Rolling Stone Fact-Checks Famous Rock Songs - Rolling Stone
Home Music Music Lists

Rolling Stone Fact-Checks Famous Rock Songs

From Bob Dylan To Nas, 11 songs with a shaky grasp on history

Rolling Stone, Fact-Check, Rock Songs, neil young, dylan

Richard McCaffrey/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

From Bob Dylan To Nas, 11 songs with a shaky grasp on history

Play video

The Band – ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’

Before writing the Civil War saga "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," Robbie Robertson went to a library to brush up the history of the conflict – but he didn't study quite hard enough, because he made some mistakes. The song, told from the point of view of a Confederate soldier named Virgil Caine, reflects on the final days of the Civil War. "In the winter of '65 we were hungry, just barely alive," Band drummer Levon Helm sings. "By May the 10th, Richmond had fell." It is literally true that on May 10th Richmond had already been taken over by the Union Army, but it happened five weeks earlier on April 2nd. Jefferson Davis was captured on May 10th, but it's unclear why Robertson settled on that date to signify anything about the fall of Richmond. When the war ends, Caine returns to Tennessee, and Helm sings: "Back with my wife in Tennessee, when one day she called to me, Virgil, quick, come see, there go the Robert E. Lee.'" Just one problem with that lyric: Lee never stepped foot in Tennessee after the war.

Play video

Neil Young – ‘Cortez The Killer’

Neil Young claims to have written the lyrics to "Cortez The Killer" while still in high school. "One night I stayed up too late," he said at a 1996 concert. "I ate like six hamburgers…Felt terrible. I was studying history, and I in the morning I woke up and I'd written this song." If true, it would explain how he got some facts about the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés dead wrong. "Hate was just a legend," Young wrote about the Aztecs. "War was never known." In reality, the Aztecs of Mexico were in a near-constant state of war. "They offered life in sacrifice," Young also wrote. "So that others could go on." That's a crazy spin on what they actually did, which was make human sacrifices to the gods. Innocent people were tied to posts and brutally tortured and killed; "Cortez The Killer" makes the act sound selfless.

Play video

Journey – ‘Don’t Stop Believin'”

"Just a city boy," Steve Perry sings at the beginning of 'Don't Stop Believin'. "Born and raised in South Detroit." Detroit has all sorts of neighborhoods, but South Detroit exists only in Journey's mind. Anybody living there is living in the Detroit River.

Play video

Nas – ‘I Can’

In Nas' 2002 song "I Can" he raps about African history: "Egypt was the place that Alexander the Great went/He was so shocked at the mountains with black faces/Shot up they nose to impose what basically still goes on today." He's off by about 2,000 years, and he means Napoleon. "You can't read about Napoleon without hearing about Alexander The Great, and vice versa," Nas later said.  "You might read one book about it, but that's that author's account of what happened. Someone else might say a whole different story, but if I speak on what happened in one man's book, then that's what it is."

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.