Robbie Hart (Adam Sandler) delivers the following line in The Wedding Singer: “I think that’s the hardest thing, to write a song. A song, you know, when people hear it they go: ‘Ooh, I know what that guy was feeling when he wrote that.’ ”
It is ultimately up to the songwriter whether he wants the inspiration for his lyrics to shine through clearly or whether the words are ambiguous, leaving the song open to interpretation by the listeners. On this list are stories (some very sad) that inspired the writing of very popular songs.
Think of Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR), and “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” and “Bad Moon Rising” immediately spring to mind. The band wasn’t together for long before disbanding in 1972. However, their songs remain a firm favorite on radio playlists, movie soundtracks, and even at weddings and parties. Having sold almost 30 million albums in the US alone, it’s easy to see why.
Earlier this year, John Fogerty, the primary songwriter for CCR, told the story of what inspired him to write “Bad Moon Rising” in 1969. Fogerty came up with the opening riff and tried to put together the chords and melody with a line (“bad moon rising”) he had found in a book of song titles he’d had since 1967.
Then he remembered a scene from an old movie he liked called The Devil And Daniel Webster in which a hurricane struck, blowing houses and trees around like they were nothing. This was the inspiration for lines such as “I hear hurricanes a-blowing, I know the end is coming soon” as well as “Looks like we’re in for nasty weather.”
Fogerty also stated that the uncertain and tumultuous times added to the ominous feel of the lyrics because Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had just been murdered at that point.
Despite Fogerty’s concerns that the song wouldn’t live up to the standards of their then-current hit “Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising” hit No. 1 in the UK and No. 2 in the US that same year.
“Midnight Special” started out as a traditional folk song and is believed to have its origins in prisons in the American South. Since then, the song has been covered by numerous artists and boasts several different versions with different lyrics.
In 1934, folklorists John and Alan Lomax requested that Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter record a version of the song for them. Ledbetter was a prisoner at Angola Prison at that point.
He added several lyrics to the song that referenced a 1923 Houston jailbreak. It is believed that Ledbetter had heard the original song years earlier during a previous stint in the Sugar Land Prison and that his version of the song referred to that time as well as the Midnight Special legend.
In Ledbetter’s recording, the Midnight Special is a train that traveled between Houston and San Antonio. The train would pass the Sugar Land Prison at midnight each day of the week, heralding its arrival with the headlight shining right into the prison cells.
The line from the song “let the midnight special, shine the ever-lovin’ light on me” was inspired by a superstition arising from the light shining into the prison: If the light happened to shine on a particular prisoner, it meant that his love was on the train with a letter from the governor pardoning that prisoner.
Before Taylor Swift gained a reputation for writing songs about her numerous exes, she wrote country songs that won several awards. One of these songs is called “Mean,” and it won a Grammy for Best Country Song as well as Best Country Solo Performance.
Listening to the lyrics, it’s easy to imagine that Swift wrote them in response to childhood bullying. However, the superstar confirmed that while the song is definitely an anthem in the fight against bullies, she wrote the song out of hurt after a critic lashed out at her.
Lines such as “you have pointed out my flaws again, as if I don’t already see them” and “all you are is mean, and a liar and pathetic, and alone in life” clearly show Swift’s feelings toward the critic, who is reported to be Bob Lefsetz. He blasted Swift via his blog after her less-than-stellar performance with Stevie Nicks at the 52nd Grammy Awards in 2010.
Fans understood why Swift would react this way considering what Lefsetz said on his blog. Some of his nastier comments included: “In one fell swoop, Taylor Swift consigned herself to the dustbin of teen phenoms.” This is from the same person who shortly before the performance in question heaped praise on Swift for her contribution to the music industry.
“Save The Last Dance For Me” was recorded in 1960 by The Drifters with Ben E. King as the lead singer. The lyrics were written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and would have ended up on the B side of the record if not for Dick Clark, who insisted that the song was the better song on the record.
He was right as evidenced by the fact that the song was No. 1 for three weeks in the US. Several artists, including Dolly Parton and Michael Buble, covered the song in years to come.
What many fans don’t know about the song, however, is that it had a sad story behind it. Lou Reed, who worked alongside Doc Pomus, said during an interview that the lyrics to the song were written on Pomus’s wedding day.
Pomus had polio and, as a result, spent most of his time in a wheelchair or on crutches. On his wedding day, he had to watch his new bride dancing with everyone but him. Hence the lyrics: “You can dance every dance with the man who gives you the eye . . . but don’t forget who’s taking you home and in whose arms you’re gonna be.”
“Chandelier” exploded onto the charts in 2014, reaching the Top 5 in 20 countries and receiving numerous award nominations. In conjunction with making Sia a staple in the music industry, the song made a young dancer by the name of Maddie Ziegler a star in her own right. The music video featuring Ziegler’s dancing (shown above) became one of the most viewed videos on YouTube.
However, the song is a very personal one to Sia as it details her struggle with various addictions while trying to make it in the music industry. Sia is well-known for staying far away from the spotlight and hiding behind disguises and large wigs. But in 2013, she spoke publicly during an interview about her realization that she was an alcoholic. She also suffered from addictions to Vicodin and Oxycodone.
Fortunately, Sia overcame her addictions and has been clean for several years now. Her focus is solely on producing the music her fans love.
In 1998, American alternative rock band Fastball released a song called “The Way.” It reached the No. 1 spot on the Modern Rock Tracks chart where it stayed for seven weeks. The song was also named one of the greatest songs of the 1990s. It was their first big hit but had a tragic inspiration.
Lead singer Tony Scalzo had read an article about an elderly couple who went missing on a trip from Salado, Texas, to Temple, a mere 24-kilometer (15 mi) drive. Lela and Raymond Howard made it to Temple, got some coffee, and then disappeared without a trace.
They were going to attend a fiddling festival in Temple and were very excited. However, 88-year-old Raymond had recently had a stroke and 83-year-old Lela had symptoms of dementia. The couple died together after Raymond drove over the side of a canyon and landed at the bottom.
Scalzo wanted to make the story a little happier by including lyrics such as “anyone can see the road that they walk on is paved in gold, it’s always summer, they’ll never get cold . . . they won’t make it home, but they really don’t care.”
In the band’s version of the story, the couple is happy together in the afterlife.
The song “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam never broke any serious records and only claimed the fifth spot on the Mainstream and Modern Rock Billboard charts in 1992. However, the music video put the song in the spotlight. It shows a young boy called Jeremy being bullied at school to the point where he shoots himself in the mouth in front of his classmates. An edited version of the video won four MTV Video Music Awards including Best Video of the Year.
Sadly, the inspiration for the unsettling video and song came from a real-life story. Sixteen-year-old Jeremy Delle suffered incessant bullying from his classmates at Richardson High in Texas.
On January 8, 1991, Jeremy arrived at school late. His second-period English teacher instructed him to get an admittance slip from the principal’s office. Instead of the slip, Jeremy returned with a gun. He walked to the front of the classroom, put the barrel of the gun in his mouth, and fired.
“Lightning Crashes” was not released as a single, but fans loved it so much that the amount of radio airplay it received ensured that it reached No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 AirPlay chart in 1995. Lead singer Ed Kowalczyk aimed to clear up misinterpretations of the song by confirming that he wrote it with the cycle of life in mind.
While an old woman dies, a young mother gives birth in the next room. Hence the lyrics: “Lightning crashes, a new mother cries. [ . . . ] Lightning crashes, an old mother dies.”
The song was also dedicated by the band to their high school friend, Barbara Lewis, who was a huge fan of their music. She was killed in 1993 in a hit-and-run car accident.
After the Oklahoma bombing in 1995, the song was remixed by a local DJ as a tribute to those who lost their lives. The remix included audio of Bill Clinton as well as the sirens of emergency vehicles responding to the incident. Despite record executives shooting down the original version and saying it would never be a hit, “Lightning Crashes” became one of the band’s biggest songs.
In much the same fashion, a tribute video was made of Live’s 2001 hit “Overcome” for the victims and survivors of 9/11.
Industrial rock band Filter released the single “Hey Man, Nice Shot” in July 1995. The song was first written in 1991 while the band was trying to get a record deal, but this didn’t stop fans from firmly believing that the song was a reference to Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994. Naturally, the title of the song fueled this theory.
Though it wasn’t about Cobain, it was about a suicide. Robert Budd Dwyer had been a state treasurer of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the 1980s. He had been convicted of accepting a bribe from a California firm for giving them a multimillion dollar contract and was due for sentencing on January 23, 1987.
Dwyer called a press conference on January 22 at 10:30 AM without giving an indication of what would be discussed. Reporters believed that he would be resigning from office. When Dwyer arrived at the conference, he appeared agitated and reiterated his innocence, which he maintained throughout his trial.
Once finished speaking, he retrieved an envelope with a revolver in it. He asked that people leave the room if what he was about to do would affect them. Then he shot himself in the mouth in front of the stunned journalists and rolling cameras.
The most tragic entry on this list is about the horrific death of seven-year-old Katie Flynn. The band Brand New was so moved by the story that they wrote a song called “Limousine” in honor of the little girl. The song concludes with the following haunting words: “We’ll never have to buy adjacent plots of earth. We’ll never have to rot together underneath dirt. I’ll never have to lose my baby in the crowd. I should be laughing right now.”
What inspired this beautiful but terribly sad song started out as a beach wedding for Lisa and David in July 2005. Their nieces, Grace and Katie, were dressed as princesses for the occasion. At the end of the day, the two girls left for home with their parents and grandparents in a stretch limousine. On their way home, a drunk driver on the wrong side of the road crashed into the limo head-on.
The limo driver was killed on impact, the little girls’ father suffered a broken back, and family members were thrown on top of one another in the collision. As paramedics and police arrived on the scene, they witnessed something horrific. Jennifer Flynn emerged from the limo with her daughter Katie’s head in her hand. The little girl’s body was still in the limo. She had been decapitated by the seat belt she was wearing.
The drunk driver, 24-year-old Martin Heidgen, was handed an 18-year sentence for second-degree murder.
Estelle lives in Gauteng, South Africa.