Words, when hitched to a good tune, were what turned me into a music nut and I admire songcraft above almost anything in this world. This is not to say I don’t like a good groove – of course I do, and the stack of King Sunny Ade LPs currently on rotation to celebrate the summer sunshine proves it, because I still don’t understand a word of Yoruba.
Story songs in particular hold a special place in my heart. I blame Bob Dylan. My wife blames Bob Dylan too... for just about everything. I bought my first copy of Blood on the Tracks when I was fifteen, having been captivated by the narrative of Tangled Up in Blue, which I’d heard on the radio one dismal Sunday afternoon. Each of the album’s tracks was like a mini movie, from the unspooling western of Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts to Simple Twist of Fate which, people say, recounts the story of Dylan’s love affair with Joan Baez. It’s much less schmaltzy than Baez’s own telling of their story, Diamonds & Rust, which was on a mixtape once given to me by a girlfriend, at a time when we were young and foolish enough to cast ourselves as those Greenwich Village troubadours.
Country songs, like their folk antecedents, often tell everyday tales and it’s this emphasis on easily relatable storytelling that helps explain the growing popularity of country music and Americana in the UK. Dolly Parton, a consummate songwriter, is the mistress of economy with her sad tale The Bridge, whereas James McMurtry crams in the detail for sprawling country-rock chugger Choctaw Bingo. Bobbie Gentry had a movie made of her most famous song, Ode to Billie Joe, but I prefer her rags-to-riches belter, Fancy, and Sweet Peony – one of the best ever adultery songs.
So far, so tragic, but even country stars can see the funny side. The Man in Black cracks a smile with One Piece at a Time – a ridiculous tale of petty thieving while working on a car assembly line. Jeannie C. Riley’s version of Tom Hall’s Harper Valley PTA unveils small-town hypocrisy and inspired both a film and a TV series.
Fiction or non-fiction, take your pick. Who cares whether Loudon Wainwright III’s karmic Red Guitar is autobiographical or not, but Amy Winehouse’s You Know I’m No Good is too specific not to be. Courtney Barnett’s Avant Gardener is all true, apart from the bit where she’s given adrenaline straight to the heart, which was borrowed from Pulp Fiction. Courtney was just given a shot in the top of her thigh.
I’m no authority on hip hop despite having lived through several years of it booming down from our elder son’s bedroom, but who isn’t interested in stories from the street? Ice Cube swaggers lazily through his idea of a perfect day in It Was a Good Day – a day so good that he doesn’t have to use his AK! More my thing is A Tribe Called Quest’s 8 Million Stories, where everything that could go wrong does go wrong, like a hip hop version of the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man.
Back on this side of the pond, Squeeze’s kitchen-sink drama Up the Junction tells of the 1970s disappointments that replaced the pervasive optimism of the 1960s –personified by Terry and Julie in The Kinks’ genius Waterloo Sunset. To bring us bang up to date, Ren, (who hit a nerve with Hi Ren, in which he lays bare the inner turmoil of his mental health), exposes the harsh realities of broken Britain in Violet’s Tale, which doesn’t pull any punches in recounting the horrors of domestic abuse.
Essentially there are story songs that are the musical equivalent of every literary or cinematic genre, though unsurprisingly love songs make up the bulk.
So if historical fiction is your thing, I heartily recommend Nick Harper’s ribald gallop through The Field of the Cloth of Gold. And the Band’s Acadian Driftwood educated me about the origins of Louisiana’s Cajuns – a consequence of the exile of the Acadians during Le Grand Dérangement.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ Jubilee Street is Brighton rock noir that builds and builds. For something more surreal try Robyn Hitchcock’s Soft Boys classic Underwater Moonlight – an engaging psychedelic pop nugget featuring a giant squid. The supernatural can be encountered in Grant Lee Buffalo’s voodoo tale Dixie Drug Store and in many folk songs. Fairport Convention’s Tam Lin and Martin Carthy’s The Devil and the Feathery Wife are two, the latter a John Peel favourite, which he’d sometimes slip in amongst the post-punk 45s. For a dream song, I can think of none quirkier than Frida Kahlo’s Visit to the Tay Bridge Bar written by Michael Marra.
Sings a Very Tall Tale is an unashamedly popularist playlist that will hopefully entertain you during your summer holiday as you wonder if you feel like cooking, or for when you simply can’t be arsed to open any of the books in the pile you’ve been meaning to read all year.