Story Songs?
June 25, 2010 5:06 PM   Subscribe

What are some great songs that tell stories?

I'm looking for a bunch of great story songs to play around a campfire, songs that have a (more or less) logical narrative. I'm a huge fan of Harry Chapin and Townes Van Zandt, as well as the Decemberists, but past them it's hard to find songs that feel like they would almost be better as short stories.

A few examples of what i have in mind:
Taxi - Harry Chapin
Tecumseh Valley - Townes Van Zandt
The Mariner's Revenge Song - The Decemberists
El Paso - Marty Robbins
Lola - The Kinks
The Weight - The Band
The Wreak of the Edmund Fitzgerald - Gordon Lightfoot
You Again - Cadillac Sky
Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner - Warren Zevon
The River - Bruce Springsteen
Saltydog - Flogging Molly
American Pie, Piano Man, Horse with no name, Rocky Raccoon, etc.

and I know there's millions of traditional ballads too, but it's usually hard to find the good ones, and then find the good versions of the good ones. Obviously some genres use narratives more often but every great band seems to have one song like this. Please help fill my ears with stories!
posted by Archibald Edmund Binns to Media & Arts (75 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Peter Kagan and the Wind. Part 1 Part 2
posted by punchtothehead at 5:10 PM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen seem to have a monopoly on story songs.

Robert Earl Keen - The Road Goes on Forever
Bob Dylan - Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
Bob Dylan - Tangled Up in Blue
Traveling Wilburys - Tweeter & The Monkey Man
posted by Frank Grimes at 5:14 PM on June 25, 2010

String of Pearls by Soul Asylum was the first to pop into my head, followed closely by The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead by XTC.
posted by MShades at 5:16 PM on June 25, 2010

Actually, every song by Harry Chapin. He was a master story teller and Greatest Stories is a fabulous album.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:17 PM on June 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

My favorite love song, "House Carpenter," is a Child ballad, one of the classic dark British traditionals, and that's a great version of it. (I did an FPP about my favorites of those, if you want to check it out.)
posted by Countess Elena at 5:18 PM on June 25, 2010

The Devil Went Down to Georgia - The Charlie Daniels Band
posted by firei at 5:18 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just about every song by the Drive-By Truckers is a story song. I recommend "18 Wheels of Love" (which makes me cry every time I hear it): it's also a good campfire song with a sing-along chorus.

Also the works of Tom T. Hall, aka "The Storyteller". Particularly the song "Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)", one of the great great great country songs protesting the Viet Nam War.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:20 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

More Beatles:

She's Leaving Home
Eleanor Rigby
Norwegian Wood
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:27 PM on June 25, 2010

You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant.
posted by netbros at 5:28 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Last Time I Saw Richard- Joni Mitchell
posted by Lisitasan at 5:28 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're looking for traditional ballads, I can sing you (or recommend) dozens. However, for pop songs, I love "Ode to Billy Joe" by Bobbie Gentry. Another favorite is Gram Parsons' "Streets of Baltimore."
posted by Polyhymnia at 5:29 PM on June 25, 2010

I can think of half a dozen Johnny Cash songs that would suit...A Boy Named Sue, Don't Bring your Guns to Town...
posted by Lisitasan at 5:29 PM on June 25, 2010

Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier.
El Condor Pasa.
posted by goblinbox at 5:30 PM on June 25, 2010

Crazy Mary - Pearl Jam
posted by jerseygirl at 5:42 PM on June 25, 2010

Ode to Billie Joe.
posted by alms at 5:50 PM on June 25, 2010

Peter Kagan and the Wind is my favorite example of these. I also like a lot of the Trad Arr stuff like House Carpenter. Cordelia's Dad does a lot of them. Here is them doing Katy Cruel.

- Pretty much everything by the Mountain Goats fits this bill most notably The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton
- Black Jack Davy by Steeleye Span
- The Great Tear of Josie and Ed by the Benders
- Four Blue Walls by The Mammals
- $1000 Wedding by Graham Parsons
- Beeswing and 1952 Vincent by Richard Thompson
- Come Dancing by the Kinks
- Silver Dagger by Joan Baez
- Dancing with Tears in my Eyes by Ultravox
- Pretty Boy Floyd written by Woody Guthrie performed here by The Byrds

a few that are less this way but I think of them as narrative

- Take it Easy by the Eagles
- "You Stay Here" by Richard Shindell is sort of in this vein
posted by jessamyn at 5:52 PM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nick Lowe's Marie Provost tells the true story of a silent film star who met a tragic and bizarre end.
The Pogues, And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.
Pulp, Common People
Any number of Tom Waits songs...
posted by Crane Shot at 5:52 PM on June 25, 2010

Pete Seeger and Leadbelly are both treasure troves of stories, because they often clean up older songs and make them more coherent. For starters:

Pete Seeger - Stagolee, John Henry, My Home's Across the Smoky Mountains, The Battle of New Orleans

Leadbelly - Where did you sleep last night, John Hardy, Midnight Special, Alabama Bound

The Anthology of American Folk Music is another treasure trove. As a starter, look for:

Bascom Lamar Lunsford - I wish I was a mole in the ground
Mississippi John Hurt - Frankie
Richard Rabbit Brown - James Alley Blues
Buell Kazee - The Wagoner's Lad
Bill and Belle Reed - Old Lady and the Devil

Assorted other songs:

Mississippi John Hurt - Monday Morning Blues
Big Bill Broonzy - Joe Turner
Robert Johnson - Dead Shrimp Blues
Lonnie Johnson - Jelly Roll Baker
Bright Eyes - Devil Town
Damien Jurado - Engine Fire
Johnny Cash - Folsom Prison Blues, Cocaine Blues
Randy Newman - Dixie Flyer, Louisiana 1927
The Band - The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - Helpless
posted by colfax at 5:56 PM on June 25, 2010

Canadian Railroad Trilogy - Gordon Lightfoot
posted by timsteil at 5:57 PM on June 25, 2010

Crazy Mary - Pearl Jam

I would offer Jeremy as well.
posted by fuse theorem at 5:57 PM on June 25, 2010

Objects in the Rearview Mirror, Meat Loaf
Ode to Billie Joe, Bobbie Gentry
Me & Bobby McGee, Janis Joplin
The Bony Swans, Loreena McKennit

A number of Paul Simon songs

And many, many songs by Nick Cave, if you enjoy a darker bent.
posted by zizzle at 6:00 PM on June 25, 2010

A lot of The Weakerthans would fit this bill, but particularly Plea from a Cat Named Virtute (link is to the acoustic version, considering the campfire context) and the follow-up Virtute the Cat Explains her Departure.
posted by just_ducky at 6:05 PM on June 25, 2010

Harper Valley PTA by Jeannie C Reilly
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:07 PM on June 25, 2010

"Crazy Mary" is by Victoria Williams, Pearl Jam covered it for Sweet Relief, to raise money for her medical bills. And "Boy Named Sue" was written by none other than Shel Silverstein, who also wrote "The Giving Tree," "The Missing Piece," and "I am my own Grandpa." Now there's a campfire story song.
posted by emhutchinson at 6:08 PM on June 25, 2010

Lyin'Eyes by the Eagles
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:11 PM on June 25, 2010

Some of my favorites:

The Queen and the Soldier by Suzanne Vega
Country Death Song by the Violent Femmes
Scenes From an Italian Restaurant by Billy Joel
Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits
posted by cottonswab at 6:18 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Mountain Goats - just about any song of his fits this criteria.
posted by joe lisboa at 6:28 PM on June 25, 2010

Also, can't believe I forgot Jim Croce. Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, Operator, and You Don't Mess Around With Jim are the ones I remember off the top of my head, but lots of his songs tell stories.
posted by cottonswab at 6:29 PM on June 25, 2010

Lament for Lester Cousins by Corb Lund and the Hurtin' Albertans tells the story of a man hard come up and knocked back down.
posted by workerant at 6:31 PM on June 25, 2010

Kenny Rogers - The Gambler (first thing my wife thought of when I told her about this question -- she also thought of the Brady Bunch theme song)

George Thorogood's version of One Bourbon One Scotch One Beer
Chuck Berry - Promised Land
Ob La Di Ob La Da - The Beatles
Maxwell's Silver Hammer - The Beatles
posted by wabbittwax at 6:43 PM on June 25, 2010

Stan Rogers' Barrett's Privateers is a good campfire song.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 6:44 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Besides talking for twenty-five minutes about garbage and The Draft in Alice's Restaurant, Arlo Guthrie waxed fantastic and funny about the significance of pickles in the Motorcycle Song.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 6:53 PM on June 25, 2010

32 Down on the Robert Mackenzie by Paul Gross

A lot of Mark Knopfler's songs tell stories. My current favorites of his are Sailing to Philadelphia and (with Emmylou Harris) This is Us.
posted by dorey_oh at 6:54 PM on June 25, 2010

"Copacabana" - Barry Manilow
"Leader Of The Pack" - Shangri-Las
"Goodbye Earl" - Dixie Chicks
"Up The Junction" - Squeeze
posted by SisterHavana at 7:01 PM on June 25, 2010

Death Cab for Cutie - Photobooth; Why You'd Want to Live Here; Styrofoam Plates; We Looked Like Giants. There are probably more by this band I'm neglecting to mention.

Ryan Adams - Shakedown on 9th Street (think this link is to a cover band, but the sound quality is better than the actual Ryan Adams recordings on youtube)

Blitzen Trapper - Furr and Black River Killer (the latter is an unexpectedly... delightful(?) song about a serial killer)

Jets to Brazil - Sea Anemone

Jawbreaker - Bad Scene, Everyone's Fault

All of Coheed and Cambria's albums are concept albums that form stories.
posted by axiom at 7:02 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Pretty much anything by Kenny Rogers:
The Gambler,
Reuben James
Coward of the County
Long Arm of the Law
Ruby dont take your love to town
Tomb of the unknown love
posted by ramix at 7:05 PM on June 25, 2010

Mama Tried by Merle Haggard
Martha by Tom Waits
A lot of Grateful Dead: Jack-a-Roe and Me and My Uncle (written by John Phillips) come to mind
A lot of John Prine, like Lake Marie
The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia by Vicki Lawrence
A lot of Willie Nelson, like Me and Paul and Seven Spanish Angels and Good Hearted Woman
He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones
Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen
posted by Majorita at 7:08 PM on June 25, 2010

I'm seconding "Coward of the County." Kenny Rogers! Singing about gang rape and familial legacies and revenge! It doesn't come much better.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 7:42 PM on June 25, 2010

Jonathan Richman - I Was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar
Big Joe and Phantom 309 - Ferlin Husky, Tom Waits, and others
Give My Love to Nell - Roy Rogers, Chet Atkins, etc.
posted by hydrophonic at 7:47 PM on June 25, 2010

John Mellencamp - Jack and Diane
Bryan Adams - Summer of '69
Taylor Swift - Love Story
posted by yawper at 8:06 PM on June 25, 2010

The Raconteurs do a pretty good job of telling stories in their songs. As a plus, their non-story songs are pretty catchy.
posted by JV at 8:06 PM on June 25, 2010

Oh, nobody has said Little Feat yet. Pretty much all their songs; Dixie Chicken is my favourite.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:08 PM on June 25, 2010

Ewan McColl--The Ballad of Springhill about the 1958 Springhill Mining Disaster

Neil Young--Pocahontas
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:11 PM on June 25, 2010

The Captain's Wife's Lament, by Paul and Storm.

It might not be the same without twenty minutes of geek banter, pirate noises, and audience participation but if done properly it would make a great campfire song.
posted by bondcliff at 8:20 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

My favorite: 25 Minutes to Go. I like the J. Cash version. It's written by Shel Silverstein. Which I think is funny because I only know his children's poetry.
posted by hot_monster at 8:26 PM on June 25, 2010

I almost asked this question of Meta myself. I also love the Decemberists. While I don't know how "campfire"y these are, they are along more of a story quality. I can't tell if you're actually singing them around a campfire, or listening to them for the aesthetic purpose (more my tack when listening).

Florence and the Machine with songs: Kiss With a Fist; Girl With One Eye; and My Boy Builds Coffins.

The Fleet Foxes, just as soon as I figure out what they're saying -exactly-...

Sufjan Stevens might also fit into this category.

I also recommend starting with the Decemberists on and seeing what happens to your music list.
posted by DisreputableDog at 8:30 PM on June 25, 2010

A lot of Randy Newman and John Prine songs are like little short stories.
posted by parkerposey at 8:31 PM on June 25, 2010

Knoxville Girl

Big Bad John
posted by meeshell at 8:40 PM on June 25, 2010

sixteen tons

running bear
posted by meeshell at 8:44 PM on June 25, 2010

Warren Zevon's Mr Bad Example
posted by jessamyn at 8:53 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Jonathan Richman - Monologue about Bermuda
posted by not_on_display at 8:55 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Coven's One Tin Soldier.
posted by worldswalker at 9:14 PM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just for fun:

"Goodbye Earl" by The Dixie Chicks. It's basically as much of a straightforward narrative as a song can get. Plus, it's always fun to sing along to.
posted by fignewton at 9:20 PM on June 25, 2010

Josh Ritter - The Curse

Josh Ritter - Temptation of Adam
posted by backwards guitar at 9:30 PM on June 25, 2010

Uneasy Rider by The Charlie Daniel's Band
Hot Rod Lincoln, I prefer the version by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, but there are many, many versions of it with wildly different lyrics, which really just add to the story.
posted by anaelith at 10:00 PM on June 25, 2010

"Bank Job" by Barenaked Ladies
posted by Joleta at 10:26 PM on June 25, 2010

The Weavers (or Peter, Paul & Mary, or Jimmie Rodgers, or Bongwater...) - Kisses Sweeter than Wine

Not as campfire-friendly:
King Missile - Detachable Penis
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz - Waffle House Fire (or any number of his other songs, really)
Zoogz Rift - My Daddy Works for the Secret Marines
posted by treblemaker at 10:32 PM on June 25, 2010

Saginaw Michigan
posted by the latin mouse at 1:31 AM on June 26, 2010

The Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues by Bob Dylan is a favorite of mine and I think it would work around a campfire. He also has a number of other songs in the Talking Blues style.
Long Black Veil, which has been recorded by various artists ranging from Dave Matthews to Johnny Cash.
posted by HE Amb. T. S. L. DuVal at 1:53 AM on June 26, 2010

The Ride, If That Ain't Country, and quite a few others from David Allen Coe.
posted by Slash_fan at 2:52 AM on June 26, 2010

The Banks of the Ohio. Classic murder ballad, campfire-tested.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 3:03 AM on June 26, 2010

Aesop Rock - No Regrets
Blue Rodeo - Five Days in May
Panic at the Disco! - But It's Better if we do
Robert Earl Keen - Merry Christmas from the Family
Cry, Cry, Cry - Shades of Grey (actually written by Robery Earl Keen)
Simon and Garfunkel - Richard Cory
Say Anything - Woe
William S. Burroughs has some great spoken word pieces, notable "The Priest, They Called Him" with Kurt Cobain, and "Star Me Kitten" with R.E.M.
Ween - Buenos Tardes Amigo

Any number of Jim Croce songs as mentioned

If you want to take the concept a little further, the "So Impossible" EP by Dashboard Confessional tells a story. It chronicles the protagonist as he longs after a girl in "For You To Notice." In the next track, "So Impossible", he asks her on a date. In "Remember to Breathe", a friend is helping him prepare for his date. Finally, "Hands Down" talks about what singer-songwriter Chris Carrabba routinely calls "the best day I ever had.(Track Listing is: For You To Notice - So Impossible - Remember to Breathe - Hands Down)

Personal Favorite is the previously noted Bob Dylan - Hurricane. Ani DiFranco does a great cover as well.
posted by frmrpreztaft at 3:38 AM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

also of note: i forgot how to proofread at approximately 3:38am.
posted by frmrpreztaft at 3:54 AM on June 26, 2010

For campfire suggestions I like kinda cheesy stuff.

Chris de Burgh had an album in the seventies called Spanish Train & other stories, and Spanish Train was huuuugely popular with us all. I strongly prefer the album version to the liive versions on youtube etc, they aren't as sung (compare the preview to the live version in the video).

For some reason Garth Brooks doesn't exist on the net (youtube/spotify) but he has quite a few good ones, like Papa Loved Mama.
posted by Iteki at 4:47 AM on June 26, 2010

Truckload of Art by Terry Allen
posted by Thorzdad at 8:35 AM on June 26, 2010

irish ballad by tom lehrer
D.O.A. by bloodrock
certainly two of the finest stories ever told
posted by Redhush at 10:17 PM on June 26, 2010

Bruce Springsteen - Atlantic City. Actually, every song off of his album Nebraska is a story.
posted by ajarbaday at 2:09 AM on June 27, 2010

An old friend and I always preferred our recital of the lyrics for "The Boys are Back in Town" to the Thin Lizzy performance. It just seemed like a story one person would tell another.
posted by ymendel at 6:22 AM on June 29, 2010

Two songs from The Coup:

- Me and Jesus the Pimp in a 79 Granada Last Night
- Fat Cats and Bigger Fish
posted by AceRock at 5:41 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

God's Own Drunk by Jimmy Buffet is fun too
posted by Redhush at 3:54 PM on July 3, 2010

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