Natterings: My Personal Favorite Storytelling Songs

by Duke Egbert

Time for a history lesson.

Once upon a time nice people with guitars actually wrote songs with literary content. They told stories about specific events, fictional or real, that resonated with the artists. (There was another subgenre of music that involved portraits of people. We’ll get into that later.)

Nowadays, I’m not sure we have any pop stars who can spell resonated.

But I know, since you are a discerning music fan who is reading the Daily Vault instead of (*gag*) Pitchfork, that you want to broaden your musical horizons. You want to grow. You want to learn. You want to listen to old peoples’ music. Well, gang, I am here to do you a service. Here, in a specific order, are my favorite Storytelling Songs.

(Warning: these songs are rarely, if ever, happy. They involve loss, death, and heartbreak. A steady diet of them is only for the truly devoted, and should usually be paired with a fuzzy throw blanket and eating ice cream directly from the carton.)

10. “The River” – Bruce Springsteen

Like Harry Chapin, there are so damn many Springsteen songs that could go here. But in the end I went with this bitter and hollow tale of a life that somehow went wrong. I mean …

“Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don't come true
Or is it something worse…”

I mean – DAMN.

9. “Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine” – Tom T Hall

Tom T Hall never quite fit in. He was a country artist, but he could veer into folk, political commentary, and humor; he said once he was “not well liked” by the Nashville establishment. This was despite writing “Harper Valley PTA”, a phenomenally popular song which also became a movie and TV series, and being a member of the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. “Old Dogs” is about a small, tired moment in an airport bar when a man finds a piece of wisdom he can keep.

8. & 7. “A Better Place To Be” and “Bummer” – Harry Chapin

There are so damn many Chapin songs I could have put on here. I ended up being unable to decide between “Better Place”, the soft and warm tale of a man who finds love by talking about finding love (you have to listen to it)…

…and “Bummer”, a bitter and bleak story about a man from the ghetto who is unable to escape the cycle of violence and death despite one shining moment of heroism and glory. Of course, I could have also mentioned “Sniper”, “30,000 Pounds of Bananas”, “Cat’s In The Cradle”…oh, hell. Just go listen to Chapin’s greatest hits album. And a caveat; unlike most artists, he was better live. His studio material is overproduced and a little forced; his live albums are simple and joyous.

6. “Choctaw Bingo” – James McMurtry

You know, a lot of these songs are long. McMurtry’s opus about a family reunion for the world’s most dysfunctional family clocks in at eight minutes, and it’s worth every second. Uncle Slayton is a bad man (“You know he had to leave Texas but he won't say why…”) and his brood are descending on his farm in Oklahoma for guns, drinking, and possible sex with second cousins. This is one of the few songs on this list that I can say is funny, but there’s a dark, greasy underbelly to it that makes it a masterpiece.

5. “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train” – Guy Clark

This is about growth, and loss, and the inevitable punch in the face from time. The story of a young man and an older one (it could be his grandfather; Clark never makes that clear), this is a bittersweet tribute to the elders that we rarely honor.

4. “Denmark 1943” – Fred Small

One of the few songs that makes me cry. “Denmark” is about the amazing effort the Danes did to deliver every Jew in the country to neutral Sweden before they could be transported to concentration camps. “We’re not heroes or martyrs, so say the Danes, we were just lookin’ after our own…”
Fred Small is an interesting story in and of itself. He produced seven excellent albums full of incisive social commentary and a touch of, dare I call it, wacky humor – then was called to the Unitarian ministry and now does social justice and climate activism within the church.

3. “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels)” – Jim Croce

Screw wondering what Jimi Hendrix or Amy Winehouse might have produced had they lived. I want to hear what the astonishingly talented Croce might have come up with if he hadn’t died in a plan crash in 1973. “Operator” was one of the first two songs he offered to record companies; some idiot said it wasn’t “strong enough” (this moron was the spiritual heir of the guy at Decca who turned down the Beatles).  “Operator” tells of a man whose heart is shattered, and yet is still trying to maintain some sense of dignity and self-worth. Hint: he’s failing.

2. “Tuscon Arizona (Gazette)” – Dan Fogelberg

A little-known song (even Dan’s fans don’t always recognize its genius) from Fogelberg’s Windows And Walls album, this one’s a heartbreaker. A Greek tragedy set to Spanish guitar, this is a tale of an inevitable fall and violent end. It’s the musical equivalent of a slow-motion train wreck; you can see what’s coming, and you can’t stop it, and it’s going to be bloody. Back when I could still play guitar (arthritis is a bitch), this was the song I was proudest of being able to play.


And before we announce number one, our Honorable Mentions:
            “’52 Ford” – Murder by Death

            “Springsteen” – Eric Church

            “Santo Domingo” – Phil Ochs

            “The Queen and The Soldier” – Suzanne Vega


1. “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” – Gordon Lightfoot


This… well, dammit, it’s almost a eulogy… opus about a deadly sinking on Lake Superior in November of 1975 is probably the most widely heard song on this list. So why is it number one? Simple. They still play it on the radio every November 10. It has been covered more times than Paris Hilton. It is a concise, well-written, and moving tribute to the 29 men who lost their lives when the “Big Fitz” went down in hurricane-force winds. It has moved beyond a simple song into a cultural meme. Gordon Lightfoot nailed it.

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