Column: Looking for a good story? Try a song

By SCOTT SAALMAN

I’ve always been a sucker for story songs.

A story song is ... well ... a song with a story. The granddaddy of all is “John Henry,” followed by “Frankie and Johnny,” followed by Marty Robbins’ gun-slinging Western saga, “El Paso,” followed by “Ode to Billie Joe.”

What follows are my favorites. Some, you’ve heard. Others are more obscure (go to YouTube or Spotify for an inaugural listen).

• “Mr. Tanner”: Harry Chapin wrote this about a fictitious laundry owner and local singer in the Midwest who “practiced scales while pressing tails.” Encouraged by friends, he eventually spends his savings on a “town hall debut” in New York City. Afterwards, a harsh newspaper review silences his singing voice. Chapin’s inclusion of “Oh, Holy Night” throughout is a masterful touch.  

• “Sam Stone”: I was devastated by this 1971 folk song when I first heard it. Hundreds of listens later, I am still an indirect casualty of Prine’s war. Sam returns from Vietnam with a Purple Heart and heroin addiction. Bravery — yes. But at what cost? “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm, where all the money goes,” goes the refrain, setting the stage for a life- (and song) ending overdose.

• “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”: This Gordon Lightfoot tune was among the first 45 rpm records I owned. It’s based on the 1975 sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior. Twenty-nine sailors perished. Sings Lightfoot, “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?”

• “A Boy Named Sue”: Children’s poet/Playboy cartoonist (what a wonderful contrast) Shel Silverstein penned this story song made wildly famous by Johnny Cash. It contains the most memorable barroom fight ever put to wax — between a father and son, no less, over the boy’s feminine-sounding first name. I can relate. I still owe my dad an ass-kicking for naming me Marion. Check out the “At San Quentin” version (the prisoners loved it).

• “Nebraska”: This is one of Bruce Springsteen’s starkest songs (and that’s saying a lot). This badlands saga begins, “I saw her standing on her front lawn/ just twirlin’ her baton/me and her went for a ride sir/and 10 innocent people died” and ends, “They declared me unfit to live/said into that great void my soul’d be hurled/They wanted to know why I did what I did/Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

• “Duncan”: Paul Simon hooked me at the get-go: “Couple in the next room bound to win a prize, they’ve been going at it all night long!” It’s a sweet tale of Lincoln Duncan’s introduction to carnal knowledge. “Just like a dog, I was befriended.”

• “Boom, Like That”: Mark Knopfler, the lead singer and guitarist extraordinaire for the dormant Dire Straits, has released a tremendous amount of story songs (high quality ones) throughout his thriving solo career. “Boom, Like That” tells how McDonald’s came to be, painting a flattering/unflattering lyrical portrait of founder Ray Kroc. “Wham, bam, you don’t wait long/Shake, fries, patty, you’re gone.”

• “The Vanishing Act”: This quirky, clever song by husband and wife duo Channing and Quinn (written by Channing Lee) tells the tale of a cuckolded assistant’s revenge on a philandering magician, proving who the real master of deception is. Dark comedy songwriting at its best.

• “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request”: The late great Steve Goodman, a slugger of the story song, hit a homerun with this one. It accounts the ecstasy and agony (minus the ecstasy) of being a Chicago Cubs fan. (If you are an equally woeful Mets fan, go to YouTube for idiosyncratic Big Apple songwriter Don Rosler’s ethereal “Doris From Rego Park.”)

• “The Hockey Song (Hit Somebody)”: Warren Zevon wrote this with best-selling author Mitch Albom. It’s about a professional hockey goon who hopes to score just one goal before his body-battering career ends. The song’s surprise, tragic ending made me laugh aloud. David Letterman says “hit somebody” throughout.

• “Preacher in the Ring”: Bruce Hornsby’s 1998 “Spirit Trail” CD contains some great story songs, heavily influenced by Southern literature. The lyrics are literary masterpieces in their own right, none more so than “Preacher in the Ring,” a creepy two-part saga centered on a snake-handling church congregation. Sings Hornsby, “Copperheads and sacred songs, the Book of Mark couldn’t be wrong.”

• “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”: Billy Joel regales us with a nostalgic account of the rise and fall of a relationship between “popular steadies” Brenda and Eddie. The story takes place in an Italian neighborhood, but we all know a “Brenda and Eddie” from our own neighborhoods.

• “Overboard”: Back we go to Lake Superior. This is the freshest catch on my list, which, written by Brian Vander Ark and Jeff Daniels (yes, the actor), is the title track on The Verve Pipe’s 2014 release. It’s haunting, yet beautiful. At the end, a drowned woman’s body washes ashore. This song details the wherefore, submerging you in Great Lake chill, and would make a good Cohen brothers’ movie.

• “A Week in a County Jail”: No story song list is complete without a nod to the old storyteller Tom T. Hall. This country oldie still holds me captive and makes me smile, causing my stomach to growl for hot bologna, eggs and gravy.

Scott Saalman’s humor essay collection, “Nose Hairs Gone Wild,” is available for download at Amazon and B&N. Visit willreadandsingforfood.com for essays and videos.




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