Monday, October 19, 2015

Sing Along: The 20 Greatest Songs

Know any great songs?  I’m sure you do.  At least, you think they are great songs. 

Are they?  What constitutes a great song?

I decided to come up with a list of the greatest songs ever written based on my experience and research.  I’ve studied music history for most of my life.  I’ve loved music and took several music history courses in college and have continued to learn about music ever since.  I even speak about the topic.  My next presentation on American music will be to the Daughters of the American Revolution chapter in DeLand in January.

After a lot of thought, I came up with 20 songs that have entertained listeners for, in one case, close to 500 years and will likely continue long into the future.

I created a simple criteria to generate my list.

1) The song had to be popular in its day.
2) The song has to be popular today.
3) The song has to have some significance, not just a “silly love song” like those cherished by Paul McCartney.
4) It has to be in English.  Translations are fine.

As a result, I did not include the “Star Spangled Banner.” It is old, written in 1814, and very familiar.  However, it is only known because of its status as the national anthem. Besides, there’s even a small movement to have it replaced by “God Bless America.”  For the same reason, I didn’t include any of the anthems of the Armed Forces.

‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame” isn’t included either, even though it was written in 1908, is well known and widely sung.  It just has no significance.  Besides, the only part of the song still remembered is the chorus.

Few of our great singers and songwriters made my list.  Their songs were often beloved, but they typically are not sung today except by people like me although some songs do have wide audiences.  For example, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” is the Boston Red Sox theme song, but it doesn’t have the same resonance in other places.

I also looked at the Rolling Stone magazine’s 2012 list of top 500 songs of all time.  I respectfully reject virtually all of the choices, which were heavily weighted toward rock groups like the Rolling Stones, U2 and the like.  They may still be playing, but their songs have little meaning and less staying power.

I also avoided any current hits simply because they clearly fail any test for longevity. 

The songs are numbered based on time, not as ranking.  Great songs are all number one in my book. 
1. Greensleeves.  This may be the oldest popular song still widely known.  Usually associated with Shakespeare, he didn’t write it, but did mention it in two plays.  It is listed as a traditional English folksong and dates to around 1580.

2. Auld Lang Syne.  Written by Irishman Robert Burns in 1788, it was set to the music of a traditional folk song and has become the most wildly known English song in the world.  

3. Yankee Doodle Dandy.  Another English folk song from the 1700s, its lyrics were meant to mock the Colonists during the Revolutionary War, but it quickly was adopted by Americans despite its sexual innuendo.

4. Rock of Ages.  Written in 1763 by an English minister who sought shelter in a rocky cleft when caught outdoors in a storm, it remains one of the most popular hymns ever written.

5. Amazing Grace.  A hymn written in 1773 by ex-slaver turned clergyman John Newton, it was later set to music.  It never fails to buoy spirits and emotions.  Judy Collins’ version in more recent times remains a classic.

6. Silent Night.  Written in 1816, this perennial favorite Christmas carol was first performed in 1818 and was named a cultural heritage by the United Nations in 2012. 

7.  Dixie.  No song elicits more emotional response.  Lincoln said it was actually “captured” during the Civil War.  Probably written by Daniel Emmett – there is some debate over authorship – it appeared in the 1850s and quickly became the Southern anthem.

8. The Old Folks at Home.  Stephan Foster’s 1851 class continues to be sung.  He may have died an alcoholic, frustrated by being unable to write the classical music his wife desired, but his songs originated American music. This song, even with altered PC lyrics, evokes a time now long gone,

9. The Battle Hymn of the Republic.  This rousing anthem, written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861, borrowed the music from an existing song and has remained extraordinarily popular.

10. Over There.  Written by George M. Cohan in 1917 to encourage young men to enlist in World War I, it has continued as a militaristic anthem that reflects our ideals.  Americans “won’t be back” until the job is done.

11. Old Man River.  Perhaps the greatest of all Broadway songs, it was a late edition to Showboat.  While the producer hesitated to present a show in 1927 that dealt with racism, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein came up with this song.  It has remained a centerpiece of American music ever since.  Showboat itself inaugurated Broadway’s role as the heartbeat of American culture, a position it held into the 1960s. The song humanized African-Americans at a time of extreme racism.

12. White Christmas.  Still the best selling record of all time, the song was written by Irving Berlin in 1940.  He supposedly told his secretary: "Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I've ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody's ever written!"

13. Summertime.  This Gershwin classic first appeared in in the 1935 musical Porgy and Bess.  It remains one of the most covered songs in American music.  An estimated 33,000 versions exist.

14. Night and Day.  Written by Cole Porter for his 1932 Broadway show The Gay Divorcee, it has become the signature song of such performers as Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra, and the consummate love song in American music.

15. This Land is Your Land.  Woody Guthrie wrote this in 1940 to counter Irving Berlin’s saccharine “God Bless America.”  The words usually not sung are bitter and rebellious, reflecting the Guthrie disgust with the split between haves and have-nots in this land of plenty.

16. Over the Rainbow.  Written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg for the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, the song has remained an American standard, evoking a place of peace and harmony.

17. Blowin’ in the Wind.  Written in 1962, this Bob Dylan ambiguous classic galvanized an entire generation and remains as fresh today as then.

18. Moon River.  Johnny Mercer’s 1962 classic continues to haunt American airwaves and instantly evokes a peaceful image filled with promise.

19. Yesterday.  Written in 1965 by Paul McCartney, it was voted the top song of the 20th century in both England and the United States.  By one measurement, it was played 7 million times in its first 35 years of existence.

20. Imagine.  John Lennon essentially wrote this in one sitting.  Even though it speaks against religion and capitalism, it has captured the hearts of successive generations who sing the words and ignore the meaning.

Maybe you could think of a few more.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history along with excursions into American culture.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His most recent book is Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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