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Great Songs About Nostalgia and Memories

Updated on April 27, 2017

There's a Light Beyond These Woods by Nanci Griffith

Written by: Nanci Griffith
Album: There's a Light Beyond These Woods (1978)
Genre: Folk

There's a Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret) is from Nanci Griffith's debut album. In the song, she reminisces about a childhood friend named Mary Margaret. However she's really named Margaret Mary. In the song, she's portrayed as a dreamer who wanted to become a musician and see the world. Instead she stayed in her hometown, got married and raised a child. She told an interviewer:

"I didn't do the things I wanted to do in life, but I have the real "riches" in life...The song meant different things during different times of my life. Every word of the song reflects a true event or time of my life and my friendship with Nanci. I think we spent some time being jealous of each other...she thought I had something she could never have because I was always in a relationship that I took seriously. And I wanted to be a musician."

In the song, Nanci sings about Margaret Mary not living the dreams she had as a child.

The fantasies we planned, I'm living them now
All the dreams we sang when we knew how
Well, they haven't changed
There's never been two friends like you and me
Mary Margaret

It's nice to see your family growing, Margaret
Your daughter and your husband there
They really treat you right but we've talked all night
And what about the light, that glowed beyond
Our woods when we were ten?
You were the rambler then

The River by Bruce Springsteen

Written by: Bruce Springsteen
Album: The River (1980)
Genre: Rock

The River by Bruce Springsteen is about a man who married at 19 because his girlfriend was pregnant. He went on to become a construction worker but often struggled to find work. He never got to live his dreams. In the first live performance of the song, Springsteen said his sister and brother-in-law were the inspiration for the song.

But I remember us riding in my brother's car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I'd lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she'd take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don't come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry
That sends me down to the river tonight

Other great Springsteen songs about nostalgia and remembering are My Hometown and Glory Days. .

I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand
Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man
I'd sit on his lap in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town
He'd tousle my hair and say son take a good look around
This is your hometown

Everything's Gone by Lydia Loveless

Written by: Lydia Loveless
Album: Somewhere Else (2014)
Genre: Country Rock

In Everything's Gone, Lydia Loveless sings about the farm her family lost to foreclosure. She desperately wants her childhood home back but acknowledges there's likely not much left.

"We did lose our home in a very long battle that lasted most of my childhood. I don't think I had the mental capacity to write about it until the last couple of years. It's like post-traumatic stress coming out. I went hiking in the woods near where I grew up, total silence, the land, pastures everywhere. We always had open fields for horses and cattle."

It's a bitter song where she expresses her desire to buy the property back. She's angry at the bankers who she feels took her home away and the new owners.

I thought I'd be ok without a home, if I just had grace
But these years I've been away haven't been too kind
Lord, and I'm sick of seeing the fear in my family's eyes
Oh, I need to find the man who put it there and set his life on fire...
'Cause my daddy built a deck with his own two hands
I guess he didn't really know
There wasn't anywhere else for us to go
Now where the horses used to run there ain't nothin' left but Amish corn
Oh, the place where I grew up and my little brother was born
And if I strike it rich again,
I'm gonna buy it all back
Well I'll drop a bomb on that bitch
And watch it turn to ash

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory
The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory

“An utterly satisfying examination of the business of popular music.” ―Nathaniel Rich, The Atlantic


Bob Dylan's Dream by Bob Dylan

Written by: Bob Dylan
Album: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)
Genre: Folk

This song was recorded in 1963 when Bob Dylan was only 22. The song is about simpler times when he and his "few" friends didn't have many cares. It's suggested the song is about a time a couple of years earlier when Dylan lived in Greenwich Village. In the first half of the song, he sings about the simplicity and joy of those times. The second half becomes more melancholic as he sings about them going their separate ways and not seeing each other again.

By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words were told, our songs were songs
Where we longed for nothin' and were satisfied
Joking and talking about the world outside.

With haunted hearts through the heat and cold
We never thought we could ever get very old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
Our chances really was a million to one.

Another great Bob Dylan song about remembering is Red River Shore. In the song, a man remembers a girl he loved and wanted to marry.

Well, I can't escape from the memory
Of the one I'll always adore
All those nights when I lay in the arms
Of the girl from the Red River shore

Well, we're living in the shadows of a fading past
Trapped in the fires of time
I've tried not to ever hurt anybody
And to stay out of the life of crime

Wonderland by Kesha

Written by: Kesha Sebert, Pebe Sebert, Allan Grigg
Album: Warrior (2012)
Genre: Country Rock

Nashville native Kesha went back to her country roots on the melancholy ballad Wonderland that she wrote with her mother country music songwriter Pebe Sebert. In the song, Kesha reminisces about friendship. She and her old friends who were all big dreamers have gone their separate ways. She longs to go back to simpler times with them but acknowledges there's no way back. She mentions two friends who never achieved their dreams like she did. One is a mom. The other still works as a waitress "livin' on tips", a job Kesha held before she got her big break. She tries to reconnect with them but it isn't the same. Patrick Carney from The Black keys plays the drums on the track.

I was a just a young kid with time to waste
Living out of my car, those were the days
We were all the wild ones, the wasted youth.
Other than a dream, had nothin' to lose.

Ain’t it funny how time flies, fades into gold.
Now I wanna do a drive-by, but I can’t find the road.

Coal Miner's Daughter by Loretta Lynn

Written by: Loretta Lynn
Album: Coal Miner's Daughter (1969)
Genre: Country

Coal Miner's Daughter is an autobiographical song about country great Loretta Lynn's childhood. It's also the title of a movie about her life. She sings about growing up in a cabin in rural Kentucky with seven siblings. Her family didn't have much but they had lots of love. The song is a vivid account of the hardships and the happiness of her childhood. In the last verse, she visits her old home. All that's left are her memories.

In the summertime we didn't have shoes to wear,
But in the wintertime, we'd all get a brand new pair,
From a mail-order catalog, money made from sellin' a hog,
Daddy always managed to get the money somewhere.

Yeah, I'm proud to be a coal miner's daughter,
I remember well the well where I drew water,
The work we done was hard, at night we'd sleep 'cause we were tired,
I never thought of ever leavin' Butcher Holler.

Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town by Pearl Jam

Written by: Eddie Vedder
Album: Vs. (1993)
Genre: Rock

Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder explained the meaning of the song.

"It's kind of about a lady, and she's getting on in years, and she's stuck in this small town. Small towns fascinate me: You either struggle like hell to get out...and then others just kind of get stuck there. So here she is working in this little place, and then an old flame comes in, and he's probably driving a nice car and looking kind of sharp—not a fancy car, but he's moved on. And then she sees him, and at first she doesn't even remember who he is, and then she realizes who it is. She's just too embarrassed to say 'hello.'"

She remembers this man from her youth, wants to remind him who she is, but she's unable to.

I swear, I recognize your breath
Memories like fingerprints are slowly raising
Me, you wouldn't recall for I'm not my former
It's hard when you're stuck upon the shelf

I changed by not changing at all
Small town predicts my fate
Perhaps that's what no one wants to see
I just want to scream hello

This is the Sea by The Waterboys

Written by: Mike Scott
Album: This is the Sea (1985)
Genre: Rock

This is the Sea is the title track of The Waterboy's third album. The song seems to be saying that you shouldn't focus too much on the past or let it influence your present or future. The protagonist in the song is frustrated by his present and nostalgic for a time when things seemed clearer and simpler "And you know you once held the key." He/she is being told things can get better if they choose to make it so.

Now if you're feelin' weary
If you've been alone too long
Maybe you've been suffering from
A few too many
Plans that have gone wrong
And you're trying to remember
How fine your life used to be
Running around banging your drum
Like it's 1973
Well that was the river
This is the sea!

Now you say you've got trouble
You say you've got pain
You say've got nothing left to believe in
Nothing to hold on to
Nothing to trust
Nothing but chains
You're scouring your conscience
Raking through your memories
Scouring your conscience
Raking through your memories
But that was the river
This is the sea yeah!

Running on Empty by Jackson Browne

Written by: Jackson Browne
Album: Running on Empty (1977)
Genre: Rock

Running on Empty is #496 on Rolling Stone's list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time." Jackson Browne said this about the title of the song.

"I was always driving around with no gas in the car. I just never bothered to fill up the tank because — how far was it anyway? Just a few blocks."

The song seems to be about a musician's life on the road. It romanticizes the freedom of the open highway and following your dreams. Yet he seems to wonder what he gave up or lost on the way. And where he's going now.

Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields
In sixty-five I was seventeen and running up 101
I don't know where I'm running now, I'm just running on

Running on - running on empty
Running on - running blind
Running on - running into the sun
But I'm running behind

Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple

Written by: Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Gillan, Roger Glover, Jon Lord, Ian Paice
Album: Machine Head (1972)
Genre: Rock

Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple is the recounting of an event they say they'll "never forget." The band went to Switzerland to record their album Machine Head. While they were there, they attended a Frank Zappa concert. During the concert, someone shot off a flare that caused a fire. The band went to a nearby restaurant to watch the blaze. After the fire died down, there was a layer of smoke over Lake Geneva, which inspired the title of the song. Smoke on the Water is Deep Purple's signature song. It's #434 on Rolling Stone's list of "The 500 greatest songs of all time."

We ended up at the Grand Hotel
It was empty cold and bare
But with the Rolling truck Stones thing just outside
Making our music there
With a few red lights and a few old beds
We make a place to sweat
No matter what we get out of this
I know we'll never forget
Smoke on the water, fire in the sky


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    • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

      Learn Things Web 

      3 years ago from California


      Thanks for recommending Carbon Leaf. I'm checking them out on Spotify and I really like them. I love that kind of celtic mixed with rock sound. The Waterboys often do that as well. I haven't heard some of these song, so I'll check them out. I'd also forgotten some. I can't believe I didn't think of Take Me Home, Country Roads because I really love that song.

    • kotobukijake profile image


      3 years ago

      This is a great hub topic, and you've got some really good songs here, particularly "Running on Empty." I honestly never thought of "Smoke of the Water" as a nostalgia song, but I have long loved the song, and reading a bit of backstory behind it definitely paints it in a new light. There are just so many songs that could have made this list, though, and I have little doubt that my own top ten would have been entirely different. One that easily makes this list is a great track from Clint Black called "State of Mind." I mean, it's a song ABOUT the power of nostalgia that music has. Another one that I really hoped would be on here is the deeply melancholy "Those Were the Days" by Mary Hopkin. A couple other awesome choices would be "Only a Dream" by Mary-Chapin Carpenter and "Saturday in the Park" by Chicago. Three songs that make my personal list of the ten greatest songs ever could be on here as well: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" (an ode to fond memories); Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing" (an evocation of a particular time and place); and Alan Jackson's "Midnight in Montgomery" (a tribute to Hank Williams, itself a form of nostalgia). A few others worth noting: John Denver's "Poems, Prayers, and Promises" (he has many other contenders, such as his tribute to Jacques Cousteau, "Calypso"); Jimmy Buffett's "Pencil Thin Moustache" (others might include "Six String Music"); Alan Jackson's "Home" and "Chasin' that Neon Rainbow"; Billy Joel's "Piano Man"; and Brad Paisley's tribute to/ collaboration with Alabama, "Old Alabama." Speaking of Alabama, they're sort of the kings of nostalgia, with songs like "High Cotton" and "The Cheap Seats" being just the more obvious choices. At any rate, I enjoyed reading through (and playing through) your list, and I appreciate the reminders ("Running on Empty," "The River") and introductions ("Everything's Gone," "Wonderland") to great songs herein. Speaking of introductions, one final thought regarding one of my favorite local bands, who may be just famous enough for you to have heard of them--and are awesome enough to demand a listen--the band Carbon Leaf, who have a great song that could be listed as nostalgic, "One Prairie Outpost." "The irony, ask me/ Where have you been?/ I don't know, I don't know/ because I don't know where to begin." Somehow, that just seems fitting.


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