Some of the greatest stories ever told are songs. The great thing about musical narrative is the added dimensions that the accompaniment and vocal performance bring to the story. The range of emotions and intensity of feeling that these elements bring are enormous relative to what words alone can convey. A merely sad story can become devastating when accompanied by sad piano chords. A sunny hook can brighten the mood instantly. A thunderous guitar riff can put the fear of the devil in you. And a great vocal performance can touch your soul.
As with the last KB panel post, several people were asked to share a favorite narrative song. The responses are posted below and the songs are in the radio.blog.
Tom: “The Last Time I Saw Richard” by Joni Mitchell
I’ve often heard Joni Mitchell’s lyrics derided as high school-level poetry. Well I must have a high school-level appreciation for poetry because I find her early lyrics, especially those on her classic album Blue, endlessly moving. “The Last Time I Saw Richard” tells about the narrator’s encounter with an old friend in a dark cafe sulking about how life is inevitably disappointing. Richard is a romantic who is feeling cynical and bitter because his life with a figure skater wife and all the trappings of middle class prosperity isn’t what he had hoped for. But true romantics die hard and in the end Richard sees his dark cafe days as a cocoon out of which he’ll someday emerge:
All good dreamers pass this way someday
Hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes
Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings
And fly away
Mitchell’s piano accompaniment is gorgeous.
Susan: “Red Army Blues” by Waterboys
This song is melodramatic, cheesy, and heart-wrenching: everything an epic storytelling song should be. It’s about a young Russian soldier who serves in World War II. There’s a lot of great lines in it, like: “I saw my first American, and he looked a lot like me/Had the same kind of farmer’s face/Said he come from some place called Hazard, Tennesee.” My favorite lines are in the last verse: “Used to love my country/Used to be so young/Used to believe that life/Was the best song ever sung.” Full lyrics here.
BTD Greg: “Up The Junction” by Squeeze
“I never thought it would happen/With me and the girl from Clapham.” This is pop songwriting pared down to its bare essentials: boy meets girl/boy loses girl, all verse, no chorus, done in rhyming couplets and it’s all over in a little more than three minutes. And with a nice pop tune holding the whole thing together. Squeeze was the first concert I drove myself to see. I saw them a few more times after that, and they always put on a good show. This song typifies their East-London-working-class-down-and-out-pub-rock persona. I’m not sure there are too many other bands that could pull off this sort of thing half as well.
HP: “25 minutes to go” by Johnny Cash
What makes this song truly great is the setting in which Johnny Cash sang it on his “Live at Folsom Prison” album. The song, written by Shel Silverstein of all people, is a timeline of the final minutes of a man scheduled to hang for his crimes. Bizarrely, it is an exuberant, hopeful, raucous ditty. The lyrics are simple, silly really, but they perfectly capture the mindset of someone facing imminent death.
Well I sent for the governor and the whole dern bunch with 21 minutes to go
And I sent for the mayor but he’s out to lunch I’ve got 20 more minutes to go
Then the sheriff said boy I gonna watch you die got 19 minutes to go
So I laughed in his face and I spit in his eye got 18 minutes to go
In the recording, the inmates scream and holler at this line. This criminal’s death is played for laughs, but it is a joke that Cash’s audience gets.
Supergenius: “Friend of the Devil” by the Grateful Dead
I’ve heard that every performance by the Dead has a very tight narrative structure, but the same can be said of their songs, too. Friend of the Devil is a quintessential Western vagabond story told in psychedelica, as the drifter recounts his life and wanders from place to place, pursued by past loves, the police, and the Devil himself. It’s a great mix of regret, longing and restlessness that define the Dead and that define the West.