We’ll start with Exhibit A:
My daddy left home when I was three
And he didn’t leave much to ma and me
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze.
Now, I don’t blame him cause he run and hid
But the meanest thing that he ever did
Was before he left, he went and named me “Sue.”
— “A Boy Named Sue”, written by Shel Silverstein, sung by Johnny Cash
And here’s Exhibit B:
Everyone considered him the coward of the county.
He’d never stood one single time to prove the county wrong.
His mama named him Tommy, the folks just called him yellow,
But something always told me they were reading Tommy wrong.
— “Coward of the County”, written by Roger Bowling and Billy Ed Wheeler, performed by Kenny Rogers
Now, what’s going through your mind as you read these lyrics? If you know the songs at all, it’s the stories they go on to tell. The boy Sue is forced to grow up “quick and mean” because of his name, and with a sore-headed grudge against the man who gave it to him; but when he finally meets up with that man… And Tommy, or “Yellow” as everyone calls him (the colourblind fools), promises his dying daddy to always walk away from trouble if he can; but then one day the Gatlin boys catch his girl Becky on her own…
“A Boy Named Sue” came out in 1969, “Coward of the County” in 1979, but both were played pretty frequently on Radio 2 in the early 80s (when I used to listen to it before walking to school). Or at least they seemed to be played pretty frequently. Probably, they were played just as often as any other songs at the time, it’s just these two went on playing in my head. I thought about those songs. Particularly that line from “Coward of the County”:
They took turns at Becky…. n’ there were three of them!
They took turns turns at Becky? God, what did that mean? It didn’t mean — surely — not on Radio 2?!? I would have been about 8 or 9 at the time; I knew what it meant, but I didn’t want to know what it meant. Because of that line, whenever “Coward of the County” came on, I couldn’t help but listen. First I had to hear the line, how awful it was, then hear the story to the end, to try and get rid of the awfulness. I still thought Tommy finally overcoming his pacifist scruples to slug the Gatlin boys was a little late for poor Becky, but at least it was some resolution. It at least seemed a little bit heroic on his part. (If also un-PC. Nowadays, Becky would lay hold of a pitchfork and do those Gatlins in the goolies. And deservedly so.)
But the point is the song had a pretty powerful effect on me. And the reason for its effect is that it was telling a story. Stories just have a primal power, and stories in songs are among the most compressed examples of storytelling. The only types of stories which are more compressed that I can think of are jokes and anecdotes. And, at least as far as jokes and songs are concerned, compressing the story into a shorter space (fewer words) seems to increase its punching power accordingly. (Anecdotes less so. But the very word “anecdote” always reminds me of Steve Martin’s outburst to John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, having listened to him drawling on pointlessly for hours: “You know everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You’re a miracle! Your stories have NONE of that. … And by the way, you know, when you’re telling these little stories? Here’s a good idea — have a POINT. It makes it SO much more interesting for the listener!” (See imdb for the full quote.) It’s the frustration he feels that proves the power of anecdotes, in this instance through their lack of story.)
There’s something about a song which contains even a hint of a story that compels you to listen. I’ve heard “Coward of the County” countless times, but if I hear it, I still have to listen. Same goes for “A Boy Named Sue”, and the same goes for any number of others. Even ones I don’t particularly like as music. As in, “The Devil went down to Georgia, he was looking for a soul to steal.” Argh! Endless fiddling! But it’s got a story. Or “The bravest animals in the land are Captain Beaky and his band…” Funny the first time, just slightly irritating the tenth — but still, you can’t help but listen.
And that’s the point. Once the story starts, you can’t help being drawn in. You have to listen all the way to the end. Even if you know what’s going to happen. Especially if you know what’s going to happen. There’s some weird combination of the way the music forces the story to progress at a steady, even pace, and how you, as listener, just need to hear those events related one more time, in the same order, in the same manner, with the same outcome.
I suppose it comes down to suspense. Suspense, as Alfred Hitchcock was always fond of pointing out, is not about wondering what’s going to happen next, but knowing what’s going to happen next and being forced to wait to have it confirmed. You see a mad axeman hiding down an alley and the hero’s disposable sidekick walking towards him. You know what’s going to happen, so why watch? But you have to. Every slow-mo step. And it’s the same with songs. You know Johnny’s going to out-fiddle the Devil, but each time you’ve got to listen.
There’s a dark side to all this. Story songs which aren’t proper stories. Those are the worst. They have enough of a story to make you listen, but don’t deliver the goods. All too often the denouement of the story is summed up in one line, and it’s just not clear enough, or it’s too compressed (after all, it’s either fit the end of the story into one line or add a whole extra verse, and we’ve only got three minutes of radio time). This is particularly frustrating if you’re an 8 or 9-year old boy who can’t be sure that what the adults are implying is what he thinks they’re implying. I could never quite be sure why “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge“; it all sounded rather mysterious and grownup, but also, I suspected, a bit groundless. And ZZ Top’s “Master of Sparks“? I still don’t know what happens in that song! Just what is the “Master of Sparks”? A rocket? A plane? Does the narrator die? Then how come he’s singing? Just play the damn guitar, Billy Gibbons, and I’ll forgive you anything!
Anyway. The power of stories in songs isn’t just something I felt when I was 8 or 9. I still can’t hear the start of Fairport Convention’s “Matty Groves” without stopping to listen to the whole thing. And it’s over eight minutes long! And I already know what happens!
(Fist in mouth.) Argh!