Once upon a time, almost all stories were told in ballad form. That was because songs are easier to remember than regular stories are, and back before we could write shit down, being able to remember things was pretty freaking important. Most of the earliest stories we have on record were originally sung, including the Illiad, the Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf and many, many more.
Sadly, this form is largely ignored now in favor of, y’know, books, and songs that only last 3-4 minutes, which is entirely too bad. I’m quite a fan of the form, and if I were musical, I would probably participate in it. Unfortunately, I can’t sing to save my life and what little musical talent I’ve had in the past I’ve largely allowed to fall by the wayside, so I’d have to leave it to the professionals. And there are a few stalwart musicians who still keep with the tradition (most of them, for some reason, bluegrass artists), so I thought it would be a nice gesture of my appreciation to list out my favorite ones.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. These are just my favorites. I’ll put a list of all the other ones I came up with at the end of the post.
1. The Mariner’s Revenge Song ~ the Decemberists
This is the song that inspired the post. Despite being more than eight minutes long, the entire freaking thing is an ear worm that’s impossible to get out of your head. It centers on a dude whose mother was hoodwinked by a dastardly bastard. He then goes on to spend his whole life hunting revenge, and eventually exacts it while in the belly of a whale (that isn’t a spoiler–it’s right at the beginning of the song). It’s sort of like Inigo Montoya meets Pinocchio, with accordion. But the thing that makes it brilliant is not the story so much as the hook. Right at the bridge of the song, when most of the action is presumably happening, the mother’s theme is repeated over and over in ever faster rhythm, which never fails to make my hair stand up just a little bit.
I do kind of wish somebody else sang it, though. No offense to the Decemberists because they’re a great band, but Colin Meloy has a really annoying voice, especially in this particular song.
2. Cold Missouri Waters – Cry, Cry, Cry
I actually didn’t know this song before I started researching for this post, but my own personal musical adviser Emily drew my attention to it and it’s quickly becoming a favorite. The song is originally written by James Keelaghan, but the Cry, Cry, Cry version is the one I prefer. It’s about the Man Gulch fire in 1949, which killed thirteen firemen who tried to put it out. The song is written from the perspective of one of the two survivors, who tried and failed to save the rest. I particularly like how the rhyme in the lyrics is unobtrusive enough that it actually sounds like somebody just telling a story. It’s horribly sad, but utterly beautiful in every way. Especially these lines:
“And when I rose like a Phoenix, and that world reduced to ashes, there were none but two survived. And I stayed that night and one day after–carried bodies to the river, wondering how I stayed alive.”
3. The Devil Went Down to Georgia – Charlie Daniels Band
Okay, you know I had to include this one. I’m a violinist. It’s in my blood. That said, there’s a reason this song is so freaking popular, even among those who usually avoid country/bluegrass like the plague. It’s a perfect balance of fiddling and rocking, and the story is just interesting enough to keep you interested without being so complicated that it discourages you from dancing to it. Plus, I’m pretty sure everybody who has ever heard this song can’t help but sing along with Johnny when he sticks it to the devil. “Sit down in that chair right there,” he says, like the total freaking badass he is, “and let me show you how it’s done!”
And then comes the greatest fiddling riff of all time. I’ll have you know I spent months learning how to play that section, never did manage to get it 100%, and I don’t regret a second of the time spent. Damn straight. Take that, Satan.
(As an aside, I would also like to mention here the song Tribute by Tenatious D. Because while it’s a blatant rip-off of the Devil Went Down to Georgia, it’s also a fantastic song in its own right, and hilarious to boot. Also, if you’ve got the time, check out the reference in Beelz by Stephen Lynch)
4. Buenos Tardes, Amigo – Ween
Sorry about the underboob visual on that video. I couldn’t find one that didn’t have it, unfortunately. But nevertheless, this is a thoroughly enjoyable song–all seven minutes of it. It’s a bit slow, but the story itself is, I think, the best crafted of all the songs on this list. It sort of builds as you listen, so you’re slowly realizing the truth just before it’s actually revealed. I won’t give anything away, because I really do think knowing the story beforehand sort of takes away from it, so just go listen. And don’t stop when it mentions the chicken. I know that part’s a bit weird, but it’s Ween, so what are you gunna do?
5. Stan – Eminem
I know, right? One of these is not like the others. This is the only rap song on this list, which probably says more about my listening habits than rap music, since I know a lot of rappers love to tell stories in their songs. But this one is one of my favorites, even though it’s totally fucked up. In the interest of fair warning, yes, there’s a lot of swearing and messed up material in this one, and it does not end prettily. It’s basically the story of a stalker fan going crazy and deciding to commit homicide/suicide, which feels a little bit like exploitation music and will probably not sit well with everyone. But it’s well written in terms of character development and voice, and I absolutely adore what Eminem does with rhythm in his music, so there you go.
Honorable Mention: Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie
I decided to make this one an honorable mention because it’s not a song so much as a comedy routine with the occasional interjection of a thing that sort of resembles a refrain. But it’s truly hilarious, weirdly charming, and a lot of fun to listen to. It is super long, though–about twenty minutes–so don’t sit down to listen to it casually. Think of it like a short film, only without any actual film–just audio. Just remember: you can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant, excepting Alice. (NOTE: this video is a later version of the song; I couldn’t find the original on youtube. The original is, however, on grooveshark, and if you have an account there you should definitely listen to that version instead.)
So there you have it. What story songs are your favorite? Mention them in the comments and I’ll add them to my list!
“I done told you once, you son of a bitch, I’m the best that’s ever been.” -Johnny
P.S. Here’s that list I promised you:
- The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald – Gordon Lightfoot (credit where credit’s due: boyfriend suggested this one)
- The Streets of Forbes – traditional Australian bush song
- Run Joey Run – David Geddes (or, if you must, Glee)
- A Boy Named Sue – Johnny Cash (also, Ghost Riders in the Sky)
- Road Man – Smash Mouth
- Cat’s in the Cradle – Harry Chaplin
- Alberquerque – Weird Al Yankovic
- Trapped in the Closet – R. Kelly (also see Weird Al’s parody, Trapped in the Drive Thru)
- Little Musgrave – Planxty (also recommended by Miss Emily)
- Come Sail Away – Styx
- The Lighthouse’s Tale – Nickel Creek (this song is freakishly beautiful)
- Sk8tr Boi – Avril Lavigne
- Pictures He Drew – Bowling for Soup
- Otto Titsling – Bette Midler
- Mary Clare Mallow – Tom Russell (off the Man from God Knows Where; also, El Gallo del Ciello)
3 thoughts on “Epic Poetry & Music”
In the category of epic songwriting, one near the top of the list should be the album “The Man from God Knows Where” by Tom Russell. An entire album tracing the Russell family from Ireland to the US. Sung by many different artists, the album has a theatrical quality, different song styles mesh beautifully with the different voices. A great quality is that each song stands alone nicely, and fits in well with the narrative. Another great ballad on a different album is”Gallo del Ciello”
Nice post by the way, I listened to each song!
Yeah, there are a few albums that tell whole stories like that. I’ve always thought it was such a great concept, writing tracks all around a story instead of having all these disparate songs. Like “A Kind of Magic” by Queen, only that one is more thematic than narrative, and I don’t know that Highlander is the most inspiring of stories to write to…haha. This is probably also why I like musical soundtracks so much.