Civil war is a recurring theme throughout history. The idea of countryman fighting countryman, or even of civil war as a metaphor for internal conflict, has captivated listeners for many years. Join me as I take you through 12 songs about civil war. Some of these are old classics, and some of these are overlooked gems. I hope you enjoy this trip through the history and passion contained in these tracks.
Top Songs About Civil War
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band
This classic track from The Band’s self-titled 1969 album tells a tale from the perspective of a farmer reflecting on the end of the American Civil War. He’s a Confederate who questions why the war happened and why his brother died.
Levon Helm’s vocals are riveting, and you can hear the emotion and desperation as he plays this character. This is one of many must-hear tunes from The Band’s self-titled album.
“English Civil War” by The Clash
This blistering punk classic is a modernized retelling of an old Civil War folk song. Vocalist and songwriter Joe Strummer reworked the lyrics to express his concerns regarding growing political tensions in the UK.
Strummer, always enamored with history and politics, felt the political upheaval taking over Great Britain was analogous to the Civil War. This is one of the band’s more underrated punk anthems, with a driving riff I keep coming back to hear.
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“Civil War” by Guns N’ Roses
This experimental epic from Use Your Illusion II is a general anti-war anthem, inspired by bassist Duff Mckagan marching for Martin Luther King Jr as a small child. It’s one of the band’s most melodic and fresh pieces. I love the dramatic, pleading nature of Axl Rose’s vocals here. Slash doesn’t rock out as hard here but instead displays his expertise at melodic and tasteful playing.
“Gettysburg” by Iced Earth
This power metal epic from the band’s 2004 The Glorious Burden album is a must-hear for fans of heavy metal and Civil War enthusiasts alike. This goliath 31-minute track takes up the entirety of disc two of the original CD release.
Fittingly titled, the song explores the peaks and valleys of the Battle of Gettysburg, featuring an array of musical variety and melodic surprises. Tim “Ripper” Owens sings like a banshee over Iron Maiden-esque twin guitar riffs and solos, fitting the epic scope of the subject matter.
“The Burning of Atlanta” by Whiplash
This is an overlooked thrash metal gem by underrated New Jersey titans Whiplash, from their 1987 Ticket to Mayhem album. This one describes Sherman’s march to the sea, in which he burned down the city of Atlanta, which was a crucial blow to the American south in the war.
A fitting subject for a breakneck speed metal anthem, this song rules. Whiplash always had detailed, captivating descriptions of the horrors of war, and this track is no different.
“No More Auction Block for Me” by Odetta
Although initially a Reconstruction-era folk song, this traditional number was popularized in the early 1960’s by folk singer and political activist Odetta. This is a riveting and impassioned number from the perspective of a recently freed slave after the Civil War.
It is quite appropriate that a folk singer like Odetta would have readapted the track for the 1960’s, which was a decade of political and racial turmoil and Civil Rights activism at its peak. Odetta sang this song in a time when much of the American south was still segregated and mistreating African Americans, giving the track a rawness and desperation because its message was all too pertinent at the time.
“Rebel Soldier” by Waylon Jennings
This is another traditional Civil War song, this time redone by outlaw country legend Waylon Jennings. He passionately sings what sounds like a Confederate rallying call for battle, but upon examination Jennings is actually describing the horrors and futility of war.
Much like the main character in the first entry on the list, the narrator is reflecting on the purposelessness of the senseless violence that’s just taken place. One difference is this character seems to begin the song with enthusiasm for defending Dixie, yet his illusions are quickly shattered by the sight of “mangled bodies” on the battlefield. This is a great song and Waylon’s version is a must listen for fans of classic country.
“Holy Wars… the Punishment Due” by Megadeth
Inspired by the then-ongoing Irish Troubles, as well as conflicts in the Middle East, this is one of the best metal songs about civil war, and probably my favorite all-time Megadeth track. The twisted and chaotic riffing styles of Dave Mustaine and Marty Friedman fit the subject matter like a glove, with tons of melodic twists and turns throughout that never seem to lose intensity, even during the slower sections of the song.
This classic from 1990’s Rust in Peace is essential listening, and if you’re a fan of metal you’ve probably already heard it. But if you haven’t taken the time to examine the lyrics, I think you’ll find an insightfulness and mastery of imagery in Mustaine’s words. While the band was ever obsessed with apocalyptic scenarios and the ensuing paranoia and chaos, this track possibly does it the best.
“Southern Man” by Neil Young
This classic, emotive track from 1970’s After the Gold Rush album is another case of an 1860’s point of view being relevant and prescient in the modern era. Young sings the story of a white man in the south who mistreated his slaves and reflects on the changing times of the Civil War era.
Neil is a master storyteller and lyricist, taking lyrical cues from folk-rock forefathers like Bob Dylan while adding his own unique spin. Plus, you get a blistering guitar solo here, which in a sense encapsulates the turmoil and chaos of the time the track was written and the time it describes.
“Civil War” by Immortal Technique
Here’s a cut from 2011, showing that themes of civil war are universal and constant subjects for lyricists throughout history. This track, featuring Killer Mike of Run the Jewels fame, sounds heavy and hard, with its pounding bass propelling the track’s slick grooves.
Lyrically, the song draws parallels between the American Civil War of the 1860’s and the ongoing cultural and political civil wars transpiring to this very day. Immortal Technique and Killer Mike preach to both gang bangers and world leaders—showing the similarities between the two—and urge them all to stop the violence. The song has a positive message of togetherness and unity, and if you’re a hip-hop fan who appreciates socially conscious lyrics, you’ll like this one as much as I do.
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“For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica
Clearly, the heavy metal genre has no shortage of fascination with the darker side of life, including civil war. This track is based off Ernest Hemingway’s novel of the same name, telling the story from the perspective of a soldier in the Spanish Civil War who’s bracing himself for certain death.
Instead of a breakneck speed thrash attack like a lot of old Metallica tunes, this one is a more menacing and mid-paced attack, patiently taking its time to build up an eerie and unsettling atmosphere. This meditation on death on the battlefield is one of the band’s best tunes, from the unique bass solo opening by Cliff Burton, to Lars Ulrich’s pounding matching the march of a war drum.
“The Big Battle” by Johnny Cash
Closing out the list, I can’t think of anything more fitting than this overlooked classic by Johnny Cash. Cash was a master of wordplay, as well as stark realism. Having grown up during the Great Depression in a southern United States that was still feeling the fallout from the Civil War and Reconstruction, he was well acquainted with Civil War history.
One thing I always liked about Cash was his ability to paint such a vivid picture with his songs, which are really just great stories. This track has a reflective message about the aftermath of war, such as grief and destruction.
There you have it. These 12 songs about civil war range from outlaw country, to raw hip-hop, to galloping and epic heavy metal, and plenty more in between. There’s sure to be some gems here for any history buffs out there to discover and enjoy. I hope you get as much out of these tunes as I did.