Ten tribute songs to athletes for fans of every sport

Sometimes music and sports can work well and when it does it is pure magic.
Venus Williams at Wimbledon 2008
Venus Williams at Wimbledon 2008 / Simon M Bruty/GettyImages
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“FIFTY-MISSION CAP” by The Tragically Hip (1993)

“Bill Barilko disappeared that summer – He was on a fishing trip – The last goal he ever scored – Won the Leafs the Cup.” That’s how Gord Downie begins his mesmerizing true story of Toronto Maple Leafs’ defenseman Bill Barilko in a song that has become part and parcel of the venerable hockey club’s history. Barilko scored a goal in overtime of game 5 in the 1951 Stanley Cup finals that won the championship for Toronto over their rivals from Montreal. It was the last game Barilko would ever play.

He died in a plane crash that off-season and his body was undiscovered for eleven years. He was 24 years old. Toronto did not win the Stanley Cup again until the year Barilko’s body was discovered in 1962. The story became the stuff of legends. The Tragically Hip commemorated it with their song. Downie was born right after the discovery of the body and grew up about 150 miles east of Toronto.

The song manages to be both elegiac and pulsating at the same time, in the way that the best ‘90s alt-rock could be. It was well-suited for play in front of large crowds in arenas and became a standard at Leafs’ games. There is another much-beloved song by Stompin’ Tom Connors simply called “The Hockey Song,” a peppy, countrified tune about “the good old hockey game.” That song is a bit of a novelty, however much fun it may be. The Tragically Hip, on the other hand, produced a genuinely impassioned song about a fascinating piece of the sport.


“MOLLY AND TENBROOKS” by Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys (1949)

It’s hard to trace the origins of this traditional tune about a famous match race in 1878 between a Kentucky thoroughbred named Ten Broeck and a California mare named Mollie McCarty. It had already been around a long time when Bill Monroe got ahold of it.

The song is filled with factual inaccuracies, the most egregious suggesting that the race led to Molly’s death. It did not. But it makes for a good bluegrass story. I once saw Monroe being interviewed about the origins of the song and he seemed just as bewildered as anyone else.

But he sure knew what made the song work. Monroe said that this particular song was perfectly suited for the banjo and that he allowed it to claim an equal spot in the ensemble alongside his own mandolin, as well as guitar and fiddle. It helped make the Bluegrass Boys banjo player at the time – Earl Scruggs – a star.

Mark Lavengood served up a rollicking modern cover of the story back in 2014, supported by the 21-year-old Billy Strings. Molly still dies in the end.