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The Song & the Story

November 8, 2006

Back in 1981, just before I left school and my friends and I were playing in local folk clubs, Isla St Clair a Scottish singer and minor TV personality teamed up with Steeleye Span to produce a BBC children’s program called The Song and the Story. The show sought to alert children to the existence of folk music and of the way many of the best and most resilient songs tell a tale of some sort. I found the actual show a bit bland (it was aimed at a market several years younger than I was at the time), I was particularly offended by the nursery rhyme treatment they gave to Rudyard Kipling’s The Smuggler’s Song, which is not a ‘nice’ poem, and needed investing with more menace and less sugar. Nevertheless, the theme tune they used was Sovay which we played in the clubs and which Kate Rusby is singing at the moment (we got it off a Martin Carthy album). St Claire dressed as a highwaywoman and galloped around singing, and Duran Duran and The Specials would be on Top of the Pops later on. The folk revival was over for the next ten years.

I’ve never forgotten the principle that a really great folksong should tell a story. I was delighted with Cold Missouri Waters and the story behind it because it’s a really modern example of the genre. There are whole cycles of related songs; Streets of Laredo exchanges gun fighting for syphilis as in St James's Infirmary but they carry so many of the same elements that it’s obvious that they’re telling the same story (choose your lovers wisely).

I’d like a list of suggestions for tale-telling songs. I’ll weed out the ones that don’t tell a tale – they may still be folksongs, worksongs or lullabies for instance, but it’s the story I want. Pop songs that tell a tale are welcome.

Posted by Huw Pryce at November 8, 2006 2:21 PM


"El Paso" by Marty Robbins.

No doubt the story line was inspired by Marty's maternal grandfather, "Texas Bob" Heckle, a former Texas Ranger and poet in his own right.

Someone should write a song about Texas Bob. Legend has it he wore his hair over six feet long, so in case he was killed and scalped by the Comanche, anybody seeing the scalp would know whose it was.

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at November 8, 2006 4:37 PM

The songs Pancho and Lefty, and Marie both by Townes Van Zandt are two favorites of mine.

Posted by: Jack Swain at November 8, 2006 5:58 PM

Off the top of my head...

Sailing to Philadelphia -- Mark Knopfler
Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts -- Bob Dylan
Indian Sunset -- Elton John
America -- Simon & Garfunkel

Posted by: Michael Rogers at November 8, 2006 6:38 PM

Does "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" qualify?

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at November 8, 2006 9:25 PM

"Streets of Laredo exchanges gun fighting for syphilis as in St James's Infirmary but they carry so many of the same elements that it’s obvious that they’re telling the same story (choose your lovers wisely). "
REALLY! I had no idea! I'm such an inocent sometimes... next you'll be telling me that "Puff the Magic Dragon" isn't about a boy and his pet dragon, strings an sealing wax and other fancy stuff...,+paul+&+mary/puff+magic+dragon_20107715.html

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at November 8, 2006 9:33 PM

Seven Spanish Angels

Posted by: Joe Bethancourt at November 8, 2006 10:17 PM

Ballad of Casey Deiss

Posted by: Richard Schletty at November 8, 2006 10:21 PM

Some of Robert Earl Keen's early stuff like "The Road Goes On Forever," "Mariano," and "Jesse With The Long Hair" are excellent story songs. Man, before he got painted (or painted himself) into the frat boy party corner he wrote some good lyrics.

Eric Taylor's "Big Love," and "Mickey Finn," are great story songs.

Posted by: Ben H. Rushing at November 9, 2006 10:44 AM

Ohhhh, YES! Eric Taylor!

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at November 9, 2006 12:16 PM

There has to be a Texas Bob song out there - think of the rhyming schemes Bob, Job, Rob, Slob. The South Park boys would have a field day...

Pancho & Leftie and Marie-Townes Van Zandt. One begins to understand the sheer cultural divide between out two nations. I'll have to google these..

Sailing to Philadelphia by an old Brit-rocker... Nick Lowe has one out called Indian Queens, which is well worth a listen. I must confess my Dylan knowledge is down somewhat, so l'll look it up. America is out: it lacks narrative continuity.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is exactly the right sort of song, very much in the same tradition as Cold Missouri Waters and The Springhill Disaster (Ewan McColl).

Was Puff an innocent fairytale creature or an allegorical junkie paedophile reptile. Only Peter, Paul, Mary and William know for sure (Burroughs that is...).

All stuff subsequent to Puff is new stuff to me.

A finely turned example of an absolute epic has to be Tangled up in Blue. In a wierd way The Highwayman is a good example as well. Could be I've asked for too broad a subject - they're coming thick and fast on today's playlist.

Posted by: Huw Pryce at November 9, 2006 3:07 PM

Harry Chapin was a tremendous storyteller. I'll never forget listening to "The Mayor Of Candor Lied" for the very first time. It's certainly one of his best stories, I believe and accompanied by excellent music (found on the album "On The Road To Kingdom Come" - an exceptional recording). "There Only Was One Choice" is another tremendous song that musicians could probably relate very easily to.

Posted by: Max Walter at November 9, 2006 7:38 PM

Stonecutter (about the fire on Parialment Hill and the rebuilding by the stonecutters - all the apprentices were fighting the war so the rebuilding was done by Master Craftsmen)

And, hey, long as we're mentioning Gordon Lightfoot, what about his "Canadian Railroad Trilogy"?

(And a little aside here, today is the 31st anniversary of the sinking of the Ed Fitz.)

John Cash's "Don't Take Your Guns to Town"

Posted by: Lynn Oatman at November 10, 2006 10:31 AM

"Broke Down" and "Breakfast In Hell" Slaid Cleaves

"Bandolier" and "Dead Man's Hand" Jack Hardy (a consummate lyricist. Jack doesn't waste any words.) His song "111th Pennsylvane" was over a year in research and writing. The result is spectacularly gripping.

How's about some Jack Hardy played on Folk Alley? That would be great.

Posted by: Ben H. Rushing at November 10, 2006 11:11 AM

"Pancho & Leftie and Marie-Townes Van Zandt. One begins to understand the sheer cultural divide between out two nations. I'll have to google these.."

I have plenty of other favorite story songs, but I like to champion Townes' music. Townes was a great songwriter who is not all that well known, outside of his home state of Texas where most of us musicians and songwriters considered him a true legend. They do occasionally play a few of his songs on Folk Alley, but usually someone else is performing them. He had a country song called "If I Needed You" that Emmy Lou Harris recorded that might have been his biggest hit along with Pancho and Lefty of which Willie Nelson probably had the most successful recording.

Posted by: Jack Swain at November 10, 2006 12:57 PM

Cat Eye Willie Claims His Lover, by Dave Carter, about as creepy and gripping as they get.

Posted by: Joan Kennedy at November 10, 2006 1:44 PM

oh, and Lost Jimmy Wheelan, and O'Shaughnassy's Lament.

AND the Ballad of Marguerite de la Roche.

And Home from the Forest.

And John Henry

Posted by: Lynn Oatman at November 10, 2006 2:09 PM

Chuck Pyle: 'Here Comes The Water'

Posted by: Dale Reese at November 10, 2006 4:22 PM

Jack - one of my favorite "Austin City Limits" shows (PBS) is the Townes Van Zandt Tribute, where many well known singer/song writers sit in song circle and perform Townes's songs. The best part is that included in the show are video snippits of Townes himself performing his own songs and speaking now and again, along with stories about his life.

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at November 10, 2006 4:51 PM

Reuben James

Posted by: Joe Bethancourt at November 11, 2006 6:24 PM

Illusion of Engagement

Posted by: Richard Schletty at November 12, 2006 12:16 AM

The first writer that came to mind for me was Townes Van Zandt, but the first SONG I thought of is by "Sting"

"I hung my head" -- a tale of a young man who borrowed a rifle, practiced his aim on a rider, and accidentally pulled the trigger. It's a western type story done in a wild time signature (maybe a 9/8, with accents on the 3 and 8) It can be found on "Mercury Falling" (1996).

Posted by: Michael Grady at November 12, 2006 12:01 PM

The song Noah by Jeff Black, Clarity by Ellis Paul and Narrow Escape by Ray LaMontagne are three more recent songs that come to mind. I absolutely agree with comments about Townes. He was one of the best.

If you have not heard the new Ray LaMontagne cd and particularly the song Empty, I highly recommend it. This song is brilliant.

Rick McCullough

Posted by: Rick McCullough at November 12, 2006 5:25 PM

Yes, it would be nice to have a whole segment on story songs.
Some of my favorites:
Magdalene Laundries (Joni Mitchell/Chieftains)
Nanci Griffith sings several story songs: Love at the Five and Dime, Tecumseh Valley, Love Wore a Halo Back Before the War, Trouble in the Fields
Lyle Lovett: Step Inside This House
Deportee (Woody Guthrie or Joan Baez)
Joan Baez has several: Reunion Hill, Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Posted by: Karen O'Briant at November 13, 2006 10:38 AM

"Could be I've asked for too broad a subject ..." Huw, folk music IS story telling. I was ten in 1963 so when I hear Greg Brown's "Brand New '64 Dodge", I am that boy. For those of you for whom November of 1963 is just history, "Brand New '64 Dodge" gives you a chance to also be that boy.

The following songs are all true stories. They are but the tip of the tip of the iceberg. They breathe life into that dusty tome called history

James Keelaghan
"Kiri's Piano"
"October 70"

Eric Bogle
"As If He Knows"
"Elizabeth's Song"
"Sing The Spirit Home"

Garnet Rogers
"The King of Rome"
"Small Victories"

Posted by: Patrick Willems at November 13, 2006 11:32 AM

Yes, Folk music is story telling, but you also get love songs, work songs, doggerel etc. Pure storytelling is different. "They breathe life into that dusty tome called history" is the kernel of the nut here. even if a song isn't actually a true story, it tells you about times past. Translate some of the poetry into plain English: Bruton Town recorded by the Pentangle (but I think it's traditional) ends with the girl sitting by the body of the lover her brothers have murdered, until she gets hungry and goes home. No police, no arrest, no trial or execution. Put that across from the Murder of Maria Martin, and you have stories separated by centuries of social change.
I still don't know what I'm looking for here: many of the gunfighting songs are drawn from the vogue for the old West fostered by the cinema of the 20th Century. Many of the poverty tales are rooted in the great depression, the US made songs all through its growth and development. That Joan Baez song sound's like a Civil War lament (which it is, but written a century later).
One of the things I'm looking for is roots extending back into Europe. One of the difficulties of doing this with the US is that many traditions have translated into English.
I'm also looking for the reccomendations of songs which are modern - like the Joan Baez number.

Keep em coming.

Posted by: Huw Pryce at November 15, 2006 7:27 PM

This isn't a story song, exactly, but a story about songs we all know, presented in LIVE theatre with acrobats, puppets and well...see for yourself!
I got excited about it in any case, and now have an actual reason to go to Las Vegas next time I win one of those trips.

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at November 16, 2006 6:52 AM

There are some songs about what happened to families and lovers during the Irish potato famin, when parts of the family left for the promise of a better life in 'Ameriki', and new tradition called for a "wake" for the living, whom they expected may never be seen again. A very sad proposition indeed.
Anyone know the names of these songs, new or old - and by whom they were/are sung?

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at November 16, 2006 6:57 AM

My mother always loved "l'll take you home again, Kathleen"- and she always cries when she hears it. My grandmother loved that song as well. I don't know who wrote it.

Posted by: Shannon McDaniel at November 16, 2006 11:39 PM

Hi Jim Pipkin!!!
You were missed.

Posted by: Shannon McDaniel at November 17, 2006 12:00 AM

No, I feel like I was hit pretty much straight ya been?

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at November 17, 2006 1:43 PM

(Heh-heh....that was a good one, Jim.)

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at November 18, 2006 12:08 AM

lol...fair'n ok.

Posted by: Shannon McDaniel at November 18, 2006 10:11 AM

"The Lighthouse's Tale" by Nickel Creek Composed folk song.
"The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down" was written by Robbie Robertson of The Band. Their version sung by Levon Helm and also recorded by Joan Baez. Composed folk song.
"Barbara Allen" "Barbry Allen" etc. lots of versions of this true folk song ballad.

Posted by: Deborah Barber at November 19, 2006 1:12 PM

I like "Cornwall" by WIVES&servants, about a 40th birthday gathering by friends, but the guest of honour couldn't make it due to incliment weather - but they had the party without her anyway...the memory of which was grande enough to commemorate the event with a song. already know about that one.

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at November 20, 2006 1:32 AM

"Mattie Groves", definitely. The version that ends with Lord Arnold kicking his wife's recently severed head against the wall in a pique.

I just love a story with a happy ending!

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at November 20, 2006 4:13 PM

eeeeeewwwwwWWWWWW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ;D

Posted by: Robin Roderick at November 21, 2006 8:04 AM

Liked the plug for Harry Chapin's music earlier--many of his tunes were story songs (I like "Corey's Coming" myself).

A couple other timely ones--

"Ira Hayes" as recorded by Johnny Cash, in honor of the movie "Flags of our Fathers"

"Christmas in the Trenches" by John McCutcheon, a modern classic tale.

Posted by: Mike Smith at November 21, 2006 1:04 PM

Huw, how about story songs that haven't yet been written?

"If I Had..." by O.J. Simpson

"Misunderstooding" by GW Bush

"My Cellmate Makes Me Feel Wanted" by Jack Abramoff

...and the list goes on...

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at November 21, 2006 4:25 PM

"Thank Heaven for Little Boys" by Rep. Mark Foley.

Posted by: Jack Swain at November 21, 2006 5:21 PM

I'll go with Tam Lin, from Fairport, Shoals of Herring from Lou Killen by way of Ewan McColl, and no ones mentioned the Alice's Restaurant Masacree !

Posted by: Ed Weglein at November 21, 2006 8:51 PM

Battle of New Orleans
The Spanish Lady
Sam Hall
Salmon River
Paper Boy
Highway 95

Posted by: Richard Schletty at November 22, 2006 2:50 PM

A shameless self-promotion. Here's a song I just penned about the Cherokee Nation's 1838 "Trail of Tears":

Posted by: Richard Schletty at November 26, 2006 2:38 AM

Here's a nice one about finding the grace to make the best out of a bad situation:

"Family Tree" - Jason Weems (Austin, TX)
(Also featured this weeks on my page @ MySpace: )

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at November 27, 2006 7:32 AM

...and speaking of family trees...Jim Pipkin's got a nice one called: "Second Sons" of which I'm very fond:
I guess I really like gritty songs which showcase how difficult situations can be overcome with creativity and panace.
I really like Jim's creative use of phrases with this one - very cleverly written.

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at November 27, 2006 7:41 AM

But will I have to run to my dictionary? I hope so. I like learning new words. I almost forgot what panace meant. Then it came to me.

Posted by: Richard Schletty at November 27, 2006 8:24 AM

No wonder I didn't get "panace" at first ... it is actually spelled panache. Another nice French word. Or did JoLynn actually mean to type penance?

Posted by: Richard Schletty at November 27, 2006 8:27 AM

There is no panacea for typeo's

Posted by: Huw Pryce at November 27, 2006 11:46 AM

Clever, as usual, my rough-huwn friend.

Posted by: Richard Schletty at November 27, 2006 12:16 PM

Mea culpa, my good's should have been "penache" fer shuuure.
(ha! - rough-HUWn..that was good!)
"..take the blood and hit the ground runnin'..droppin' off the family tree" is my fav line from Jim's song, btw.

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at November 28, 2006 4:56 AM

..and somehow I'm still mistyping it!

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at November 28, 2006 3:02 PM

Well that's given me a sort of collector's shopping list. Thanks all.
Jim and Jack; what was I doing on the 21st to miss such an opportunity?
Alex Litvinenko's 'Hot Sushi' is climbing the charts over here and competing strongly with Vlad Putin's 'Polonium Means Never Saying Sorry' (Scaramella Scaramella Figaro [Po two one oh oh oh] Beelzebub has a neutron put a side for meeee!).
Of course Tony Blair's 'What a Friend Jesus has in Me' is still way up there. On the international stage, Fidel and Augusto are rumoured to be working up a duet...

Posted by: Huw Pryce at December 4, 2006 10:10 AM

OK, I could go really crazy on this one but let's just start with "Texas Rangers" sung acapella (sp?) by Ian & Sylvia. "Pleasures of the Harbor" and "The Crucifixion" by Phil Ochs are both gorgeous and chilling. There are several by Eliza Gilkyson on the "Land of Milk and Honey" CD - "Tender Mercies" and "The Ballad of Yvonne Johnson" come immediately to mind. Cheryl Wheeler's "Quartermoon" is heart-felt and bittersweet. Verlon Thompson's "He Left The Road" and "I Will Come Back Again" are well told and touching as well; "The Dinnerbell Song" is story-telling at its best!!! And where do you even start with Jackson Browne, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, ...

Posted by: John Rollins at December 13, 2006 9:38 PM

Here's a simple sweet one from Ginny Mitchell:
"Ed and Alice"

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at December 15, 2006 7:58 AM

I wrote to Ginny about that one - really liked it, very "real". Build those side yard fences low, folks.

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at December 15, 2006 12:25 PM

Wow so many great songs already listed.

Here are a few quick ones from me.

Jeff Black _ Gold heart Locket & Just about right

Annie Gallup _ Blue Dress

Chuck Pyle _ Here comes the water

Guy Clark _ Queenie's getting burried

Nanci Griffith _ Troubled fields

John Prine - Lake Marie


Posted by: Brian Schmuck at December 15, 2006 10:22 PM


In January, when I release my next CD, I'll post a ballad on Folk Alley that I wrote. It's over seven minutes of singing and flatpicking and right now I can't get through because of an accident with my finger, but I'm getting there. It sucks. I've had a thousand CDs in my garage for over a month now and am not releasing them until I can perform everything on 'em. I'll keep you posted, as I'm interested in your opinion. The song is called Spreading Oak.

Posted by: Stephen Moore at December 19, 2006 1:07 AM

Oh, no! Finger accidents not allowed, Stephen!

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at December 19, 2006 2:24 AM

I cant believe no-one suggested Dylan's really long "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" . Joan Baez does it wonderfully. Lyrics on

And "Sweet Sir Galahad", and "Joe Hill" (on Joan Baez "One day at a time") -both tell a story. As do most of the songs she chooses to deliver...

Posted by: Chris Whitworth at January 2, 2007 2:22 PM

In 1981 Isla St Clair was contracted to appear in a series of programmes for BBC children's television, "The Song and The Story". This involved dressing up in historical costume and explaining the history of folk songs. She relished the opportunity to ride a horse again as the highwaywoman "Sovay". Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span was hired as a researcher, primarily for the songs, and was given a Researchers credit. The program won European television's "Prix Jeunesse".

For the next ten years Isla St Clair disappeared from the public eye while she raised a family...

Posted by: Richard Schletty at January 16, 2007 4:55 PM

This is my latest attempt at historical narrative. I got proper information from a member of the Cherokee Nation, Ryan Mackey.

Against Their Will (The Trail of Tears Story)

I greatly value your comments. At 6:12, is it way too long?

Posted by: Richard Schletty at February 11, 2007 12:54 AM

Yes, I was told it is too long. Wayne said I should lose first two verses and first refrain. Says I should start with "In 18-3-0..."

Posted by: Richard Schletty at February 28, 2007 12:09 AM

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