For probably a thousand years or more, great stories of myth, legend and history have been told in song. To tell a story in a compelling way is an art, and to do it to a melody often makes it all the more appealing.
In the past century, the country, folk and blues genres have told hundreds and hundreds of stories of heartbreak, stories of war and famine, stories of love and tradition. These story-songs had characters, a plot, and a message, much like a well-crafted short story in literature. Not surprisingly, they tended to last five or six minutes or longer, which largely prevented them from making the pop charts, where the average song lasted no more than three minutes, hardly enough time for the lyrics to say much of anything beyond “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” or “I want to hold your hand.”
Still, some songwriters — country, pop, rock — through the decades have shown a fine talent for telling riveting stories in a succinct enough way that they ended up as chart successes, with a beginning, middle and end, even if they went beyond the conventional song length. I’ve selected roughly two dozen tracks that offer a healthy cross section of story-songs from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Some topped the singles charts, some were far more obscure tracks by major artists, but all are fascinating stories set to song.
“Taxi,” Harry Chapin, 1972
The key to a great story-song is painting an aural picture, a visual place where we can understand what’s going on with the lead characters. In this case, it’s Harry, the cab driver, and Sue, the wealthy lady who was once his lover. They meet again by chance when she hails his cab, and they have an uneasy re-meet. “She was gonna be an actress, and I was gonna learn to fly…” Neither one achieved their dreams, evidently, and he seems happy just driving a cab while she’s unhappy in whatever wealthy enclave she ended up.
“Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” Meat Loaf, 1977
The entire “Bat Out of Hell” album was worthy of a Broadway stageplay, with multiple stories sung by numerous characters conjured up by lyricist Jim Steinman and his pal, Mr. Loaf. None was more cinematic than “Paradise,” the vivid story of a teenage couple debating about whether to have sex (“What’s it gonna be, boy, yes or no?” “Let me sleep on it”) and what it all means. It’s still acted out all these years later by boomer men and women at bars and parties every Saturday night.
“Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” Temptations, 1972
Even Motown took a stab at the story-song, when the Temptations hit it big with this urban tale of a family who struggled to move on after their deadbeat father flew the coop and then died (“on the Third of September”). It was recorded as an epic 12-minute track with multiple instrumental passages (including a nearly 4:00 introduction), and even the single version clocked in at nearly 7:00. The vocal group’s final #1 set the tone for many more soul-story records over the next decade.
“Uneasy Rider,” Charlie Daniels Band, 1973
This song goes on and on with thirty (30!) triplets that tell the amusing story of a hippie from L.A. who’s stuck in Mississippi with a flat tire and has to do some fast talking to avoid a beating from a gang of rough rednecks. Standard country fare, perhaps, but it ended up on the mainstream Top 40 at #9 in the summer of 1973. It helped expand the appeal of country rock beyond the confines of the Deep South, with numerous country-rock groups hitting the Top Ten over the next several years.
“Copacabana,” Barry Manilow, 1978
Disco was all about instant gratification, and mindless dancing to a relentless beat, but this song, one of Manilow’s biggest hits, told the tragi-comic tale of Lola and Tony, and how their time in the limelight was ultimately destined to fail. It had more of a point to it than most disco tracks, not unlike the film “Saturday Night Fever,” which is remembered for its disco dance songs but is really a sad story of death and loss.
“Rocky Raccoon,” Beatles, 1968
By the time of the “White Album,” the Beatles had tried just about everything in the way of song structure, so it only seemed right to try a story-piece like “Rocky Raccoon,” with Paul McCartney front and center singing the country-western yarn about rivals Rocky and Dan, and the girl Magill (“who called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy”).
“A Boy Named Sue,” Johnny Cash, 1969
The late great Johnny Cash was deeply rooted in country music but periodically blew over into the pop music scene, most notably with his #2 hit “A Boy Named Sue” in 1969, which tells the story of a boy whose father left his family but not before naming his son Sue to make him strong and defiant in the face of adversity. The boy hated the name, naturally, and eventually learned why his father had done this, but vowed to name his own son “Bill, or George, or any damn thing but Sue!”
“Hurricane,” Bob Dylan, 1976
Dylan has written so many story-songs through the years that I could do an entire column just on his work. But perhaps his most notable is the one about Reuben Carter, a real-life boxer who was far from a saint, but got unfairly caught up in a homicide rap, and Dylan was sufficiently moved to write a lengthy piece that told Carter’s story. It’s a sordid tale of institutional racism at its worst, and Dylan is almost libelously specific in his accusations about the prosecutor and his questionable testifying witnesses.
“Me and Bobby McGee,” Janis Joplin, 1971
Kris Kristofferson wrote this superb story in 1970, and in the original version, Bobby was a woman, but when it was recorded by Janis Joplin only a few weeks before she died, she changed the genders so Bobby was a man. Her version went to #1 posthumously, but it doesn’t really much matter — the story it tells is of two drifters (male and female) trying to make something of their hardscrabble lives.
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1976
Canada’s folk hero had been recording and touring for ten years when he scored his biggest chart success with this #1 ode to the sunken freighter. It struck a chord with Americans and Canadians alike who live near the Great Lakes and know all about the ferocious storms that have laid claim to dozens of vessels through the years. It’s a great story but, frankly, a pretty boring song, featuring only three chords stretched out over seven long verses.
“American Pie,” Don McLean, 1972
Not so much a story as a historical treatise, “American Pie” explained, in rather enigmatic language, the evolution of rock and roll from 1955 to 1971, when the song was written. It has earned a place as one of rock’s true anthems, with its references to icons like Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and how they changed both popular music and popular culture.
“We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel, 1989
Also not actually a story, but more of a litany of headlines of news events from 1955 to 1989, when the song was released. Social science classes in middle and high schools have used this song to help today’s students understand the impact of the major and minor milestones of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that affected societal changes during those years.
“Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry, 1967
This sleepy, sultry number about a Deep South drama would’ve been perfect in the soundtrack of the movie from the same year, the Oscar-winner, “In The Heat of the Night.” As it is, the song’s lyrics do a marvelous job of telling the fictional story leading up to poor Billie Jo MacAllister’s suicide at the Tallahatchee Bridge.
“Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie, 1967
Perhaps the longest story in popular music, this one tells the tale of a bizarre Thanksgiving Day littering arrest, apparently a true story that happened to Guthrie in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, during the Vietnam War protest years. It’s mostly comic and whimsical in the telling, although the underlying message is one of sadness at the folly and absurdity of the justice system’s overreach.
“Same Old Lang Syne,” Dan Fogelberg, 1981
This tale tugs at the heartstrings, as many Fogelberg songs do. The narrator runs into his old girlfriend in the grocery store one night during the Yuletide season, and they end up drinking a six-pack in her car while recalling the good old times…but they say their goodbyes and, presumably, never cross paths again. It struck a chord with many people as they recalled past flings and relationships.
“Goodbye Earl,” Dixie Chicks, 2000
One of my very favorite country songs is this jewel by the Dixie Chicks from 2000, which tells the dark comic tale of a woman who copes with an abusive husband until, with help from her girlfriend, concludes that “Earl had to die” and decides to poison his black-eyed peas. It’s said to be motivated by the popular films “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Thelma and Louise,” which both involve the consequences of redneck husbands beating up their wives.
“Take the Money and Run,” Steve Miller Band, 1976
“This is the the story ’bout Billy Joe and Bobby Sue…” Steve Miller came up with this tale of two young outlaws on the run from their various crimes, a la Bonnie and Clyde. Film director Quentin Tarantino has said he modeled the depraved murderers in “Natural Born Killers” after Miller’s couple.
“Jack and Diane,” John Cougar Mellencamp, 1982
“Little ditty ’bout Jack and Diane…” Another story of a couple who just didn’t have what it took to succeed in life. Based on the Tennessee Williams play “Sweet Bird of Youth,” Mellencamp sexed it up and made it more contemporary for the ’80s audience. It was one of the biggest hits of 1982 and still gets a ton of exposure today.
“Cortez the Killer,” Neil Young, 1975
This 11-minute opus tells the story of Hernan Cortes, the Spanish warrior who fought the native Aztecs to conquer Mexico for Spain in the 16th Century. Young had been reading historical biographies during this period and was moved to write about Cortes and his exploits. The turmoil of the many battles won and lost is symbolically represented in the fiery guitar solo that dominates the track.
“Incident on 57th Street,” Bruce Springsteen, 1973
The Boss has written many story-songs over the years, but perhaps none as dramatic as this under-the-radar number, “Incident on 57th Street,” in late 1973. It tells the tragic tale of Johnny and Jane, a couple who live in a New Jersey walk-up with a minimalist view of New York City, and how they try to make do in a rough-and-tumble world in which Johnny feels an undeniable need to prove his manhood in the streets.
“Shooting Star,” Bad Company, 1975
Even the Brits knew how to write a story-song now and then. Witness this minor classic from Bad Company’s second album, which tells the story of Johnny, the kid who is inspired by The Beatles to become a rock star, has a hit single, becomes famous, and then dies as a victim of the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle. Singer Paul Rodgers has said this is among his most favorite in the Bad Company repertoire, and it might seem almost cliche, but it strikes a chord with many people (fans and musicians alike).
“Blaze of Glory,” Joe Jackson, 1989
This one, from Jackson’s extraordinary but underrated 1989 song-cycle “Blaze of Glory,” tells the story of a young musician named Johnny (so many Johnnys in these songs!) who made it big, but then “the ride started to go too fast and Johnny conveniently died.” Jackson, a New Wave iconoclast who was only briefly a mainstream artist (1982’s “Steppin’ Out” in particular), has produced some incredible work in the ’80s, ’90s and beyond, even though no one has seemed to notice.
Popular music is full of great stories. Keep them coming.