The Story in the Song, Part I

A bit late but as promised, part one of a planned two-part series. This would have been up yesterday, except the last week of finals pretty much killed me. Killed me dead.

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Today I want to discuss a very specific type of writing that is not talked about in mainstream writing publications or forums. Probably because the fact that it’s set to music makes it seem unimportant to prose writers. But think about what a good writer you have to be to tell a powerful, memorable story in approximately 5 minutes or less. With music. Basically poetry + plot + music composition. Three of the hardest things ever.

I speak, of course, of the story song.

What are story songs? Time for Obvious Girl! They are songs with a specific story, a specific narrative. They’re descended from Old English ballads and people sometimes call them ballads in modern times, too, though that term seems to encompass more than I want. When I say story song, I mean a song with a plot. A song that could be paraphrased into a story.

What’s that? You want examples? But of course. I’ve posted some below, but you might also be interested in “El Paso” by Marty Robbins, “The Girls from Texas” by Ry Cooder, “Ghost Riders in the Sky” by everyone with a guitar, “Stan” by Eminem, or “Fancy” by Reba McEntire.

As you can see just from that brief list, country music has always been particularly successful with the story song. Someone once said (and I paraphrase, because I can’t remember the original) that rock and roll is Saturday night, and country music is Sunday morning. Rock and roll is the sex, drugs, and alcohol, country music is the hangover, the regret. It is in the tragedy of regret that country music finds the story.

This is not to say that all story-songs are sad. Scroll down and click on the last song, if you want the ultimate example. But tragedy makes a better narrative than a party.

So following you will find youtube clips of some different story songs. The first two also happen to be two of my favorite songs in the entire world. No, no, I’m going to go ahead and say it. They’re my two favorite songs in the entire world. Hands down. Wha. bam.

First up, we have “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” written by Eric Bogle and performed by numerous artists. But as usual, when the Pogues do a song, that’s the version we go with. (it’s about 8 minutes long, just fyi.)

Classic story song, right there. There’s a hero and a struggle. It has a specific time and setting. Beginning, middle, and end. Tragedy. The whole shabang. And Shane MacGowan at vocals. *swoons*

My other favorite song was written by Kris Kristofferson, who should have stuck to songwriting and not moonlighted as a vampire’s sidekick. (hehe. I made a funny.) Kristofferson of course wrote “Me and Bobby McGee,” a story song immortalized by Janis Joplin, but it is this song, performed by the one and only Man in Black, that I love love love.

This is a different kind of story song. More a vignette. The specific actions of narrator/protagonist are not necessarily the important part of the song, they’re merely a method through which the narrator can express his loneliness and regret.

To lighten things up a bit, let’s end with another of the classic story songs. Written by the Absolutely Fabulous Shel Silverstein and performed by the…well, I’ve already introduced Mr. Cash. Here’s “A Boy Named Sue.”

So there you have my brief intro to the story song. And now that I have introduced the concept (“introduced”–I’m sure you’re all rolling your eyes at me now, saying “yes grace, if you say so, I do actually listen to music occasionally”), tune in tomorrow for my post on What This Means For You Even If You Don’t Want To Write Story Songs.

If you do want to write one, well, never having written one myself, I daren’t even try to give suggestions. This article looks promising, though, if you want a more how-to approach.

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4 Comments

  1. stamperdad said,

    May 11, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    Very interesting post. I’m far from musical, in far I’m severely challenged musically, but still it is always fascinating to think out of the box.

    Good work
    Steve

  2. ~grace~ said,

    May 12, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    thank you!

    I recognize no boxes. ;-)

  3. paul said,

    May 13, 2008 at 8:32 am

    The NYTimes is hosting a blog about songwriting. It’s called ‘Measure for Measure’. One of the contributors is Rosanne Cash. Just fyi.

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    May 7, 2011 at 6:56 pm

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