Favorite Story Song contest

Popular music has stopped telling us stories.

The story song used to be a staple of pop, occasionally rock, certainly country. But since the advent of “singers” enslaved to Auto-Tune and “songwriting” done by marketing committee (not to mention the whole “bro-country” movement), the story song (along with other forms of good music) has vanished from the mainstream airwaves.*

Yet there’s a need for those, not least because I have to sing something to my daughter at bedtime. Currently she loves Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” and Springsteen’s “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come).”



So in the comments below, tell me your favorite story song, and why it speaks to you. You’ll be entered to win one of three advance reader copies of the upcoming fifth Tufa novel, Gather Her Round. The deadline is midnight Sunday, January 29th. Assuming we haven’t been destroyed in a nuclear war by then.

*I’m not one of those cranky old-timers who says there’s no good new music. There’s tons of it. You just won’t hear it on the radio.

55 Comments on “Favorite Story Song contest”

  1. I grew up when country music was full of story songs. One of my favorite story songs is “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry. It’s intrigued me since I was a young girl. What did they throw off the bridge???? It intrigued me so much I had to write my own story.

  2. Song- The Story by Brandi Carlile
    Why- Because by living we witness each others life story. The thing is, we are all connected, like chapters in a good book, or the tributary’s of a mighty river- by ourselves we have purpose and meaning and drive, together, however, we can achieve things we never thought possible.

    That and I love Brandi’s voice, the emotion she speaks, the truth of love, and all the ways we can grow mirrored against another thru love. We were made for one, and for each other.

  3. Not sure if it’s a story song, but I always took it that way. Hotel California by the Eagles. Or Belfast Child by Simple Minds.

  4. Forgot the why, doh. Because those songs are about, to me, looking for a safe to live. Mostly it doesn’t work out. But there’s always hope.

  5. I suppose my favorite story-song would be Rush’s 2112 Overture. Ayn Rand origins aside, the first time I heard that song, I was a teenager, largely rejected by his peers, and seeking some sort of sign that I wasn’t alone in the universe. The story of 2112, largely based on Rand’s ANTHEM, made me feel like I wasn’t alone in the world. There were other nerds like me out there, ready to fight against the Red Star Collective.

    It’s not a traditional story-song, but the parts are there. It tells a story. The best part to me is the third movement of the song, “Discovery.” A young man finds a guitar, and after fumbling around with it, he learns simple chords, and those chords develop into something more. Before long, he plays a joyous song and thanks to Alex Lifeson’s greatness, you can really feel the joy that music brings him. To me, that was the sign that you had to find your joy, regardless of the demands of others. Be who you are, not who they want you to be.

    I’m sure I’m not the only prog-rock geek out there who bonded to this song and album.

  6. This may be a little different the, but I immediately thought of a lot of the songs of my faith. Many of the traditional Christmas carols and old gospel songs. Carols like, “Silent Night”, “Away in a Manger”, “Go, Tell It on the Mountain”, and “O Little Town”, all tell the Christmas story in beautiful ways. “Tell Me the Story of Jesus”, “One Day”, “In the Garden” and so many others to me, are also story telling songs.

  7. One of my favourite singers that left us too early was Harry Chapin, and one of his best songs was Taxi. I saw him in concert once, and he was a storyteller.

  8. Besides 2112 from Rush, there was The Wall from Pink Floyd. I guess you could clump them into “Rock Opera”, as the whole album tells the story. I remember feeling so desolate after listening to the whole album all the way through. Waters and Gilmour really pull you into the story, and once they sink their teeth, they don’t let go. The follow up album, The Final Cut, was even more devastating.

    More traditional story songs that have stuck with me over the years – and still leave me sniffling, if not outright sobbing: Cat’s in the Cradle (Harry Chapin), Seasons in the Sun (Terry Jacks), Wild World (Cat Stevens), Lake Shore Drive (Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah), The River and Thunder Road (Springsteen). Each of these songs touches a chord in my soul, both through the lyrics and the music.

  9. Ode to Billy Joe and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Billy Joe because I still wonder what they threw off the bridge. The Edmund Fitzgerald because it was based on a true story and reminded me of something a troubadour would sing.

  10. Cheap Whiskey by Martina McBride. Off her first album, it is a story of a lady trying to get her man to stop drinking and he winds up killing her when he wrecks the car they were in while drunk driving.
    For a then, nobody, to release a anti drinking song in country music, showed me that there were still people trying to make the world a better place through their music.

  11. The Water is Wide – old Celtic song that makes me cry every time. It reminds me how tenuous this life is as we hurtle through space. But it also gives comfort in Love and its transcendence. All we have is today, and those we love. Everything else does not even matter.

    And because I can’t pick just one, I must mention Lizzy Lindsay – an old Scottish tune about a young girl who is courted by a man who turns out to be Ronald MacDonald, a “chieftain of the highest degree.” She finds out who he is after she accepts his offer to “gang tae the highlands wi me.” I learned this song from a musician in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia who was playing in a rock band (but whose first love was folk music).

  12. David Ball’s “Riding with Private Malone.” It never fails to give me chills. I also have also always loved Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” partly for the story and partly for the vocals. I loved belting out the lyrics whenever this song came on the radio.

  13. “Boy Named Sue,” written by Shel Silverstein and sung by Johnny Cash. I love it because it’s funny as hell, and it also helped me teach eighth graders the meaning of the word, “patricide.”

  14. Cats in the Cradle always makes me ponder, am I like my parents.
    There are 2 songs in country, The Thunder Rolls by Garth Brooks and Church Bells by Carrie Underwood, both songs addressing the same topic, domestic violence, a topic that has come up at work lately.

  15. “Timothy” from The Buoys in 1970 is a happy little bouncy tune that tells a nice story about culinary adventure!

  16. Early on, Big John always made me both happy and sad..happy for the survivors and sad that they couldn’t save John.

  17. Nothing charges me up faster than “Devil Went Down to Georgia” by Charlie Daniels. As long as grannies’ dog don’t bite.

  18. Since no one has said “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” I’ll throw it up there. Nothing better than that repetitive minor-key guitar riff to really bring out the emotion.

  19. Wow, there are so many, but two come to mind at the moment. First, Harry Chapin’s “Taxi.” It’s such a beautiful song about young love and the choices we make. Harry was such an amazing storyeller. The other is Jimmy Buffett’s “He Went to Paris.” What an epic story about a life well lived. I’ve often thought that song would make an incredible full length novel. I could go on. Springsteen’s “Jungleland,” Grace Potter’s “Falling or Flying,” and while I love the 2001 references, I’ll throw a shout out for Rush’s Clockwork Angels album, and the story it tells.

  20. I’m a big fan of Iowa’s Irish Fest – and it was there that I was introduced to the band Gaelic Storm. Much of their music is story songs…my absolute favorite is “The Time I got into a fist fight with Russel Crowe” Its not only a great story, it also allows for audience participation! Fun!


  21. There’s a little country-ish band out of Atlanta called The Whiskey Gentry and their song “Holly Grove” is the one that popped to mind. It’s an odd little song with a big sound that, at first, belies its sad story. It stuck in my mind for a few months, and out of the blue, it hit me that it’s possible that one of the subjects of the song might have actually committed the horrible crime at its heart.

    The other that I thought of was Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time.” Just dig that one.

  22. Crime ballads have always caught my interest as a storytelling song format. Johnny Cash, Nick Cave and others. Black River Killer by Blitzen Trapper is the most recent one I’ve preferred.

  23. David Frances, a Canadian singer, is one of my favorite story song writers. I particularly love his song called BROKEN GLASS…about high school crushes. ” If you hear a sound like broken glass / it’s my heart every time that girl walks past. / If you hear the sound of a rushing wind / just me catching my breath again.”

    SJ Tucker writes fun, pagan story songs.

    Also love The Shook Twins’ way with words.

    Of course, Bruce Springsteen is a master of the story song. BORN TO RUN is my favorite.

    And I do have to mention Tuatha Deals TUFA TALES songs.

  24. I’m torn between several VERY different choices; here they are in no particular order:
    1) El Paso by the late, great, Marty Robbins.
    A story of love, jealousy, murder, hardship, redemption, and finally death… Wow! I’m Not generally a fan of country/western music, but Damn, thats a fine song, as are sooooo many of Marty’s works

    2) Canadian Railroad Trilogy by Gordon Lightfoot.
    This is an almost unknown work outside of a circle of die-hard Lightfoot fans, which is kind of a shame. C.R.T. tells the story of the Canadian Railway from its infancy in the east, to its completion in the west. It’s about the peoples it displaced, the people that bled and died building it, and the economy that fueled it… Massively Epic, yet easy to assimilate and a joy to immerse yourself in!

    3) Roller Derby Queen by Jim Croce.
    So different from #1 &2 above… A schmuck in a bar falls in love with a girl he sees on the bar room TV, and she’s a Roller Derby Queen. She’s nasty and overweight, but he’s blind to any imperfections she may have. This song just bubbles fun and oozes giggles. Try singing that one to your daughter! 🙂
    My list goes on and on… Nat King Cole to 10 Years After to Don McLean,,, My favorites will change with the weather, the time of day, or with how delicious my cup o’ joe happens to be. There’s sooooo much to love, and hopefully, the future will bring us an even greater selection!

  25. I’m very partial to the Bat Out of Hell saga by Meat Loaf. All three albums are part of a rock opera. Talk about telling a story through song!

  26. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdmHHoI9beM
    Richard Marx – “Hazard”

    One of the first songs where I really loved the writing and the music, and just had to buy that album instead of tape it off the radio….if you are old enough, you understand. It’s a sad song, but I still find it a powerful one even today.

    Of course now, Alex, I have “Don’t Mess Around with Jim” in my head, not a bad thing, but I am trying to get work done this weekend!

  27. Bruce Springsteen and Patty Scialfa- if I should fall behind. Its a promise to wait for the one you love. We made it out wedding song.

  28. Oh I’m not sure what my favorite is, it usually changes with my mood. My current is a newer one by Ani Difranco called Jukebox. It’s more of a snippet of someone Life battling depression than a full story but it resonates with me. It also has a great beat to dance to and get you moving out of a depression.

  29. The Man From Laredo (Johnny Cash)
    The Gambler (Kenny Rogers)

    Operation: Mindcrime (Queensryche)
    The entire album is one big story

  30. My favorite “story song” is, without a doubt, “Signs” by The 5 Man Electrical Band. I am able to figuratively transcend back to the 70’s when I hear this tune.

  31. City of New Orleans is a song that spoke to me about the lives of people in a simpler place and time, moving from one place to another with little car.

  32. So many favorites, but I’ll choose one that’s not on commercial radio and not a folk song… Storm by SJ Tucker, about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

  33. “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” by Arlo Guthrie. Specifically that one live recording of it that the classic rock station in Columbus, GA used to play every Thanksgiving. It is at times tender, and funny, and shocking, and above all, irreverent. Kind of reminds me of me.

  34. As a kid, my dad made me listen to his old country records. Forty years later, I’m still listening to it. One of my favorites is Johnny Cash, and I’ve got my oldest daughter listening to him now. At the moment, my favorite song would have to be ‘I Hung My Head.’ I think it’s the injustice the permeates the song the tugs at my heart strings. The stranger that the boy killed surely didn’t deserve to die, his family didn’t deserve to lose him, and the boy that accidentally shot him didn’t deserve to be hung for it. It is a reminder to me that life isn’t fair as if any of us need the reminder.

  35. Another Auld Lange Syne, by Fogelberg, for the sheer universality of it— because we’ve all got an old lover somewhere that we dream of running into.

  36. “The City of New Orleans” by Arlo Guthrie is the first song that comes to mind. I visited AR a lot as a small child. I always wondered where the trains were going and why. “The City of New Orleans” talks about the landscape the rider passed. Having traveled a lot, I could imagine the farms and automobile graveyards. I wondered what people did on the long train trips. Playing cards and Mothers taking care of their children filled my mind. I had been through and lived in Memphis so I could imagine the changing of the cars there. Then I’d think about the conductors as they’d wave as the trains I saw passed by. As an adult, the song brings sadness as a large part of history has passed as people don’t travel by train like they used to.

    Good morning America, how are you? Don’t you know me I’m your native son. I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans, I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.

    It’s a grand song to get stuck in your head.

  37. Wow, so many to choose from…
    Harper Valley PTA, Fancy by Reba McEntire, Black Velvet, Son of a Preacher Man, American Pie (The Day the Music Died), Bobby McGee, Juke Box Hero, Gimme Three Steps, Devil Went Down to Georgia… I love all of these!

    I’m a bit old school for my age… lol

  38. There are plenty of fine story-songs in the comments above (e.g., “Ode to Billie Joe,” “Cat’s in the Cradle”) but being of strange mind, I prefer to write my own. All I need is someone with a twisted mind who will set ’em to music.

    Here’s one:

    When Mama Died
    (All I Got Was the Double-Wide)

    I’ve never known an easy way of livin’
    Had to sweat and bust my butt for years and years
    But you know I’ve never thought it’s right to give in
    To heartbreak, with all its pain and tears.

    When things looked bad, I listened to my Mama
    She always knew exactly what to say
    To help me deal with hurt and pain and trauma,
    Lift my spirit up to face another day.

    My Mama said to always hold my head up
    And shoulder all my burdens with a smile
    When your back’s against the wall, no time to let up
    That’s when you’ve got to go the extra mile.

    Well, Mama never was no Rockefeller,
    Her trailer home was all she had for wealth.
    She never had two cents to rub together,
    But what the hell, at least she had her health.

    And then one day, she went to see the doctor
    “I’m feelin’ a mite poorly,” ’s what she said.
    He ran some tests, and told her she had cancer,
    And then, inside of six months, she was dead.

    My Mama said to always hold my head up, etc.

    Oh, Mama, now what did your suff’rin’ get you?
    A hole that’s six feet down and lined with dirt
    In fifty years, your grandkids will forget you
    Thank Gawd you’ll be stone-dead, so it won’t hurt.

    And what have I to show for all your labors?
    Your double-wide, with mortgage almost paid –
    I can go and get shitfaced with all your neighbors
    Whose cars all sit on blocks there in the shade.

    My Mama said to always hold my head up, etc.

  39. It’s too hard to choose just one. I grew up on southern gospel and bluegrass, Elvis, The Beetles. I love the Rock from the late 60’s and 70’s. And although Beulah Land always makes me cry, was my moms favorite, I’m still in love with Journey, Kansas and Toto.

  40. Seven Spanish Angels by Willie Nelson and Ray Charles. This song helped me discover and look at Westerns as an art form and not some dime store pulp throw away form of entertainment. As the song plays the story literally unfolds on the movie screen of my mind.

  41. It’s not a modern song, but my favourite story song is one of the Child Ballads, Tam Lin. I love the Mediaeval Baebes version of it. Very spooky, very evocotive. It doesn’t hurt that Halloween is my favourite holiday.

  42. Mavis McGee by Tuatha Dea. I’ve always felt a deep connection to my Celtic roots and this song tells that and the story of so many. It’s sort of a heritage song for me.

  43. Wayfaring Stranger by Bill Monroe. I love this song, it sends chills up and down me, and just makes me pause and breathe and thank God for music that moves me. Oddly enough though, I hadn’t heard Mr. Monroe sing it until recently. I have a favorite movie, called Cold Mountain, that I also love. Watching it brings me home in every way. Jack White sings Wayfaring Stranger in this movie, and it was my first time hearing it. Damn, he can sing. So much soul and angst weaving it’s spell around me.

  44. I started to say Alice’s Restaurant Massacree by Arlo Guthrie.

    But then I thought of my favorite story song. A story of a man looking back at the start of a relationship.
    Paradise By The Dashboard Light by Meatloaf

  45. “Cold Missouri Waters” – James Keelaghan.
    “Transit” & “State of the Union” – Richard Shindell
    “Live Oak” – Jason Isbell
    “Ballad of Copper Junction” – Jeffrey Foucault
    “Suzanne” – Cary Cooper
    Against The Black” – Jen Cass & Eric Janetsky

    Jeez. I could go on for days…

  46. The song that is close to my heart is Cinderella by Steven Curtis Chapman. The story in of the song is about a father dancing with his daughter, and how even though she will grow up she would always be his little girl. My father showed me the song one day, and I would always dance to the song with him. That is why this song is close to my heart.

  47. So glad I read this before midnight! I’m partial to Ludo’s Broken Bride rock opera. It is the story of a man who loses his wife to a car accident. In his greif, he makes a time machine to save her. There is a glitch, he accidentally goes back to the dinosaurs, and then too far forward to the end of the world to a zombie appocolypse/ Revelations scenario (the song is secular, despite the reference). I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s the reason I love it. I tear up every time.

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