob Wills was at a career high in the 1940’s when he recorded “Smoke on the Water”, written by Zeke Clements.  Do you remember what else was happening in the world about that time?  War.  The second great world war raged and about 16 million Americans were in uniform while numerous others worked in munitions plants and even if you didn’t have a rank or title, the whole country served as supplies were rationed, services curtailed and families waited with baited breath to hear news from the front lines.  The music of the day was as affected as every other part of American life. 

As “Smoke on the Water” plays through my car radio, thanks to music streaming services that let me choose the kind of music I want to listen to, I realize my children not only cannot relate to the analogies he draws, they are hard pressed to understand the history lesson he presents. 

The chorus says, “There’ll be smoke on the water, on the land and the sea when our Army and Navy overtake the enemy.  There’ll be smoke on the mountain where the heathen gods stay and the sun that is shining will go down on that day.”  Verse 2 calls out the Axis leaders by name, “Hirohito along with Hitler will be riding on a rail, Mussolini’ll beg for mercy as a leader he has failed.  There’ll be no time for pity when the screaming Eagle flies, that will be the end of axis they must answer with their lives.”


I confess while I understood that these were WW2 analogies I had to look some of them up.  The smoke is easy to understand as artillery fire must have clouded every news reel of the day.  The mountain where the heathen gods stay must have referred to the Buddhist temples in Japan and the ‘sun that is shining’ would refer to Japan’s rising sun flag.   I especially loved the image of riding Hirohito and Hitler out of town on a rail – I understand that ride often followed tar-and-feathering, but I suppose those words would be hard to work into a song. And did you know what screaming eagle would be flying?  That’s the 101st Airborne division that delivered paratroopers into the thick of the battle. 

I wonder if listeners in the 40’s were as moved by these lyrics as I am?  As I located the image of the paratroopers tears welled in my eyes.  The courage of those men to step out of the relative safety of an airplane and fall into unknown peril awes me.  My own husband has jumped over 300 times and while he never faced German troops on the ground the Marine Corps trains as realistically as possible and jumping into the ocean at night would be just about as terrifying to me!  He would gladly strap on a ‘chute today and drop behind enemy lines to ensure his children would grow up in freedom – in fact, I’ve rarely met a veteran who would refuse to take up arms if the American way of life was threatened.  Perhaps I’ve digressed a bit but the songs of World War 2 celebrated a courage that our troops still display today.

It’s easy to imagine how listeners would cheer as they heard Bob croon a promise of victory and the humiliating defeat and even death waiting for the leaders that forced husbands, fathers and sons to march off to war.   

Throughout time music has been used to teach history and preserve culture.  Not all of the music I listen too is so deep, but even in the fun stuff there’s history.  We’ll look at some more of Bob Wills’ work next week.