Whatever Happened to Songs That Told a Story?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

We all know the story of "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" as sung by Jim Croce. And the grim tale of Maxwell Edison, as told to us by the Beatles in "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." And thanks to the 1970s one-hit wonder group Looking Glass, we know about the girl named "Brandy" who fell in love with a sailor, but couldn't steal his heart from the sea. The list goes on and on - it shows what imagination many songwriters from the 60s through the 80s had, to come up with so many memorable characters and set them to music. Sometimes the songs weren't about a particular person, but tried to teach some sort of moral lesson (like "Cat's in the Cradle" by Harry Chapin.)

I don't doubt that musicians today are still using fictional or non-fictional characters as inspiration, but if they are I'm just not hearing them that often. Do you think Katie Perry is capable of weaving such a fantastical tale as the ill-fated romance of Lola and Rico as could only be told by Barry Manilow in "Copacabana"? I think not.

So, to remember what it was like here's my list of the 25 best and/or most memorable storytelling songs. May they long live forever on the radio waves.

1. Space Oddity - David Bowie
2. American Pie - Don McLean
3. Scenes From An Italian Restaurant - Billy Joel
4. Alice's Restaurant - Arlo Guthrie
5. Escape (The Pina Colada Song) - Rupert Holmes
6. Take A Letter, Maria - R.B. Greaves
7. Luka - Suzanne Vega
8. Cat's in the Cradle - Harry Chapin
9. A Boy Named Sue - Johnny Cash
10. Billy, Don't Be a Hero - Bo Donaldson and The Heywoods
11. Shilo - Neil Diamond
12. The Hurricane - Bob Dylan
13. Copacabana - Barry Manilow
14. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) - Bruce Springsteen
15. The Gambler - Kenny Rogers
16. Rocky Raccoon - The Beatles
17. Come Dancing - The Kinks
18. Bad, Bad Leroy Brown - Jim Croce
19. Harper Valley PTA - Jeannie C. Reilly
20. Last Night by The Traveling Wilburys
21. In the Ghetto - Elvis Presley
22. The Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun - Julie Brown
23. Christmas Wrapping - The Waitresses
24. Paradise by the Dashboard Light - Meatloaf
25. Leader of the Pack - The Shangri-Las

Honorable mentions - Bobby Darin wrote two superb storytelling songs, Me & Mr. Hohner and Long Line Rider, that only die-hard (like me) Darin fans would know about.

As it is with most lists, I know I'm bound to miss quite a few examples. So let me know in your comments which ones you would add.


  1. The shoutout to Darin was AWESOME! Don't forget his "Distractions" as well...one of my very favorites!!

  2. Great choice, Barbara - I love that song. If you haven't seen it already, there's a great clip of Darin performing it on the Tom Jones Show on YouTube.

  3. "Honey" by Bobby Goldsboro - she wrecked the car, was crying needlessly in the middle of the day, and then she died.

    That pretty much sums it up.


  4. I thought of a few more this morning...

    "Delilah" by Tom Jones
    "Lola" by the Kinks
    "Veronica" by Elvis Costello (notice a theme here?)
    "Young Turks" by Rod Stewart

    There's one more...on the tip of my tongue...can't remember it at the moment.

  5. Anything by Jim Croce for sure. And what about "Wildfire" (that one always made me sad), "Bobby McGee," "Mr. Bojangles (that one made me sad too when his dog up and died), or "Devil Went Down to Georgia?" I do miss storytelling songs too, even though, unfortunately, most of the good ones were before my time.

  6. what about the classic taxi BY HARRY CHAPIN...it was rainin hard in frisco, i needed one more fare to make my nignt....dan murray

  7. Alice's Restaurant was ingenius! There are others that are more beloved to me, but I would probably put that one #1 for timing, construction, pertinence and sheer audacity.

    A few that spring immediately to mind are a clutch of girl group classics...

    -The Shangri-Las - The Leader Of The Pack
    -Lesley Gore - It's My Party/Judy's Turn To Cry

    Admittedly, the narrative factor on Lesley's songs is a little weaker than with most of the songs named so far, but The Leader Of The Pack still unfolds with a cinematic grandeur even after hundreds of listens. A true classic.

  8. The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia - Viki Lawrence!

    Or how could you forget this one?


Powered by Blogger.