This Week in Elder News: 14 March 2009
Xtreme Compensation, Xtreme Rage

ELDER MUSIC: Story Songs

category_bug_eldermusic One of the great pleasures in life is a good story, and there are hundreds, maybe thousands of them told in song. Some of today's collection are so familiar you may, like me, know every word by heart. That doesn't mean I don't love to hear them again and again. Sometimes in an evening, I put on the headphones, crank up the volume, make sure all the windows are closed so no one can hear my off-key voice and sing along as loud as I want.

In the 1960s, songwriters had a penchant for long, long stories. The granddaddy of them all is, of course, Alice's Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie. [18:36 minutes]

Twenty-five years ago or so, a friend found himself in the small town of Clear Lake, Iowa. He was a man who knew what is important in life and he sent me a postcard from there with the note,

“This is where Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper performed the night before they died when their plane went down on February 3, 1959. You should know this.”

That was, of course, “the day the music died” (50 years ago last month) that Don McLean wrote and sang about in American Pie. [8:36 minutes]

Forty-two years after Ode to Billie Joe was released, speculation still reigns as to the reason Billie Joe McAllister “jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge,” and singer/writer Bobbie Gentry has never said why. This is Gentry singing the story song on The Smothers Brothers Show. [4:49 minutes]

Who else but Shel Silverstein could have written a song as odd and wonderful as A Boy Named Sue. It was a huge hit for Johnny Cash in 1969 and this is the original live performance at San Quentin Prison in California that was recorded by Granada Television. [3:07 minutes]

Big Bad John, “who stood six-foot-six and weighed 245,” is a folk hero who met a sad end in the mine where he worked. It was a hit for Jimmy Dean who sings it here. [3:06 minutes]

Hoyt Axton wrote a bunch of story songs during his career. He probably came by his talent through his mother, Mae Axton, who co-wrote Elvis Presley's first major hit, Heartbreak Hotel. Della and the Dealer is a song about a murder in Tucson and also about a cat named Kalamazoo. [3:18 minutes]

Dave Van Ronk, who was a friend of mine, really is (and rightly so) a musical legend - a brilliant guitar picker and interpreter of blues, folk, jazz, old English ballades and much more. I fondly remember him for our frequent evenings playing cards with friends at his apartment on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village. He was the worst Hearts player I ever knew and no matter how much we played, he never got any better. But his enthusiasm for the game never waned.

Stackerlee (also known as Stagger Lee and several other spellings) has been recorded hundreds of times. Van Ronk's version is a favorite. At the top of this video, he explains how he came to know the song. [5:49 minutes]

Frankie and Johnny, about a woman who shoots her man because “he done her wrong,” has been around since before the dawn of the 20th century. I'd intended to find a version by someone like Johnny Cash, Hoyt Axton or even Lena Horne. But I came across this clip from the 1956 movie, Meet Me in St. Louis sung by Sammy Davis, Jr. as the backdrop to a dance by Cyd Charisse. It is dated in so many ways and marvelous. [6:50 minutes]

I've told the story here before about how, as young as five years old, I listened again and again to an album my parents owned titled Manhattan Tower which I believe began my love affair with New York City 20-odd years before I finally got there.

This is a later re-recording of the suite that was originally released in 1946, and it has been shortened to a third of its length which loses a whole lot of good stuff from the middle. Too bad. It is arranged and produced by the composer, Gordon Jenkins, and is the story of a young man who goes to New York to make his mark. [6:57 minutes]


I've just unwrapped a gift, and it turned my morning inside-out in an amazingly upside-down sort of way! Thank you a million times over for taking me back to some really fun times, when all music was a story, and everyone knew the words.

Good ones. And don't forget Ballad of Pancho and Lefty by Townes van Zandt or Willy Nelson or The Road Goes On Forever by Robert Earl Keen.

BTW, I am typing this on my new tiny ASUS netbook which I got a few days ago, based (partly) on your review.

Thank you for reminding me of this music genre, and one of my favorites from my college days, "Taxi" by Harry Chapin. Just the thought of that album (which I still have) brings back memories.

If you ever get the chance to hear the George Melly version of Frankie and Johnny then do so - true to the song, but also true to George and very funny. It is on a CD also called Frankie and Johnny.

I don't remember some of these. I had never heard of DELLA THE DEALER about a Tucson murder. Since I have lived here for over 40 years that seems strange. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. A dog named Jake and a cat named Kalamazoo is catchy.

Because I go back further than most of your readers my memory is a bit different. My favorite song that tells a story is BEGIN THE BEGUINE by Cole Porter. It's the story of a lost love and a magical night on a tropical shore. Cole paints a picture and you can almost hear the band and see the palms swaying. Too bad music no longer tells stories like that.

Marty Robbins singing "El Paso" is a favorite of mine.

Here's a link to him singing it in 1978:

El Paso

One of my favorite story songs is "Long Black Veil."

Don't miss a chance to see Arlo Guthrie. I can just about guarantee that you leave with a smile on your face after an evening of singing, storytelling, and consciousness-raising.

Since I married a New Yorker, we have had Manhattan Tower since the early days of our marriage. You've reminded me that we haven't heard it in years - and I must get it out and play it!

A wonderful post! That vid of Johnny Cash at San Quentin is historic.
Don't know if you remember advising me to order Manhattan Tower about two years ago, but I did and I love it. That was before I began blogging, and I do believe your blog was the first I ever read....and I really appreciated that you replied to my questions/comments then. You have undoubtedly spurred many of us on to starting/maintaining our own blogs. Thanks so much, Ronni!

I was always partial to Paul Stookey's Talking Candy Bar Blues which probably only shows how "preverted" my sense of humor is.

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