Storytelling in Songs

“Ode to Billy Joe” is one of the most popular and mysterious stories told in song. It’s Bobbie Gentry’s sad tale about Billy Joe McAllister, who jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Here’s the verse that has caused much speculation:

 Mama said to me, “Child what’s happened to your appetite? 

 I been cookin’ all mornin’ and you haven’t touched a single bite 

That nice young preacher Brother Taylor dropped by today 

Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh by the way, 

He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge 

And she and Billie Joe was throwin’ somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”      

What did they throw off that bridge? Some say it was an aborted baby. Or maybe a draft card (the song was recorded in 1967). And why did Billy Joe jump off the bridge?

Stories aren’t written just on paper or told orally. They’re sung, too, and they’ve been around for centuries accompanied by harp in earlier times and, in later years, by guitar (mainly), piano, fiddle, or occasionally mandolin, lute or other stringed instruments.

Tricia Walker, Director of Delta Music Institute

Tricia Walker, Director of Delta Music Institute

In February 2012 I went to the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration entitled “Legends, Lore, and Literature: Storytelling in the South.”  There I heard Tricia Walker, director of the Delta Music Institute at Delta State University and Davis Raines, a Nashville singer and songwriter, discuss “The Melodic Narrative in American Country Music.” The next day, at lunch at The Carriage House at the elegant mid-19th century Stanton Hall, Walker sang for us – storytelling in song.

I asked Tricia recently what influenced her passion for storytelling in song. She said, “As a daughter of the South, the oral tradition is part of my history. Hearing family elders share stories of their youth and their times, hearing about townsfolk and eccentric characters make for a rich childhood. My mother was a small-town newspaper editor, so I gained a great deal reading stories from the local communities that were printed in our weekly paper. All of that background began to find a place in my songwriting. I love story songs. I like to be transported in three minutes to another time and place or to some place very familiar in my own heart and experience.”

She and Heather Forest, a Huntingdon, N.Y.-based songwriter and singer who holds storytelling concerts and storytelling skills workshops, said that the history of storytelling in song is ancient. “From my own experience developing long story works,” said Forest, “I guess that epic length memorized tales were easier to pass on with memory helping devices such as rhyme, rhythm, meter, and refrains.”

Heather Forest,  singer-songwriter

Heather Forest,

In 1850 British archeologists found one of the earliest surviving epic poems – the Epic of Gilgamesh on cuneiform tablets containing the story of Gilgamesh, a king who ruled the city of Uruk in the 26th century BCE. The epic tales of The Iliad (also called the “Song of Ilium”) and The Odyssey by Homer were sung. The Iliad has more than 15,000 lines recited in dactylic hexameter. Imagine memorizing that!

Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon saga about the hero Beowulf, who slays the monster Grendel, was sung in the halls and courts of Saxon England. This tale uses alliterative verse as a memory device. “Lots of words with the same beginning consonant shape its form,” said Forest.

This and other epic tales of romance, historic events, and heroism were sung in the mead halls and taverns of the British Isles by bards accompanied by a harp, and by troubadours in France, Spain, and Italy. Synonyms include minstrel, jongleur, balladeer, and trouver, not to mention poet and songster. Tragic romances include Tristan and Iseult (Isolde), which was made popular in the 12th century through French medieval poetry but was inspired by Celtic legends. It is about the love affair between a Cornish knight (Tristan) and an Irish princess (Iseult), who is betrothed to Tristan’s uncle, King Mark. It’s one of my favorite stories, romantic that I am.

I have a recording of Tristan and Iseult, as well as one of Elizabethan ballads and theater music with songs including “Paggington’s Pound” about the curse of cutpurses, and “Lord Willoughbie’s Welcome Home” about the brave Lord Willoughby leading his army in battle in Flanders. Here’s the verse where the lord rallies his men:

 “Stand to it, noble Pike-men,

 and look you round about;

And shoot you right you bow-men,

and we will keep them out,

You Musket and Calliver men,

do you prove true to me,

I’ll be the foremost man in fight,”

says brave Lord Willoughby.

The tradition moved over to America along with the wonderful “Barbara Allen” tragic ballad and continued with folk songs like “Tom Dooley,” based on the 1866 murder of a woman in North Carolina, and “The Fox” story about the fox who steals a gray goose, and on to country music which often has titles that tell a story (“I Changed Her Oil, She Changed My Life” orMy Wife Ran Off With My Best Friend, And I Sure Do Miss Him”) and rock and roll/country rock, such as Billy Joel’s “Ballad of Billy the Kid” andCaptain Jack” and Carole King’s “Tapestry” and “Smackwater Jack.”

"The End of the Song" (Tristan and Isolde)  by Edmund Leighton

“The End of the Song” (Tristan and Isolde)
by Edmund Leighton

The ancients entertained and passed on tales of heroism, epic events, and tragic romances, as we do today. I love these songs. They can make me happy, like the cutpurse or fox songs, or sad, like Eric Bogle’s World War I ballads. When I asked Walker what moves a songwriter to tell a story – grief, political issues, joy, love, she answered, “All of the above. Everything in the universe is reflective of a story. The Bible is God’s great story, so it stands to reason that universal emotions will be found in countless stories across the generations.”

Some of my own favorites include “By the Banks of the Ohio,” which tells about the chilling murder of a young woman by her spurned lover; “Piano Man,” Billy Joel’s tale of a piano man singing about his admirers in a bar; “Eleanor Rigby,” a depressing story by Paul McCartney and John Lennon about lonely people; “Streets of Laredo,” also known as “The Cowboy’s Lament,” a ballad about a dying cowboy; “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and “No Man’s Land,” both by Eric Bogle about soldiers in World War I.

Do you enjoy songs that tell stories? What are your favorites

One thought on “Storytelling in Songs

  1. I’d offer Hallelujah … The Leonard Cohen song, especially if it’s sung by k.d. Lang. There are numerous interpretations, as there should be, some religious, some sexual, ….
    “well, it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
    The minor fall, the major lift…”
    Don’t get me started. It’ll be in my head all day.

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