Fact or Fiction: The Truth Behind Popular Songs

The entertainment industry is full of myths and legends. From the popular belief that a photo of Humphrey Bogart was the inspiration for the drawing of the Gerber Baby to more ghoulish myths such as Jane Mansfield’s decapitation in the car accident that killed her – myths often go down in history as widely believed and often repeated facts. This isn’t exclusive to movies. Music and musicians often get the same treatment.

It all starts with a theory.

Myths add intrigue and give people an entertaining story to tell – even if there is no truth to that story. Often times, the truth is a lot less interesting than the myth. It is for that reason that myths become what they are. They get passed from person to person until the truth is almost lost. Did Bob Dylan really steal a song from a high school student? Did Phil Collins write “In the Air Tonight” about a drowning man? Is James’ Taylor’s legendary “Fire and Rain” about a lost love who died in a plane crash? I’ll tackle the most popular and enduring myths behind some of music’s greatest songs and tell you the real story.

“Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan

Myth: Bob Dylan stole (or purchased) the song “Blowin’ in the Wind” from a high school student.

Truth: This one really started thanks to a magazine called “Broadside” and a less than honest high school student trying to impress his classmates. Bob wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1962 but the song didn’t appear on an album until 1963’s “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”. The problem? A high school student had already performed the song in public, claiming he wrote it and sold the rights. How did he perform Dylan’s song before Dylan released it? Because “Broadside” magazine had published the music and lyrics in 1962. The kid saw the song in the magazine, saw that it hadn’t been released and claimed it as his own. Later, in 1974, the kid came clean and admitted he basically stole the song from Dylan and this myth was officially disproved.

“I Don’t Like Mondays” by The Boomtown Rats

Myth: The song was written about a school shooting after with the shooter claimed their reason for committing the horrific crime was that they “don’t like Mondays”.

Truth: This one is one hundred percent true. On January 29, 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer opened fire on the elementary school across from her house as children began arriving for the day’s classes using a rifle her father had given her. She killed Principal Burton Wragg and custodian Mike Suchar and injured eight students and a police officer. During the six hour standoff with police that followed the shooting, she gave a few reasons for the attack. One of those reasons was “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” That was the statement that inspired a song about madness and the insanity behind such an unimaginable event.


“American Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Myth: Tom Petty wrote the song about a girl who committed suicide by jumping off the balcony of her dorm room at the University of Florida.

Truth: While Tom can’t actually recall the specific motivation for the song, he has stated several times that it was not about suicide. This is further backed up by the fact that the dorm she supposedly lived in “Beaty Towers” doesn’t even feature dorms with balconies.


“Hotel California” by The Eagles

Myth: “Hotel California” is about Satanism, a mental hospital or the descent into drug addiction

Truth: Both the song and the album are really about the greed and decadence in 1970s California, especially in relation to the music industry the band found themselves immersed in. They found the whole experience disquieting and decided to put that feeling to music, thus “Hotel California” was born. Don Henley later said that it was about the loss of innocence and was meant to serve as a warning of the dark side to the glamor of the music scene.


“Side of a Bullet” by Nickelback

Myth: The song features the last known guitar solo by murdered guitarist, Dimebag Darrell.

Truth: This one is partially true. The song was written for Dimebag following his tragic murder and the awesome guitar solo on the song was in fact performed by Dimebag, but it wasn’t his last recorded solo. The solo was actually recorded while Dimebag was still a part of Pantera around the time their “Far Beyond Driven” album was recorded. Darrell’s girlfriend, Rita Haney, and his brother, Vinnie Paul, sent the recording to Nickelback and that’s how it ended up as part of the song.


“Hey Man, Nice Shot” by Filter

Myth: The lyrics of the song refer to the 1987 public suicide of Pennsylvania state treasurer, Budd Dwyer.

Truth: This one’s true… sort of. While many felt the song was a celebration of the actual act of suicide, the band denied that accusation, saying instead it was merely a reference to the “guts and determination of a person standing up for what they believe in”. To read more about the story that inspired the song, visit the Wikipedia page about Dwyer here.

“Fire and Rain” by James Taylor

Myth: The legend goes that James was just starting to find success with his music but that success meant long stretches of time without the woman he loved, Suzanne. His friends, seeing his depression over missing his love, decided to surprise him by flying her out for a visit. Tragically, her plane crashed and she was killed.

Truth: In this one, the real story is almost as tragic as the myth. The first verse, the one that mentions Suzanne, was his reaction to a friend’s suicide – an event that was kept with him for six months.

Around this time, James was also in a band called “The Flying Machines” with a friend. The band booked a rather disastrous gig at a failing nightclub for which they wound up not getting paid. Eventually, the band broke up. This is where the “sweet dreams and flying machines lay in pieces on the ground” line of the song comes from.

The second and third verses of the song refer to James’ heroin addiction. When he calls to Jesus to “look down upon him” and “help him make a stand” he is asking for help in battling his addiction and his desire to overcome it.

“In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins

Myth: There are many, many myths associated with this one. The most common are:

  • Phil witnessed a drowning but was too far away to help. There was another man, however, who was closer and would have been able to save the man in peril but instead, stood by and did nothing.
  • Phil witness a rape or a murder, tracked down the identity of the rapist/murdered, invited him to a concert and shone a spotlight on him as he sang the song. After the concert, the man singled out (the guilty man) kills himself. Why Phil doesn’t go to the police isn’t clear.
  • Phil caught his wife in bed with another man.
  • Phil… yeah, okay – you get the point. There are a lot of them.

Truth: The dramatic and mysterious nature of the lyrics fuel this myth even though Phil Collins has repeatedly said the song is not at all based on a real life event. Rather the song, and the whole album the song appears on, is a result of the frustration and anger he felt following his divorce.

“Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton

Myth: Eric Clapton wrote the song for his son who passed away.

Truth: This one is unfortunately true. Although there are variations of the story (some adding embellishments to the tragic story, usually pointing the finger at blame toward Clapton, while others say his son died of an illness such as cancer), it was in fact written about his son Connor’s death resulting from injuries he sustained following a fall from the window of his mother’s apartment.

“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Beatles

Myth: The song title is a not so subtle reference to LSD.

Truth: John Lennon claimed – right up until he died – that the song title was taken word for word from a picture his son Julian painted. The painting was titled, yes, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and portrayed his school friend Lucy in the sky with stars around her, which Julian called diamonds. Many doubters still insist, though, that there was another meaning. One has to ask, though – why would Lennon lie. He never concealed his drug use and admitted to taking over a hundred acid trips. I’m going to believe Lennon on this one.

“Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary

Myth: The song was written about marijuana.

Truth: A lot of you will swear up and down that I’m wrong about this one, but I’m not. Just look to those who wrote the song for confirmation. Everyone involved in the writing of this song (Leonard Lipton and Peter Yarrow) have said the song is about the loss of innocence – not about getting high. Call me crazy, but I think the people responsible for the song would know what they were writing the song about.


Perhaps the greatest factor in the evolution of a myth is the need people feel to contribute the story. Whether it’s simply changing one small detail or creating an entire story, people want something interesting to add. Are you interested in seeing more stories like this on the site? If you are, then pass this article around. Share it with your friends on Facebook and Twitter. If there’s enough interest, I’ll keep doing them.

Did you believe any of these myths? I know I did. What medium would you like to see covered next? Actors and actresses? Movies? Musicians? General myths? Let me know in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to come up with some good ones – heaven knows there’s enough to choose from.