Monday, January 26, 2015

Today's Guest Blogger....Richard Elson

The idea for this playlist came from a remark made by someone hearing “Jack Straw” by the Grateful Dead playing in my office. “Ugh,” she said. “The Dead: they’re so chauvinistic.” “How so?” I asked. “’We can share the women/we can share the wine’!?!” she replied. I explained as patiently as I could that the song is a story about two shady characters named Shannon and Jack Straw and that it’s the characters who are talking, not Jerry and Bob and Phil…which got me thinking: which are the best story-telling songs I could think of? To pass muster, the songs would have to introduce characters and there would have to be a plot, or as much of one as could be developed in the relatively short time span of the song. A lot of songs come close, a lot seem story-like but in fact are actually more autobiography (or worse: confessionals) or slices of personal life so that the first person narrator seems indistinguishable from the songwriter himself or herself. For the moment, I’m interested in character, setting, conflict, and resolution; and in the really good ones, the music itself can play some key roles in creating a mood, developing the setting, even offering some foreshadowing (for example: think of the change of key before the last verse in “Kid Charlemagne” by Steely Dan: the guitar sounds foreboding, the shit is about to hit the fan, and then sure enough Owsley and crew are clearing out as fast as possible: Is there gas in the car?/Yes, there’s gas in the car). So, no rock operas here; just short story-songs.
Many of the good ones are set in the South, as are many great American short stories. Faulkner had a theory about this. He said (and I paraphrase): ‘It’s because it’s so fucked up down here!’ The South and the cowboy West.  John Cheever set his short stories in the suburbs, though the only song I can think of that stands out from that setting would be Billy Joel singing, In a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island…. Even there, he pulls it off by comparing/contrasting the NY ‘burbs to the wild wild west of Billy the Kid.
So here goes, with a small disclaimer (or two): Sal has already forgotten more about music than I’ll ever know, so writing this is a bit intimidating; and I confess to a certain degree of musical arrested development: I’m kind of stuck in a time period from long ago and far away, and know very little about more contemporary music, so I’d love to hear about other more recent story songs. This list is by no means definitive, just some that I really appreciate both musically and as narratives. In no particular order:
1.”Me and My Uncle” by John Phillips: Horse ridin’, card playin’ in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, headin’ to West Texas. There’s a true plot with conflict and resolution. The best part of the story, of course, is the plot twist at the end (I loved my uncle, God rest his soul/Taught me good, Lord, Taught me all I know/Taught me so well, I grabbed that gold/And I left his dead ass there by the side of the road).
2. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band. Virgil Kane is the name/and I served on the Danville train: wow, an opening line that’s like the rock version of ‘Call me Ishmael’. The drama of the music, Levon Helm’s voice, the story line that lends sympathy to the Confederacy (he was just 18, proud and brave/but a Yankee laid him in his grave: those fuckers!): it’s pretty damn remarkable. Another good song set during the Civil War, again from the southern perspective, is “My Father’s Gun” by Elton John (I’d like to know where the riverboat sails tonight/to New Orleans, well that’s just fine, alright/’cause there’s fighting there and the company needs men…) Both songs are so evocative of the time period, and it’s a real tribute to Elton John’s voice that he sounds Southern when he sings it. And we know it’s a character who is telling/singing his tale, because we just can’t picture dear Elton marching into battle.
3. “The Dutchman” by Michael Smith (popularized, if you will, by Steve Goodman) This song touches on the issues of enduring love and aging and even Alzheimer’s, before we even knew what Alzheimer’s was:
The Dutchman still wears wooden shoes
His cap and coat are patched with love
That Margaret sewed in
Sometimes he thinks he's still in Rotterdam
He watches tugboats down canals
And calls out to them when he thinks he knows the captain
'Til Margaret comes to take him home again
Through unforgiving streets that trip him
Though she holds his arm
Sometimes he thinks that he's alone and calls her name
Softie that I am, this song is still capable of making me cry, even after 40 years of knowing it. It’s one of those songs that makes me think: Damn, I wish I’d written that…
4. “Red Dirt Girl” by Emmy Lou Harris. The music creates the mood for this remarkable story about a childhood friend named Lillian whose brother dies in Vietnam and whose life spirals downward through bad relationships, drugs, depression. That kind of story line sounds a tad too cheesy and soap operatic, but the deft lyrics and insistent rhythm save it from being a mess:
Me and my best friend Lillian
And her blue tick hound dog Gideon,
Sittin on the front porch cooling in the shade
Singin every song the radio played
Waitin for the Alabama sun to go down
Two red dirt girls in a red dirt town
Me and Lillian
Just across the line and a little southeast of Meridian.
The plaintive acoustic guitar (backed by an electric guitar that is used ever so sparingly) creates such a strong impression that you can almost feel the humidity and hear the crickets chirping in the background. This song makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
5. “Madame George” by Van Morrison. I’m stretching it when it comes to true plot; it’s more like a dreamscape or a Fellini film, but some stories are like that: fuzzy-edged, swirling with some uncertainty, ending with no definite clarity. Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” is like that: wait,  what just happened? I better read it again. And again. I can listen to this song again and again. It’s a glimpse into a small underworld corner of Belfast with a mystery woman (drag queen?).
6. “Rocky Raccoon” by Lennon/McCartney. Now somewhere in the Black Mountain Hills of Dakota there lived a young boy named Rocky Raccoon. I love how so many of these songs lay out the setting in the very first line. Crisis, conflict, rising action, resolution, falling action—this song has it all, plus some piano playing straight out of a saloon in a western. A sympathetic, flawed character…and a plot in which the bad guy wins the gal, the good guy goes home defeated, though the last line gives the listener hope that things will eventually turn out better for our fallen hero.
7. “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” by Bob Dylan. Wow, where the hell did this song come from? Dylan just flexing his artistic muscles again? Another wild west setting. This song has the most complex plot and most extensive set of characters of any I know. The plot relies on a series of coincidences and card game symbolism, with a lot of quick cuts from one character to another then back again, to let the story unfold. The tempo of the music moves the action along very swiftly, and as many times as I’ve listened to it, there’s still plenty of room for interpretation on what exactly happens and what it all means.
8. “Sammy’s Song” by David Bromberg. A chilling coming-of-age story, set ‘somewhere in the south of Spain’ for 16 year old Sammy. His uncle takes him to a brothel to be with a woman for the first time. When the young woman reluctantly removes all her clothes at Sammy’s insistence, she reveals a body badly scarred from a fire. His first experience becomes memorable in a way neither Sammy nor his uncle could ever have anticipated. It reminds me of something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
9. “Ode to Billy Joe” by Bobbi Gentry. Okay, this one is a little corny, but I love how the plot is revealed. We learn unfolding details in a family dinner conversation, while the girl in the song, the singer, sits silently, her appetite gone, unable to join in the conversation because, unknown to her family, she played a role in the events that led to Billy Joe’s decision to commit suicide. And I love how the opening line not only sets the scene, but actually pins it to a particular day: It was the 3rd of June, another sleepy dusty Delta day. As if the singer is saying, ‘This is the day my world got turned upside down, I will remember it for the rest of my life’.
10. “Me and Bobby McGee” by Kris Kristofferson. A memory of lost love, plus some reflection on the trade-offs involved with so-called freedom. Another opening line setting, though this song gradually travels all over the country: Busted flat in Baton Rouge/Waitin’ for a train/ feelin’ near as faded as my jeans. We learn right off the bat not just where the two characters are, but how they are: flat broke and emotionally washed out. Plus, one of the all-time great lines: I’d trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday/To be holdin’ Bobby’s body next to mine…really good stuff.
A few Honorable Mentions: “Daniel and the Sacred Harp” by The Band; “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel; “El Paso” by Marty Robbins; “Wharf Rat” by the Grateful Dead; “The Holdup” by David Bromberg. And one curiosity: in thinking about which songs to put on this list, I kept dwelling on “She’s Leaving Home” by Lennon/McCartney. How old is this girl? She’s not really young because the lyrics mention, She’s leaving home after living alone for so many years. So if she’s adult, why does she have to sneak out? Why doesn’t she just tell her parents she met somebody? If it was written today, the parents’ response would be, ‘Finally! We thought you’d never leave!’ These are the questions that haunt me in the middle of the night. And in “Norwegian Wood” does he actually set fire to her furniture?


William Repsher said...

I was thinking more "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" by Vicki Lawrence ... another Faulkneresque tale of darkness and debauchery.

There are countless folk songs that tell exact stories, ditto the blues, and country. I would wager if I knew my hiphop better, there are probably a lot in that genre, too. It seems to be an art form that has fallen away, unfortunately, to be replaced by vaguely "dirty" catch phrases and meaningless self-help aphorisms.

"Taxi" by Harry Chapin? I always tend to think of him and Jim Croce when it comes to story songs.


Thanks Richard. Cool playlist idea.

I'm reminded of a bit I read a few months ago; the novelist Denis Lehane talking about Bruce Springsteen's Jungleland ... he called that song "a grand epic about very small, desperate lives."

Not bad!

Ken D said...

A fine topic and post. Thanks, Richard. Hadn't thought about (or heard) "The Dutchman" or "Sammy's Song" in quite a while. Both great story songs.
I'll add a few that I think meet your criteria and are favorites of mine:
"Harley" — Kathy Mattea
"Pineola" — Lucinda Williams
"Tecumseh Valley" — Townes Van Zant (an epic in just 3 verses)
"Over Yonder" — Steve Earle
"Abilene" — Dave Alvin
"I Have Loved These Days" — Al Anderson
and, for me, the king of the story song: John Prine for tales like "Six O'clock News," Donald & Lydia," and "Hello In There."

ReelMusic said...

Wonderful, thought-provoking piece, Richard; thank you.

For me, "Strange Fruit", especially Billie Holiday's hauntingly beautiful original version of the Meeropol song-poem, just about says it all.

jeff said...

Great post that leaves my efforts in the dust! I just can't believe you left "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo" off the list (although I suppose your reasoning was that it was autobiographical in nature). Dixie and Your Father's Gun were both songs composed with great craft, but I have always hated them and their attempts to create sympathy for the Confederacy which caused and still causes so much misery in this country.

Jungleland to me is the perfect example, and I see here that Jayessemm has already sited it. Hell, about half of Born to Run and River would work.

Would Peggy Sue Got Married fit the bill here? And then there's maybe the greatest story song of all time, "Stagger Lee" or Stack-o-Lee

Anyway, wonderful post that will have me thinking all day -- something I'm not used to doing.

Jeff Matthews said...

Great post Rick!
I especially love story-telling songs that bring out a level of richness of detail that allows the listener to inhabit a "real" space, even if the story is not based on an actual event or a specific person.
Chicago-based songwriter Ike Reilly does this particularly well, and there's an interview he did with Steve Almond where he described the disingenuous flaw in much of this genre - something he calls "magic ratting". From that interview:

"Actually, most all of the people that appear in my songs are based on people that I know or knew or have seen or heard about. I really try not to mythologize much. Within my braintrust of drunks and lay-abouts we have a phrase and it is "magic rat." As in, don't "magic rat" it. "Magic Ratting" in our camp is a flaw in story telling that surely makes for a good story but doesn't really ring true. It's drama in a show biz kind of a way. It sounds nice but it sounds like it comes from a writer not someone who has inhabited the space in the story or song. It comes from the song "Jungleland." I have been guilty of it, I have purposefully done it, but I hate it when I hear it from me or anybody...but especially from me." -- Ike Reilly

Charlie Carr said...

Hey Rich!
Good selection, well thought out.
The Dylan song I would have used is Tangled Up In Blue. Although the whole list could have been Bob's tales of woe and intrigue (Señor?)
Thanks for including Wharf Rat! The shifting pov makes that as intriguing as Jack Straw.
But . . . (always gotta be one, right?) no Stagger Lee, Stack O'Lee or whatever?!? The quintessential American story/song/story. Again we could have use a whole list of just those and been good to travel . . .
What's that song where the guy finds his sweater on the tombstone? That's a whole 'nother genre . . .

jeff said...

Was that "Tell Laura I love her?" Steve Goodman does a great version.

Andy said...

Great Post. If you like stories in songs or songs with a story, for that matter - check out the late great Jackie Leven. Some fantastic imagery and music.

Troy said...

Great post and some great "story" songs in your list. I would add Warren Zevon's 'Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner'. Man, what a character! Love the line "Roland aimed his Thompson gun - he didn't say a word"...

Another Zevon "story" song and one of my favorites is "Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)" which is about a hockey player named Buddy, who dreams of being Rocket Richard but isn't that good with the puck. His real talent is beating people up, and he ends up with a 20 year career as a goon. In his final game on his final night, opportunity knocks and he gets his shot on goal. The result is priceless, classic Zevon.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I think the girl in "She's Leaving Home" is a teenager, 17-18 years old. She's sneaking off to join a slightly older man on a motorcycle.
Even at that age she could easily have spent a decade feeling alone.

When they work, story songs are some of my favorites, when they don't, it's because they are so contrived and too songwritery.
All the songs I thought to nominate actually don't qualify. They're the songwriter in the first person.

rick said...

Thanks, all for the comments and suggestions...Ken D: Yes, John Prine would've been a great one to include. I like your choices and would also add "Angel from Montgomery"....buzzbabyjesus: yeah, I was thinking she was 17 yrs old as well, and your point about a decade of loneliness is a good one....jeff k: so much of springsteen teetered right on the edge of inclusion for me....jeff m: thanks for introducing me to the 'magic rat' concept, it certainly explains why some i'd been thinking about didn't quite make it in my mind as true storytelling....Charlie: glad you liked the 'wharf rat' inclusion!

Ken D said...

Rick— re "Angel from Montgomery"; as much as love the tune and the imagery, what's the narrative? For me the strength of that song is taking almost no story—I'm now old, though I was young once; I once had love, but no longer— and saying it in a most poetic way. What am I missing?

M_Sharp said...

Excellent article, Richard.

One of my favorite story songs, a bit more outrageous than most, has always been "Dinah-Moe Humm" by Frank Zappa.

rick said...

Ha! Fair point; I'd thought something similar about 'thunder road', that it boils down to 'a thousand reasons you should come with me now'

rick said...

Another character I'm fascinated with is the Hobo in tim buckley's 'morning glory', though here too the song, despite its beauty, doesn't quite fulfill all the story requirements

A walk in the woods said...

Good topic!

- "Coyote" by Joni Mitchell
- "Ballad of Dorothy Parker" by Prince
- "Livin' For The City" by Stevie Wonder
- "Me and Paul" by Willie Nelson
- "Alice's Restaurant" by Arlo Guthrie
- "Lyin' Eyes" by the Eagles

Anonymous said...


Two of my favorite story songs that get in and out quickly, just the way you like them.

1- Lola: The Kinks. Not autobiographical as many of us thought at the time but an expansion of an event that happened to one of The Kinks managers. The ending leaves us hanging while completing the story. Ray Davies was a master story song teller in The Kinks first decade.

2- Glow Girl: The Who. First time stands still as we experience the plane flight in minute detail moments before the crash, then the rush of the plane falling from the sky in full blazing guitar-smashing Technicolor, then the explosive crash. Finally: reincarnation. It's all there in less then three minutes! Townshend's guitar pushes the story forward much as the lyrics.

Great topic.

Capt. Al

sclinchy said...

Richard Thompson - 1952 Vincent Black Lightning!

Bill said...

Camouflage--Stan Ridgeway

Anonymous said...

Powderfinger - Neil Young

big bad wolf said...

lily, rosemary, and the jack of hearts. i don't know this for sure, but i have a theory that this song came from the hibbing of the iron range. in j. anthony lukas's book "big trouble," which is about western mining strikes, mine union organizing, union busting, murder, and the murder prosecution of union officials, including big bill heywood who was defended by clarence darrow, there are many of the threads and details that dylan weaves into a artful tapestry in his song. i have often wondered if the tales of those events moved east by miners and organizers came to the iron range, resonated, lingered, became lore, surrounded and remained in the young zimmerman, emerging both as art and as a true folk song.

J. Loslo said...

"Caleb Meyer," by Gillian Welch. A story about an attempted sexual assault- while the protagonist is successful in fighting off the assault, it's clear she's going to be haunted by it for life. It's chilling.

Dave said...

Stories can be character rather than plot driven. My three favorites are:

1. Wichita Lineman -- Jimmy Webb's masterpiece.

2. Waterloo Sunset -- a novel that fits on a ''45.

3. The Confession -- Laura Nyro's conclusion to "Eli & the 13th Confession"

Dave F.

Anonymous said...

Brownsville Girl - Bob Dylan

rick said...

I'm a big fan of Laura Nyro, and I think she has one of the truly great voices; but I tend to think of most of her music as confessional: highly personal, soul-bearing. I love a lot of Jimmy Webb as well, and Wichita Lineman is one of my favorites

rick said...

I'm unfamiliar with several of the suggestions made here, so now I've got some listening to do, thanks all...

buzzbabyjesus said...

Here's "I Remember Cissy's Baby" by Jake and The Family Jewels.

rick said...

Yes! Great call, haven't heard or thought about them in quite a while

Dave said...

Rick, Look at all the great discussion and even better, recommendations your post has engendered.

I don't want to belabor the Laura Nyro thing, but I've always interpreted the song "The Confession" as the 13th confession alluded to in the title of the album (note that it is track 13). And it's the exact reverse of Brian Wilson/Tony Asher's conception of "Pet Sounds." (You can only appreciate the sadness underlying "Wouldn't It Be Nice" when you hear the whole album and especially, "Caroline, No."

Here, it's exactly the reverse. Only after the despair of many of the earlier 12 "confessions" can you appreciate how hard-earned the optimism of the last song is: "And only now am I a virgin...I confess." But she is never as black and white as Wilson and Asher: "Love is surely doubtful."

It's an impressionistic story, but a very cool one.

Dave F.

rick said...

Gotta go back and re-listen to the whole album now, it's been a while. Like with literature, the more I read, the longer my 'to read' list gets. . .

The Grim Reefer said...

The Band's "King Harvest (has Surely come)" deserves a mention. It has the feel and sound of the heartbeat of mid-America. "Scarecrow in the yellow moon, pretty soon the carnival on the edge of town...."
The musicianship is superb and Robbie turns in a solo as dry & brittle as frost on a cornstalk...

A Guy Called Tak said...

My two favorite story songs nobody mentioned yet.

Real Emotional Girl by Randy Newman
Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis

Great post!

rick said...

Tom Waits truly is one of our great story tellers...

buzzbabyjesus said...

Where is Tom Waits? Here. "Shore Leave" is one of many favorites by Tom.


Gene Oberto said...

I always love to hear "The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot.
"The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they call "Gitche Gumee."
'Superior," they said, "never gives up her dead
when the gales of November come early!'"
Like a broken record, I, once again, recommend "Welcome to the Boomtown" by David and David.
It contains 9 short stories of broken dreams and the underside of LA's glitz and glamour.
"Pick a habit/We got plenty to go around/Welcome to the Boomtown"