Coffee Cup Reading: The Story Song

5 Aug

Last night, the city was quiet, streets left emptied for long weekend getaways. Gone was the typical commotion and congestion, the young drunks on the pavement. There seemed to space in the air, between the buildings and alleys. I flipped to an Irish music show on TV, and a strange short haired woman with pink tinted glasses and a southern drawl was giving an interview. The question came about whether she was finding life on the road to be difficult; she answered earnestly and without hesitation that she was happy to be playing under the roof rather than fixing it. Then, she stood up on the stage of a church and sang a song about a homeless man from another time, whose life was also on the road. It was mesmerizing.

And it got me thinking about the great story songs of modern music. What is a story song? Well, it can’t be a love song, at least not directly so. And it’s gotta have colourful characters, like Snoopy and the Red Baron, Hurricane, a boy name Sue, Lucille, and a good for nothing prince. And hey, if it says something about us or about society, even better. Crafted with seamless lyrics, the economy of word and prose, and the ability to fire the imagination.

Does anyone really do ‘em anymore? They’re tough to pull off, especially when the subject matter is a historical figure…it ain’t easy writing a chorus about someone long dead and gone. But story songs are always crowd pleasers and recalled fondly. As a kid, one of the earliest story songs I can remember was Big Bad John:

As we bombed around in the family’s tan coloured station wagon, bouncing along to the clink of the pick axes, I could almost see the men in the mine, struggling in the dust, saved by the otherworldly strength of their rescuer. It may have been the first time I encountered the concepts of death and tragedy, of true sacrifice and virtue.

Then as an 11 year old, my cousin introduced me to the man who made a career out of the story song: Stompin’ Tom Connors. Recently deceased (may he rest in peace), the man himself had a back story suitable for a TV movie. The songs were simple, the lyrics sometimes cringe inducing and clunky, but no one could belt ‘em out like Stompin’ Tom. He was the minstrel for a nation’s folk heroes, and he had us all singing along.

Story songs hit their hey day in the 50s and 60s, peaking in the 70s with perhaps the greatest story song of all, ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’. Perhaps a song about a great lake tragedy shouldn’t be the high water mark of a Canadian legend who also sang of reading minds, and carefree highways and sundowns. But Lightfoot’s voice seems to roll endlessly like the waves of water that doom folklore’s famous ship; it  is never more commanding and pervasive – even if you know nothing about the ship and its men, the story pulls you in:

There are plenty of lesser known story songs that are tragic vignettes of characters, usually hopeless or cast out by society, sometimes mirroring the authors of their own creation. The great Townes Van Zandt was always on the brink of life, fame and success. Every time he looked to break into Nashville, he showed up drunk on country music tv. Even his biggest hit, ‘Poncho and Lefty’ was only a hit when Willie Nelson sang it (even though Townes’ version is better)

And there is the Divine Comedy….like the Edwardian playwright that is their namesake, a song as well crafted as ‘An English Woman of a Certain Age’ can only be described as appropro.

These are but a small sampling of our story songs. You may share in common memories, and have some of your own. So do yourself a favour. Sit down for 6 minutes. Or get in a car and drive into the summer, preferably across the Alberta plains or the Rocky Mountains. Tune out the city and the rest of your life and let a singer tell a story and fill the space in the air. Mary Gauthier was the woman who started my recent journey. Maybe she can start yours too:

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