Ten Story Songs and the Stories behind Them
by Jennifer Jacobs
The narrative song, or story song, has captured the imagination of listeners for centuries. The art form started with local tribal and folk songs, and often served as a way to pass on the history and folklore of those cultures. In the modern era, recordings and radio spread the story song to a worldwide audience.
So what describes a great story song? Told in the first, second, or third person format, the song will possess a distinct story line from beginning to end. The story is usually very compelling in some way. Finally, since it is a song, it must have equally compelling music to accompany it.
More often than not, story songs have their own interesting backstory. Here are some great examples:
“El Paso”– Marty Robbins- 1959
Although songs that told a story had been around forever, they first made a gig impact on the Billboard charts in January of 1960, when three consectutive story songs hit the #1 spot on the Billboard hot 100: “El Paso”, “Teen Angel” and Running Bear”. Arguably “El Paso” was the most influential of the three. released in the country western format, and possessing a groundbreaking tex-mex sound, the song clocked in at 4:38, much longer than the typical song of that era. Nevertheless it became a crossover sensation, charting at #1 on both the Hot 100 and Country charts. “El Paso” tells the story of a man that gets caught in a love triangle with tragic consequences. Songwriter Marty Robbins later won a Grammy Hall Of Fame award for “El Paso”.
Challenged his right for the love of this maiden.
Down went his hand for the gun that he wore.
My challenge was answered in less than a heart-beat;
The handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor.
“A Boy Named Sue”- Johnny Cash- 1969
Many claim “A Boy named Sue” to be the first rap song, but technically it was considered to be “talking blues”, a genre which had actually been around since the 1920s. Cash alternates talking and singing the song, a story about a man who is given a girl’s name, and the resulting trouble it causes him. The song was written by Shel Silverstein, a multi-talented writer and cartoonist. (Some may know him better by his children’s books.) Cash recorded the song live in front of an audience of inmates for his album Johnny Cash at San Quentin. The captive audience was deeply appreciative of the song and the performance, and their loud vocal approval gave the song an extra edge for the time, along with some lyrics that had to be censored out..a first for country music stations.
Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean,
My fist got hard and my wits got keen,
I’d roam from town to town to hide my shame.
But I made a vow to the moon and stars
That I’d search the honky-tonks and bars
And kill that man who gave me that awful name.
“Patches”– Clarence Carter- 1970
Written by General Johnson & Ronald Dunbar of the Group Chairman of The Board, “Patches” is a story about a son who must assume responsibility for his desperately poor family after his father’s death. First appearing on a Chairman Of The Board album, Clarence Carter heard it and decided to cut a version of his own in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Carter, a singer and musician, attended Alabama School for the Blind and later obtained a degree in music from Alabama State College. His version won a Grammy award for best R&B song in 1971, and remains a classic.
One day papa called me to his dyin’ bed
Put his hands on my shoulders and in tears he said
Patches, I’m depending on you son
To pull the family through
I’m sorry son, it’s up to you
“Indian Sunset”- Elton John- 1971
Bernie Taupin’s narrative lyrical period peaked in 1971, when both of the classic Elton John albums “Tumbleweed Connection” and “Madman Across The Water” were released. Taupin, who grew up an avid reader on an English country farm, was noted for his uncanny ability to effortlessly channel characters from Early American lore. Perhaps the finest example of this was the Madman track “Indian Sunset”, a first-person account of a young Iriquois warrior who is valiantly fighting to save his native people, land, and way of life. Elton is up to the task as well, composing a melody that recalls the cadence of American Indian tribal music, without a trace of pandering or condescension.
Now I see no reason why I should carry on
In this land that once was my land, I can’t find a home
It’s lonely, and it’s quiet, and the horse soldiers are coming
And I think it’s time I strung my bow, and ceased my senseless running
“The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”- Vicki Lawrence- 1972
This hit song was a surprise career turn for Vicki Lawrence, who was best known as a sketch actress on The Carol Burnett Show. The song was written by her then husband, songwriter Bobby Russell. Although Russell was reluctant to even record a demo, Lawrence believed in the song, a southern gothic tale of a sister who gets away with murder while her innocent brother is hung for her crime. Lawrence recorded the song after Liza Minelli and Cher reportedly passed on it. It reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was later covered by Reba McIntyre, who took it to #12 on the country charts.
Said I’m your best friend and you know that’s right
But your young bride ain’t home tonight
Since you been gone she’s been seeing that Amos boy Seth
He got mad and he saw red
Andy said boy don’t you lose your head
Cause to tell you the truth I’ve been with her myself
“Charlie Freak”- Steely Dan- 1974
Steely Dan, a jazz/rock outfit known for impeccable musicianship and recording quality, often laced its lyrics with seedy tales of the drug underworld. This Becker/Fagen composition contains perhaps their most sympathetic character, Charlie, who in desperation sells his prize possession to feed his addiction. The narrator is the buyer, who is compelled to make amends for supplying the money for the one last fix that killed him. The song was never released as a single, but appears on one of Steely Dan’s finest albums, Pretzel Logic.
On the street he spied my face I heard him hail
In our plot of frozen space he told his tale
Poor man, he showed his hand
So righteous was his need
And me so wise, I bought his prize for chicken feed
“Hurricane”- Bob Dylan -1975
The protest song, co-written by Bob Dylan & Jacques Levy, told the tale of promising boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was a victim of racial profiling which led to false arrest and conviction. Dylan had met with Carter in prison, and wanted to write the song, but felt too emotionally connected, so he called upon colleague Jacques Levy to co-write. The song quickly became one of Dylan’s most popular in the 1970’s despite a few counter-protests that some artistic license had been taken. Whether or not it had anything to do with the song, a federal judge later overturned Carter’s conviction, on the basis that he had not been given a fair trial, and all murder charges were eventually dropped.
Four in the morning and they haul Rubin in
Take him to the hospital and they bring him upstairs
The wounded man looks up through his one dying eye
Says “Wha’d you bring him in here for? He ain’t the guy!”
(cover by Mel Plant)
“Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald”- Gordon Lightfoot – 1976
At first listen this song sounded like a long-ago tale of a lost ship, but in reality, it was based on the true story of the sinking of the freight carrier on Lake Superior, an event that had happened just one year prior, on November 10th, 1975. It hit #1 in Lightfoot’s native Canada, and #2 on the US Billboard hot 100 chart.
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck
Sayin’, “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya”
At seven p.m., a main hatchway caved in
He said “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya”
“Paradise By The Dashboard Light”- Meat Loaf – 1977
This often hilarious epic of teenage sexual tension & bargaining made an unlikely rock star/sex symbol out of Meat Loaf, a veteran of Broadway (Hair) and film (Rocky Horror Picture Show). The song is a duet with singer Ellen Foley, written by Jim Steinman and produced by Todd Rundgren. It is surprising, given how well known this song is today, that it only peaked at #39 on the Billboard charts. This could be due to the fact that the subject matter was considered a little too risque for top 40 radio. The 7:55 running time didn’t help radio play either, but it did help the sales of the album Bat Out Of Hell, which to date has sold an astonishing 43 million copies worldwide.
Stop right there!
I gotta know right now
Before we go any further
Do you love me, Will you love me forever
Do you need me, will you never leave me
Will you make me so happy for the rest of my life
Will you take me away, will you make me your wife?
“Stan”– Eminem- 2000
One of the finest practitioners of the the story song in the rap genre is Eminem, who routinely blurs the lines between fantasy & reality to compelling, and often horrifying effect. “Stan” is a tale of an obsessed Slim Shady fan (Eminem’s alter-ego) whose fixation with the star slowly spirals out of control. Dido’s song “Thank You” is dispersed throughout to effectively separate the escalating stages of Stan’s delusions. The video is a rarity, in that it follows the actual story line of the song, and it plays out like a Stephen King film. (Pay attention to the window in Eminem’s room at the end of the video.)
See everything you say is real, and I respect you cause you tell it
My girlfriend’s jealous cause I talk about you 24/7
But she don’t know you like I know you Slim, no one does
She don’t know what it was like for people like us growin up
You gotta call me man, I’ll be the biggest fan you’ll ever lose
Sincerely yours, Stan — P.S. We should be together too
The advent of MTV in the eighties brought in accompanying visuals with the music. Ironically, story songs actually seemed to decline during this time, as producers generally shied away from literal translations of songs in favor of symbolic devices. Although it seems the story song is not as prevalent as it once was, it is still alive and well in country music. As for pop, the pendulum could swing the art form back into the forefront sometime in the future. For now, we can fondly remember the past hits. Over the years, which story songs have been your favorites?