The world’s oldest complete piece of music is, one theory goes, a tribute song. Dating from between 200 BC and 100 AD, the Seikilos epitaph contains a short piece of funereal music, along with lyrics, chiseled into a marble gravestone with a dedication that seems to translate “Seikilos to Euterpe.” In The Harvard Dictionary of Music, editor Don Michael Randel offers one possible (and poignant) explanation: Seikilos wrote the song about his recently departed wife. Instead of a hymn to the gods, the oldest full song in the world appears to be about a guy who misses the woman he loved.
Memorials to the dead make up a large portion of what we usually consider tribute songs and often extend to loss of life on a mass scale. Disasters and war find their way into commemorative songs as a way to make sense of tragedy that defies easy explanation, whether it’s the inferno of the Great Chicago Fire captured in 1877’s “The Billow of Flame” or the dead soldiers of “The Minstrel Boy”, whose author, Thomas Moore, dedicated the song to his friends killed in failed Irish Rebellion of 1798.
There’s hopefulness in tributes, too. Across the years, artists have also used their talents to honor still-living family members and friends or mark significant historical happenings and places worth remembering. Such was the case with “Winds of Change” Scorpions’ hopeful 1990 paean to Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform-minded glasnost policies, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the then-seemingly inevitable breakup of the Soviet Union.
Unlike any other type of music, the tribute song has an added layer of responsibility: in addition to evoking emotions or laying down a danceable beat, these tracks also have to find beguiling ways to turn truth into art. A truly comprehensive history of these songs would fill a book at least, so today, we’re taking a look at a small cross-section of these songs written since the beginning of the 20th century. Along the way, we’ll see how artists from across decades and genres turned the people and events that shaped their lives into works of art that continue to live in conversation with the very history they’re dedicated to memorializing.