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A new book of world history has a playlist to go along with it


"The World" tells the story of the human family through families the Caesars and Borgias, Kims and Tudors, Roosevelts, Hapsburgs, Saud and families that are similar in kind - Plato and Confucius, Gandhi and Kenyatta, Empress Wu and King Alara, a thousand pages of plagues, pandemics and crimes against humanity, along with staggering survival and achievements. And you could read the whole book while listening to a playlist.


ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Please allow me to introduce myself. I'm a man of wealth and taste.

SIMON: More than 400 songs from the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, The Commodores and many more. The eminent historian Simon Sebag Montefiore joins us. I gather you believe "Sympathy For The Devil" is the best song about history.

SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE: I put it as my No. 1 - the brilliant way it's written, the trope of an unknown narrator that we whom we discover, whose identity is revealed and who plays a role in many of the most terrible atrocities of the 20th century. I think it's one of the best-written rock songs of all time.


ROLLING STONES: (Singing) I rode a tank, held a general's rank when the Blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank.

SIMON: What is this playlist provide for our perspective on history?

MONTEFIORE: Well, part of the fun thing about writing a family history is to get a feel of the way people lived, which is not just empires rising and falling, battles and pandemics, but also how they ate, how they dressed and, of course, what kind of music they listen to. And so I thought, God, it'd be really fun to have a playlist of all the great history songs, which I define as - history song is either about a historical character or characters, or it's a song that becomes the theme of a historical event.


NINA SIMONE: (Singing) Southern trees...

SIMON: More music - Nina Simone's version of "Strange Fruit."

SIMONE: (Singing) ...Bearing strange fruit - blood on the leaves and blood at the roots. Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.

SIMON: What do we hear in this song?

MONTEFIORE: I mean, this is a song this is a terrifying, terrible, atrocious narrative of a lynching in the South. It tells part of the story of America, of the Jim Crow years of America. And slavery is a big part of this world history, Atlantic slavery, but also other slave trades in East Africa, trans-Saharan and the Mediterranean-Black Sea slave trade as well. You know, the great thing about writing a family history of the world is that you can cover these things in special ways. So some of the families, as you mentioned, are royal families, political families, families of power, but some are enslaved families, too.


SIMONE: (Singing) Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

SIMON: I feel the need to cite the author of the song Abel Meeropol. Do you know that story?

MONTEFIORE: Yeah. I mean, he's a - he was Jewish.

SIMON: Abel Meeropol adopted Michael and Robby (ph) Meeropol, who had been born to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

MONTEFIORE: Amazing. Amazing.


SIMON: In another direction entirely...


HERMAN'S HERMITS: (Singing) I'm Henry VIII, I am. Henry VIII I am, I am. I got married to the widow next door. She's been married seven times before.

SIMON: ...What scholarly contribution does or do Herman's Hermits make?

MONTEFIORE: Some of these songs are extremely dark and almost unbearable, you know, like "Strange Fruit," and some are just outrageous fun. I mean, you've got to be ready for all sorts of changes of tone.


MONTEFIORE: You know, one of the things that's fun about this is not just to have songs that mention historical characters. I mean, one of my favorites is The Stranglers' "No More Heroes."


THE STRANGLERS: (Singing) Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky? He got an ice pick that made his ears burn.

MONTEFIORE: That's another wonderful one, too. And there's songs about serious things, you know, "Baraye," the beautiful song, Iranian song, from today.


SHERVIN HAJIPOUR: (Singing in non-English language).

MONTEFIORE: There are songs from Ukraine, for example.


KALUSH AND KALUSH ORCHESTRA: (Singing in non-English language).

MONTEFIORE: There are songs from the Soviet Union in World War II.


ALEXANDROV ENSEMBLE: (Singing in non-English language).

MONTEFIORE: So I hope that one finds as much variety here as one does in the book as one does in world history.


BOBBIE GENTRY: (Singing) It was the 3 of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day.

SIMON: From following your book tour, I understand just this week you were at the Tallahatchie Bridge.

MONTEFIORE: Is it the Tallahatchie Bridge. Bobbie Gentry is in the list, of course. Of course I stopped the car and just had a moment.


GENTRY: (Singing) And Mama hollered at the back door, y'all remember to wipe your feet. And then she said, I got some news this morning from Choctaw Ridge. Today, Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

MONTEFIORE: And I was just in Graceland, too. And I think Elvis is one of those characters. For about 50 years, the great pop stars were like - and I'm slightly exaggerating here but not completely, I think - were like the grand dukes, the cardinals, maybe the great artists of bygone eras. Some of them are essential for a world history. So we've got Frank Sinatra. We've got Bowie. We've got Elvis, of course. And the Stones and the Beatles are all really part of the development of commerce, of capitalism, of a single American culture, of American domination of world culture. Frank Sinatra is a classic example. He sung at the 1946 summit meeting of the Mafia, who are in the book - Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. He was friends with Jack Kennedy. He introduced Kennedy to Marilyn Monroe and Judith Exner.

SIMON: And Marilyn Monroe's version of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" is also on the playlist.


MARILYN MONROE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you.

HAJIPOUR: Absolutely. I mean, she's in the book. Her singing that song is the sort of climax of Camelot in many ways. And the Kennedys are a big part of this story. And in case one thinks dynasties are over, in most of the rest of the world, for all sorts of reasons, people are returning to dynasties, to clans, to families of different sorts.

SIMON: There's a Marcos back in power in the Philippines.

MONTEFIORE: There's a Marcos back in power. There was a Kenyatta back in power. And then there are proper monarchies, which are riding high. Look at the Saudi monarchy, for example. And then there are republic monarchies, like the Kims of North Korea, the Assads and many, many others who are trying to create actual hereditary dynasties like monarchies. People often ask me, who's the most powerful family in the world? And, of course, the answer has to be the Kim family of North Korea because they have the ultimate heirloom, a nuclear arsenal.

SIMON: You write in "The World," history shows that humans have a limitless ability to destroy and an ingenious ability to recover. So the last song I want to ask you about is, of course, by a Chicagoan, Sam Cooke. (Singing) Don't know much about history.


SAM COOKE: (Singing) Don't know much about history. Don't know much biology.

SIMON: What wisdom from history or about history is in this song?

MONTEFIORE: The reason why I have it in the playlist is not just that it mentions history. And it is the most beautiful song. It's also optimistic about human nature.


COOKE: (Singing) And I know that if you love me, too, what a wonderful world this would be.

MONTEFIORE: And there's something else. I don't know much about history. You may find this surprising for someone who's just written...

SIMON: A thousand pages. Yes, right.

MONTEFIORE: We often revere history as propulsive, as almost sacred in its authority. And, in fact, history doesn't matter that much. What really matters is how people want to live now. And that's the difference between Ukraine, for example, and President Putin. President Putin is living in the age of Catherine the Great and Prince Potemkin and Nicholas I. And the Ukrainians want to live now in freedom. And that's the theme of that beautiful song by Sam Cooke.

MONTEFIORE: Simon Sebag Montefiore - his new book, "The World: A Family History Of Humanity," accompanied by a playlist on Spotify. Thanks so much for being with us.

SIMON: Always lovely to talk to you.


COOKE: (Singing) Don't know much about algebra. Don't know what a slide rule is for. But I do know one and one is two. And if this one could be with you, what a wonderful world this would be. Now, I don't claim... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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