I love a good sad story. And if you somehow combine elements of bittersweet, regret and death, I’m even more likely to get drawn in.
Country music songwriters are skilled at taking us through an entire lifetime in about three and a half minutes. It’s not always an enjoyable experience, as in the incredibly sad “Tell Me I Was Dreaming” by Travis Tritt, but sometimes, you hear a song that has the perfect mix of story and hook. Great examples include “She’s in Love With the Boy” by Trisha Yearwood, and both “Fancy” and “Is There Life Out There?” by Reba McEntire.
But my favorite story-songs are much more plaintive and retrospective. I want to be left devastated after the last note.
This week, I want to introduce you to a few excellent (in my opinion) story-songs. They focus on mostly the folk genre, but each relies heavily on the narrative with minimal instrumentation. So enjoy the music, but pay close attention to the lyrics. There’s a lesson to glean from each.
What are your favorite story-songs? Let me know in the comments below.
Bill Morrissey, “Birches”
This song almost makes me cry each time I hear it. The story opens with a couple sitting together in a living room. The woman yearns for the man to let loose a little bit, enjoy a glass of wine and, as we understand, help break the monotony of the relationship. The title refers to the way birch wood burns in a fire: hot and quickly. This song is perfect, in my opinion.
Richard Thompson, “Woods of Darney”
Darney is a densely wooded area in northeastern France. Thompson’s song is set during World War I and follows the story of a messenger who finds a photograph of a woman in a dead corporal’s pocket. Of course, he falls in love with the woman in the photograph. But is it appropriate to pursue her? Regardless, it makes for a great story-song. How about that guitar fill?
Dave Alvin, “King of California”
It’s the classic trope of a man who heads west for the California Gold Rush. In Alvin’s song, a man is singing to his girlfriend about how he’s leaving her now-he’s got gold to find-but that he’s going to come back as the “King of California.” Spoiler alert: It doesn’t go well for him.
Josh Ritter, “Another New World”
I’ve always been fascinated by the fateful journeys to find “new worlds” on earth, especially those set in the icy north. Josh Ritter is one of my favorite contemporary songwriters. He is channeling whatever Bob Dylan channeled back in the mid-’60s, but with Ritter, you also get literate comprehension as opposed to, say, “Desolation Row.” This song tells the story of a failed exploratory journey through the icy Northwest Passage. It’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.
Anais Mitchell, “Shepherd”
Anais Mitchell’s 2012 album “Young Man in America” is a songwriting clinic that has largely been forgotten since its release. Mitchell, the daughter of novelist Don Mitchell, is a storyteller first and songwriter second. Her voice is the perfect vehicle for songs about righteousness and tragedy. “Shepherd” is possibly the saddest song you’ll hear. It’s about, you guessed it, a shepherd whose wife goes into labor just as he’s about to go cut the hay (their only source of income) before a storm. She tells him to go. He hesitates but obliges. You know how this ends.
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