Friday Feature: Story Songs
While I love reading because of the way books can transport me to another time or place, I'm also a massive music fan. The really great story songs combine the best of both worlds, capturing brilliant narratives with great melodies.
My personal favourites, in no particular order.
1. Boy Named Sue - Johnny Cash
Country music has all the best story songs. This is a true comic classic, the tale of a boy given a girl's name by his absentee father, and what happens when the pair finally meet up. Genius lyricist Shel Silverstein at his finest, and a perfect performance from The Man In Black.
2. Taxi - Harry Chapin
In the first song, cab driver Harry picks up a late night fare who recognises him as her old lover. They split up, with her going to be an actress and him wanting to learn how to fly. Did they make it? Listen to find out. And then check out Sequel, the tale of the same couple a decade later.
3. Past Caring - Jackie Oates
The sad, mournful tale of a woman living in the Australian bush has finally overtaken nursery rhyme Lavender's Blue as my favourite of Jackie's songs. Her gorgeous voice and fantastic shruti box playing complement the wonderful words, by poet Henry Lawson, beautifully.
4. Miss Otis Regrets - Bryan Ferry
I'm not a massive fan of Roxy Music but really like lead singer Bryan Ferry's covers of classic 30's/40's songs. This one, about a society lady with an unusual reason for failing to make it to lunch, is a particular favourite.
5. The Red Headed Stranger - Willie Nelson
Nelson is probably the one artist I would choose if I was told I could only listen to one singer for the rest of my life. While Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain pushes this close, the tale of a grieving widower and the woman who tries to steal his wife's horse is just superb.
6. Stan - Eminem
I find Eminem hit and miss, but this is one of my favourite songs of the last 20 years or so. The cleverly written tale of a star receiving letters from an obsessive fan is great in itself, but Dido's gorgeous vocals in the chorus lift it even higher.
7. Ode To Billie Joe - Bobbie Gentry
Why did Billie Joe jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge? Nobody knows - least of all Bobbie Gentry herself, who confessed this to author Herman Rauncher. As a study of a family's reactions to a boy's death, this is great, though.
8. Seasons in the Sun - Terry Jacks
Yes, I know it's mawkish, sentimental, and almost certainly without any musical value whatsoever. What can I say? I'm a sucker for a tearjerker.
9. Babies - Pulp
Lots of Pulp that I could pick, but I'll go for one of the last songs of their pre-Different Class days, just before Glastonbury changed everything. Jarvis Cocker's delivery of the tale of a boy spying on his female friend's sister is creepy yet unmissable.
10. Pancho and Lefty - Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson
While Townes Van Zandt's lyrics are superb I've never been that keen on his voice. Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson's cover is a much better version of this tragic tale of a pair of bandits, for my money.
11. You Don't Mess Around With Jim - Jim Croce
One of my favourite choruses.
"You don't tug on Superman's cape
You don't spit into the wind
You don't pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger
And you don't mess around with Jim"
And then someone does...
12. A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request - Steve Goodman
Fans of perennially hopeless teams in ANY sport can sympathise with the narrator of this comic gem, who plaintively asks for six bullpen pitchers to carry his coffin as he talks about how the Cubs crushed his hopes.
13. Jim, I Wore A Tie Today - The Highwaymen
Willie Nelson in a third guise, along with other outlaw superstars Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. The tale of men left in mourning for a dead friend is surprisingly touching.
14. Sam Stone - John Prine
Like Pulp, there are many Prine songs I could go for, but his best narrative is probably this tale of a Vietnam vet's struggle to fight against drug addiction. Moving and gorgeous.
15. My Old School - Steely Dan
This is pretty much the first song I can ever consciously remember listening to that wasn't a nursery rhyme. My parents had a mix tape they used to play on long car journeys which consisted of a few Randy Travis songs, the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Willie Nelson, Chuck Berry, and this song. This, the narrator's tale of a drug bust and the end of a relationship, was my favourite.
16. Coward of the County - Kenny Rogers
Rogers is another artist I find hit and miss, to be honest, but this tale of a boy who promised his dying father he'd avoid fights, but eventually has to break his word to gain revenge, is truly tragic.
17. Big River - Jimmy Nail
Nail's voice is an acquired taste but is well worth acquiring. This tale of the demise of the shipbuilding industry in his native North East is poignant and given extra weight by Mark Knopfler's superb guitar playing.
18. The Galway Farmer - Show of Hands
Steve Knightley's brilliant description of an Irishman's trip to England to place a bet at Cheltenham is fantastic, and Beer and Knightley play and sing it wonderfully.
19. Four Strong Winds - Ian and Sylvia
Another wonderful tale of the end of a relationship, the plaintive "I'll look for you if I'm ever back this way" line is sung especially beautifully in the original.
20. Matt Hyland - Kate Rusby
The traditional tale of a young man who falls in love with his lord's daughter is sung especially well by Yorkshire lass Rusby.
21. Lord Bateman - Jim Moray
The story of noble Lord Bateman, captured in Turkey but released by his jailer's daughter, is given the full Jim Moray treatment. Folk at its freshest.
22. Lord Bateman's Motorbike - Chumbawamba
A very modern song despite the presence of traditional folk characters Lord Bateman and John Barleycorn. Tragic but beautiful.
23. Kevin Carter - Manic Street Preachers
Despite its brevity, the Manics' tribute to photographer Kevin Carter, forever haunted by his prize winning picture of a vulture stalking a Sudanese toddler, still hits the chord.
24. Dublin in the Rare Ould Times - Sean Wilson
Irish singer Wilson deserves to be far better known than he is, and his take on Pete St John's tale of someone leaving Dublin bidding a final farewell to the city is gorgeous.
25. The Parting Glass - The Pogues
MacGowan's voice is totally unsuited to a sweet tender song bidding the listener farewell. There's no way on earth this should work, but it does, beautifully.
25 songs and not a Dylan one in sight! Not sure how I managed that...