Sunday, July 25, 2010

Minstrels of the Air: The Greatest Stories Ever Sung

The narrative in song has had a long and storied history. The oral tradition of Nordic skalds, Irish Bards and Anglo-Saxon scops chanting such renowned tales as are found in the Völuspá, Táin Bó Cúalnge and Beowulf, are the precursors of 13th century minstrels of London and Paris and troubadours of Provence, who in turn are the forebears of Bob Dylan, Martin Carthy and Neil Young. In fact, if you squint your eyes really hard and ignore the poorly-tuned strings, one can see a bit of the blind bard Turlough O'Carolan, the last, great harper of Ireland, in every guitar-playing busker singing for change in a subway station.

Here then, in my estimation, are the best of the modern-day narrative songs -- short stories put to music -- complete with exposition, climax and dénouement. Some even have a moral...or immoral, as the case may be:

A BOY NAMED SUE by Johnny Cash (from Johnny Cash at San Quentin)

-- I am always amazed that this song was written by Shel Silverstein (the author of the children's book 'A Light in the Attic'). But then I did some research and found out that Silverstein penned, among countless other tunes, "The Cover of the Rolling Stone' (a hit for Dr. Hook) and 'The Unicorn' (made famous by the Irish Rovers), as well as another Cash hit '25 Minutes to Go'. Needless to say, I can't imagine anyone but Johnny Cash singing this song and having it sound so believable...and funny.

THE WRECK OF THE EDMUND FITZGERALD by Gordon Lightfoot (from Summertime Dream)

-- Unless you lived in Michigan or Wisconsin, I am not altogether sure that in 1975 the rest of the world knew that what we call 'Lake Superior' is so vast a sea of freshwater that 'when the gales of November come slashing' freighters with a capacity of 26,000 tons can sink without a trace in its frigid depths. Gordon Lightfoot solved all that by relating 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald'. Another interesting aspect of the song is that it was composed by Lightfoot in the 'Dorian Mode' (which amounts to playing only the white keys on the piano). Other songs that share that odd bit of useless trivia: 'Eleanor Rigby' and 'Scarborough Fair'.

ALICE'S RESTAURANT MASACREE, PART I by Arlo Guthrie (from Alice's Restaurant)

-- As in thousands of households across America, listening to 'Alice's Restaurant' on Thanksgiving has been a holiday tradition in my home for decades (a part of the song takes place at a dinner on Thanksgiving, but not at the restaurant). This 18 minute-long 60's epic, based on real incidents and people (yes, there is an Alice and there was a restaurant), is perhaps the funniest song ever written. There are so many hilarious sequences in the song that I'll just let you listen to it and not add spoilers here...
...okay, I lied. My favorite parts are 'Officer Obie and the case of American blind Justice' and the mother-stabbers and father-rapers on the 'Group W' bench. Guthrie's dry delivery and sardonic wit are exceptional here.

CATS IN THE CRADLE by Harry Chapin (from Verities & Balderdash')

-- If you have kids and even a smidgen of parental guilt, this song is guaranteed to tug at your heartstrings. You'll probably go right out and buy your kid a PS3; you know, rather than actually playing with them. I could've also added Chapin's 'Taxi' on this list as an example of sterling narrative, but I think 'Cats in the Cradle' has more of an emotional impact.

HURRICANE by Bob Dylan (from Desire)

-- I could have chosen Dylan's 'Tangled Up in Blue', 'Visions of Johanna' or 'Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts', but once again, the profligate Sony Corporation has removed all free internet access to them (bastards!). So, I managed to find the original version of 'Hurricane' with Spanish subtitles. 'Hurricane' chronicles the alleged 'frame-up' of boxer Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter by New Jersey police and district attorney. The argument Dylan presents is compelling. Perhaps he will become a lawyer when he grows up and drops this silly fantasy of becoming a successful musician and composer.

LIVING FOR THE CITY by Stevie Wonder (from Innervisions)

-- The story of a poor, southern black boy raised on a hard-scrabble farm in Mississippi who, with the encouragement of his well-meaning parents, seeks his fortune in the big city (as always, New York, the corrupt capital of broken dreams). The tension in Stevie Wonders voice mounts as the song progresses, reflecting the anger Wonder felt at the oppression, racism and crime of that era (or this era -- nothing has really changed). Finally, Wonder is singing in a guttural growl of inchoate rage as the song ends and the protagonist is sent to jail for a crime he did not commit. Masterful.

FAMILY SNAPSHOT by Peter Gabriel (from Peter Gabriel 3/Melt)

-- Sing a song of assassination. The original inspiration for the song was the interviews of Arthur Bremer (published in the book 'Assassin's Diary' in '73). Bremer, who was more interested in fame than politics, had attempted to assassinate Alabama governor George Wallace in 1972 (Bremer was also the inspiration behind Martin Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver'), but Gabriel notches up the intensity and drama by grafting scenes of the 1963 Kennedy assassination onto Bremer's accounts, and then offers a full-blown psychological profile at the end of the song. Gabriel's use of suspense and internal monologue are superb.

'39 by Queen (from A Night at the Opera)

-- Queen guitarist Brian May has a PhD in Astrophysics and is an author of note in astronomical circles (I guess that would be astronomical ellipses, as opposed to circles). This would explain the premise of the song '39. It is a science fiction story wherein a score brave volunteers set out in a spaceship in search of new worlds to inhabit. They believe they have only gone for a single year, but as they were traveling at approximately 99.995% the speed of light, in actuality they had been space truckin' for nigh on 100 years. They return to find their old lives gone faster than you can say Rip Van Winkle. Shock and sadness ensue.

FAIRYTALE OF NEW YORK by The Pogues (from If I Should Fall from Grace with God)

-- Besides being one of the greatest Christmas songs ever written, The Pogues' 'Fairytale of New York' is an exceptional reflection on the effects of drugs and alcohol on a once-promising relationship. The internal monologue of the down and out junkie sitting in a drunk tank on Christmas Eve recalling his lost love is painful and full of regret. Definitely not your mother's idea of a Christmas carol.

MR. BOJANGLES by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (from Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy)

-- First, this song has nothing to do with renowned dancer and actor Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson; rather, it concerns a man the composer, Jerry Jeff Walker, actually met in a New Orleans jail. The story is poignant and induces a sniffle from me everytime the song mentions Mr. Bojangles' dog dying. I'm getting teary-eyed as I type this. *sniff*

AND A BANG ON THE EAR by The Waterboys (from Fisherman's Blues)

-- A clever autobiography of Waterboys' leader Mike Scott, as told in relation to each of the women he loved (and he was in a band, so there were several of them). Regarding the term 'a bang on the ear': 'bang' means a kiss, and so the phrase is the Irish equivalent of 'a peck on the cheek'.

THE DEVIL WENT DOWN TO GEORGIA by The Charlie Daniels Band (from Million Mile Reflections)

-- Sorry Johnny, but the devil kicked your ass. Good story and fiddlin' though.

AFTER THE GOLDRUSH by Neil Young (from After the Goldrush)

-- Filled with allegory and double-meanings, 'After the Goldrush' presents Neil Young's haunting vision of the apocalypse and the few 'chosen ones' who leave the dying earth and take the last ship into outer space.

TICKING by Elton John (from Caribou)

-- The height of the songwriting collaboration of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, 'Ticking' is the tale of a troubled young man who becomes a mass-murderer in a New York bar (yes, New York again). It is basically a compelling and well-written short story by Taupin set to John's dexterous piano score.

SPACE ODDITY by David Bowie (from Space Oddity)

-- This song, taken at face value, is the tale of an astronaut who becomes enamored of the skies and cuts his chord while taking a space walk, leaving Ground Control helpless with a dead circuit. However (and you were expecting a 'however' here, weren't you?), the underlying theme has been hypothesized into two major theories: 1) Major Tom is a drug-user, and having popped his pills he goes on a trip and overdoses. This is in relation to Bowie's own lyrics from 'Ashes to Ashes' that 'We know Major Tom's a junkie/Strung out in heaven's high/Hitting an all-time low', or 2) Major Tom is Bowie himself, becoming withdrawn from conventional society and the overexposure of the media, becoming introspective in a chrysalis of his own design. Choose whichever suits your fancy or moral imperative.

AMERICA by Simon and Garfunkel (from Bookends)

-- Paul Simon's eye for detail is remarkable in this precious vignette of two young lovers on a bus ride in search of America (and not a rhyme in the entire lyric!). What starts out as a winsome journey full of promise ends in a wistful feeling of disillusionment, a sibyllic chorus that predicts the abrupt ending of the brightly tie-dyed 60's and heralded the cynical and introspective 70's:

"Kathy, I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping.
"I'm empty and aching and I don't know why."
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike,
They've all gone to look for America.

PIANO MAN by Billy Joel (from Piano Man)

-- Perhaps because I played in bar bands for years, I readily identify with this song. Billy Joel reflects on the losers and the lost that inhabit every bar, pub & grub and roadhouse in America (or the world, for that matter), and then with a touch of irony, he discovers that he's no different than the rest of them:

And the piano sounds like a carnival
And the microphone smells like a beer
And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar
And say "Man, what are you doin' here?"

MATTY GROVES by Fairport Convention (from Liege and Lief)

-- 'Matty Groves' is the most famous of all English 'murder ballads', and the Fairport Convention version of the song, featuring Sandy Denny's ethereal vocals and David Swarbick's roguish fiddling, is sublime. Originally published in the 'Child Ballads' in the 19th century, 'Matty Groves' was first alluded to in a Beaumont & Fletcher play in 1613. Basically, Lord Darnell's wife seduces young Matty and takes him to bed. The cuckolded Lord Darnell finds out and confronts the naked Matty while he still snuggles with his wife. Darnell and Matty have a sword fight and Matty is killed. Lord Darnell gives his wife a choice: either dead Matty or me. The wife prefers dead Matty. Lord Darnell in a rage kills his wife. Then Lord Darnell makes the famous pronouncement of class preference:

'A grave, a grave,' Lord Darnell cried,
'To bury these lovers in,
But won't you bury my lady at the top
For she was of noble kin.'

SHEEP by Pink Floyd (from Animals)

-- This is not your grandpa's or great-grandpa's fable; unless, of course, great-gramps was George Orwell. In any event this Orwellian tale gone hay-wire features once docile sheep who learn judo (trading mutton chops for karate chops, I suppose), run amok and slay their masters (I am not making this up), eventually becoming as despicable as those they slew. 'Sheep' features Roger Water's famous parody of Psalm 23 (spoken through a Korg Vocoder voice synthesizer):

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me down to lie.
Through pastures green
He leadeth me the silent waters by.
With bright knives He releaseth my soul.
He maketh me to hang on hooks in high places.
He converteth me to lamb cutlets.
For lo! He hath great power, and great hunger.
When cometh the day we lowly ones,
Through quiet reflection and great dedication,
Master the art of Judo,
Lo! we shall rise up,
And then we'll make the bugger's eyes water.

BOY WITH A MOON AND STAR ON HIS HEAD by Cat Stevens (from Catch Bull at Four)

-- Once upon a time, before he wrapped a turban a bit too tightly around his head and endorsed Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Cat Stevens was a actually a sensitive and sensible composer. Somehow, he forgot his own compassionate lines:

And people would ride from far and wide
Just to seek the Word he spread.
"I'll tell you everything I've learned,
And love is all"...he said.


Clodia said...

Oooh! I already knew some of these (Johnny Cash, Simon and Garfunkel, the Pogues); but The Devil Went Down To Georgia is new to me, as is that particular Queen song. Thank you!

Morthoron the Dark Elf said...

Thanks for stopping in, Clodia!

I still say the Devil won the duel against Johnny in the fiddling contest. But I guess he got points taken off for having the demonic accompaniment.

Randy said...

Oh yes -- the Edmund Fitzgerald! That song makes the hairs on my neck stand up. All except the part where he says something about how "the say she'd have made Whitefish Bay . . ." I know it had to rhyme, but it was Whitefish Point she needed to make. Whitefish Bay is a rich folks' suburb of Milwaukee. It always makes me go huh?

May I mention two other ballads of note? Bobbie Gentry's Ode to Billie Joe (who jumped off the Tallahatchee bridge, although we never learn why) and Pentangle's Cruel Sister, which is a supernatural revenge murder ballad in the classic tradition.

Morthoron the Dark Elf said...

Another anomaly in "Edmund Fitzgerald" is when Lightfoot refers to a "Maritime Sailors' Cathedral". As anyone in the Detroit area can tell you, it is called simply "Mariners' Church".