The Story in the Song, Part II

Did you all enjoy yesterday’s post? I did! It had my two favorite songs in it. Also I got to subtly mention Blade on my writing blog. (did you all catch that? :-)

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Which is: what can studying the story song do for those of us who are not musically inclined and just want to write a good story?

Well, like I said yesterday, the story song = poetry + plot + music. Basically, it is a 5-10 minute lesson in making a coherent and gripping plot as brief and beautiful as possible. It is the ultimate example of the only tip I remember from dear old Strunk and White:

Omit needless words. Omit needless words. And then set to music.

We can just cut music out of the equation and concentrate on poetry and plot. There, isn’t that easier? No?

Of course not. Succinct is hard. That’s why we should study it.

Let’s look at the first verse of Grace’s favorite song ever, introduced yesterday: “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.”

When I was a young man I carried my pack
And I lived the free life of a rover
From the Murrays green basin to the dusty outback
I waltzed my Matilda all over
Then in nineteen fifteen my country said Son
It’s time to stop rambling ’cause there’s work to be done
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they sent me away to the war
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we sailed away from the quay
And amidst all the tears and the shouts and the cheers
We sailed off to Gallipoli

That could quite easily be the first 2-3 chapters of a novel. There’d be a quirky sidekick, probably, and a lot of internal dialogue.  (also Mel Gibson. basically it would be the movie Gallipoli…) But look what Bogle does with it! He picks out the key elements, sets them to poetry, and we’re off.

“The gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun.” Oh my goodness me. Gorgeousness.

I’m not going to go through the whole song. You get the point. Let’s be honest, Part II of this series was really just an excuse for me to post some more of my favorite songs. (for you to examine! totally altruistic, here.) So lets have one of those classic country story songs, from Mr. Marty Robbins. There’s a talking head at the front, but not for very long. I give you… “El Paso.”

And let’s end on…hm. Well, you know how yesterday I posted my two favoritest songs in the whole wide world? There’s some competition for number 3, but this one is a close contender. Sorry for the so-so quality, but it had to be the Dwight Yoakam version. The best version, of course, is when he plays it with Flaco Jimenez but I couldn’t find that..

So that’s it! The Story Song, and how it can Help You Become a Better Writer.


Horrifying side note: if you type “lyrics” into google, the autofill thingy turns it into “lyrics to bleeding love” as the first choice. I just want to say, I had to endure that song’s rise to the top in TWO countries. TWO. I HAD TO LISTEN TO IT CONSTANTLY TWICE. Pity me.


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.


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.