Tuesday, November 18

Songs as Stories

I've been thinking about songs as stories a lot lately and since it is Music week on Teen Fiction Cafe, I thought it would be the perfect time to blog about it. I've always loved a song that tells a story. I know most songs do in a vague, emotional way, but I'm talking about the kind of songs where you can literally picture the characters like you do when you are reading a book.

I was exposed to those songs at a very early age and even though I really only remember them as background noise, they definitely influenced me subconsciously. When I was young, my parents listened to a lot of folk music when I was little, so I grew up on songs by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, and others. Their songs often told stories about people who worked hard to get by or who were trying to bring change to the world. Admittedly, as I grew up and started discovering my own music, those artists didn't really interest me. Like my character, Emily from I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, I usually searched for music that was loud. One big exception was Johnny Cash.

I had a really cool teacher in college, Joe Meno (who some of you might know for his books like Hairstyles of Damned), who brought a boombox and a bunch of Johnny Cash CDs into our creative writing class one day. He wanted us to listen to the stories in the songs and think about music as a form of storytelling. After all, before the printing press and all of that, stories were often passed along as ballads. I wrote in my journal furiously during that class because it helped me figure out something very important about a novel idea I had that would become my second novel, Ballads of Suburbia (which is already available for pre-order on Amazon, squee!). I realized that the Johnny Cash songs that Joe was playing had something in common with a couple punks songs I really liked, namely "Story of My Life" by Social Distortion and "The Young Crazed Peeling" by The Distillers. They told the story of the most important moment (or moments) of someone's life (perhaps a real person, perhaps a character). I decided to do work that concept into Ballads of Suburbia. Each of my characters writes their ballad, or the defining moment of their life, in a notebook. Their ballads aren't songs though they all are introduced by lyrics that speak to the character and remind them of their story.

I'm about to start revisions on Ballads of Suburbia, which may be one reason I'm re-obsessed with songs that tell stories. But the other reason is a song called "Anna is a Stool Pigeon" by Tom Gabel, the lead singer of Against Me! who just put out a solo ep called Heart Burns. I've been listening to the song over and over again. It's based on the true story of activist Eric McDavid and I might just have to share the song with my parents because it likes the punk version of the folk songs they raised me with. Here's a clip of Tom performing it at my local radio station Q101:

This is the link to the video of the song, but be forewarned, the lyrics in this version are not "radio friendly."

As for some other story songs I like, Against Me! has a song called "Thrash Unreal" that weaves the story of a very interesting and sad female character. I have no doubt it will inspire me to write a story someday. Also, Nirvana is my favorite band and even though Kurt Cobain is known for writing lyrics that are hard to understand and interpret, he wrote one of my favorite story songs, "Polly," which is based on the true story of a girl from Tacoma, Washington who was kidnapped and escaped her captors. Their song "Paper Cuts" is also based on a newspaper article that Cobain read and the song "Scentless Apprentice" is basically a book report on the novel Perfume by Patrick Suskind. It's interesting to think of Kurt Cobain being inspired by books and newspaper articles to write his songs, when I'm inspired by music and newspaper articles to write my books!

What about you, what are some of your favorite songs that tell a story that is really vivid or resonates with you?


Sara Hantz said...

Son of a Preacher Man by Dusty Springfield I love.

Kim Culbertson said...

Stephanie - awesome blog entry. Loved it. I've been listening to Bruce Springsteen a bunch lately, speaking of a storyteller who happens to write songs, mostly a bunch of his older stuff. I love his whole Devils and Dust album...so much heart in it. I'm heading over to Amazon after this to pre-order your book! Congrats!
Smiles, Kim
author, "Songs for a Teenage Nomad"

Sara said...

Three Wooden Crosses by Randy Travis really portrays a story and makes you really think about it.


The Golfing Librarian said...

My 4 faves:
1. Springteen
2. Dylan, especially "the Ballad of Hollis Brown". The imagery has been etched into the back of my skull since the first time I heard it.
3. Loudon Wainwright III
4. Richard Thompson, highly under rated songwriter!

BTW, Go Noles!

Florida State! Florida State! Florida State! WHOO!

Wendy Toliver said...

Piano Man by Billy Joel, oldies Teensy Weensy Yellow Polka Dot Bikini and When I Was Seventeen, Pearl Jam has a few ... Great post, Steph!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Great songs, everyone!!! I love the variety! And Kim, thanks for pre-ordering :)

Alyson Noel said...

LUSH LIFE written by Billy Strayhorn and sung by Johnny Hartman is definitely an all time favorite of mine, it always gives me chills. Oh, and another jazz great- SPRING CAN REALLY HANG YOU UP THE MOST is amazing. Other story songs that come to mind are: Bob Dylan- Hurricane, David Bowie- Major Tom, Pearl Jam- Black, Eagles- Hotel California,anything by Courtney Love, Nirvana, Springsteen, and many more!

Awesome post Stephanie-- and congrats on BALLADS OF SUBURBIA-- it sounds great!

Gerb said...

Fast Car by Tracy Chapman.

And - since I lived in the Great Lakes Region - The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot.

Oh! And all the Tolkein-inspired Led Zeppelin songs.

Alyson Noel said...

Oh good one's Gerb! I second all of Gerb's!!

Melissa Walker said...

Great post. I had a friend who taught English in Russia, and he did it mainly with song lyrics. When I visited, one of his students asked if I'd transcribe the words to Eminem's STAN for him. I did. Man, that is one LONG song.

Storytellers I love: Scenes from an Italian Restaurant by B Joel (though I'm not quite a fan otherwise), I don't like Mondays by the Boomtown Rats, and Leader of the Pack!

Amanda Ashby said...

Songwriting is such an amazing skill to be able to reduce a whole story into a few short minutes. Hurricane by Bob Dylan is pretty special and David Bowie always manages to tell me a story in all of his songs.

When I wrote Halo I listened to 'How to be Dead' by Snow Patrol over and over again. I have no idea the story behind the song but I just love it.

Little Willow said...

I am _very_ into storytelling songs. I love listening to them, singing along, and writing my own. I'm a fan of well-told stories in any form - music, dance, film, TV, stage plays - and I delight in any opportunity to be a part of such stories or share my own. As far as modern singer/songwriters go, I enjoy and highly recommend Duncan Sheik and Jonatha Brooke.

Little Willow said...

P.S. If you like Woody Guthrie, then you HAVE to check out Jonatha Brooke's new album, The Works, because all of the lyrics are pulled from Woody's archives, with new music (and vocals) by Jonatha! :)