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Top 10 Songs That Tell A Story

VO: Matt Campbell
Script written by Selina Antonucci Just like your favorite book, these songs take you on a trip in someone else shoes. Join WatchMojo.com as we count down the Top 10 Songs That Tell A Story. For this list, we're looking at songs that lyrically tell a story from verse to verse. Special thanks to our user Jcwheeler96 for submitting the idea using our interactive suggestion tool at WatchMojo.comsuggest
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Transcript
Script written by Selina Antonucci

Top 10 Songs that Tell a Story


Just like your favorite book, these songs take you on a trip in someone else's shoes. Welcome to WatchMojo.com and today we will be counting down the Top 10 Songs That Tell A Story.

For this list, we’re looking at songs that lyrically tell a story from verse to verse. Songs with abstract concepts that are open to interpretation like Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” won’t be featured in this list. The same goes for theme songs, so our apologies to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

#10: “A Boy Named Sue” (1969)
Johnny Cash

It’s one thing to hate your old man for abandoning you but to name a boy “Sue” before hitting the road? You can imagine what the years of embarrassment would do to your self-esteem? A old guitar and a bottle of booze are only going to go so far... A bitter and tough Sue vows to find the author of his misery and kill that poker playing snake dead. When Sue finally encounters his father, all hell breaks loose. Even though revenge can be pretty satisfying, the Man in Black’s great storytelling- and barely controlled laughter- makes this quest for vengeance bittersweet.

#9: “Cat’s in the Cradle” (1974)
Harry Chapin

Don’t be fooled by the whimsical tune, there’s no happy ending here. Cat’s in the Cradle is a cautionary tale of what happens when a distant father figure is too busy to spend time with his son. The dynamic changes when the son gets older and is preoccupied with his own life to catch up with his old man. Father learns too late that his son made good on his promise to be just like him. It just goes to show that even if dad sticks around, and doesn't give his son a girl's name, the relationship will fail if there’s no emotional investment.

#8: “The General” (1998)
Dispatch

Inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand”, this anti-war song is about a seasoned general who has an epiphany of the futility of war and encourages his men to abandon the fight. Even though it’s set in the American Civil War, the song’s themes of the value and cost of life- especially lives that are too young to have fully lived- resonates today. The track’s lyrical point of view from the side of the general rather than his troops makes that message even weightier. This song is a great listen for not only its ideas but also for that opening hook and funky rhythm.

#7: “Carolina Drama” (2008)
The Raconteurs

This is not your typical retelling of a father-son relationship. In fact, we’re not quite sure who the dad is in this Southern gothic. Jack White croons about a boy named Billy that wakes up to a confrontation between his mom’s abusive boyfriend and an old preacher. Believing the preacher to be his father, Billy challenges the boyfriend to a duel and ends up killing him with a glass milk bottle to the face. Even though the lyrics are straightforward, there are some loose ends to this tale like why Billy’s younger brother shows up at the end with a milkman’s hat and a bottle of gin...

#6: “Hurricane” (1975)
Bob Dylan

Similar to a film script, “Hurricane” is a protest of the real events surrounding the arrest of boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter who was imprisoned for a triple homicide he didn’t commit. Dylan doesn’t mince words and calls the trial and conviction racially motivated—the law wanting to find a scapegoat and find so-called justice even if that meant putting an innocent black man behind bars. The song has been revised over the years to avoid lawsuits from witnesses of the actual event, yet it still remains controversial. The success of the song garnered public support for Carter’s defense and is still relevant to this day.

#5: “Spanish Train” (1975)
Chris de Burgh

This song’s ominous tone draws you in right from the start and Chris de Burgh’s skill as a storyteller captures the imagination. A classic tale of good versus evil; in this case, God and the Devil gambling over the souls of the dead that are trapped in the Afterlife Express. The song was banned at one point in South Africa- of all places- due to the line “but the Lord didn’t see what the Devil did”. The idea that God might be flawed may have been too much for some people to handle, but it’s a bigger idea than you get with most pop songs.

#4: “Piano Man” (1973)
Billy Joel

You will never find a less humble, humble piano player. In Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”, we learn about the lives and habits of bar regulars and staff; everything from their hopes and dreams to their lonely existence and vices. It’s a great song and the Piano Man makes sure to tell us just how awesome he is in between talking about the sad lives of everyone else. It’s an interesting analysis how being at a bar and being happy can be just an illusion and that everyone has a story underneath the façade.

#3: “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (1979)
Charlie Daniel’s Band

This country classic sees the Devil heading down to Georgia to steal himself a soul. Soon after, old Harry finds himself a young man named Johnny, who was not only playing a fiddle but playing it hot. Naturally, Beelzebub challenges him to a musical duel, as he's known to do, wagering a golden fiddle against the boy’s soul. As the Devil begins to play, aband of demons joins in and it sounds (suspiciously) something like a '70s rock band. Our boy Johnny, however, is having none of that and shows the evil, evil idiot how it's done, and earns himself a sweet, sweet golden fiddle.

#2: “American Pie” (1971)
Don McLean

Don McLean’s 1971 classic “American Pie” has been open to interpretation for many years. On the surface the song directly references the deaths of musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper in a plane crash that is now referred to as “The day the music died”. In 2015 McLean revealed that the message behind the song is one of morality, and how life has become “less idyllic” and isn't getting better- which is somehow an even bigger downer. However you interpret it, “American Pie” is a story that will stick with you.

Before we reveal our number one pick, here are some honourable mentions:

-“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (1976)
Gordon Lightfoot

- “Billy’s Got a Gun” (1983)
Def Leppard

- “Tribute” (2002)
Tenacious D

- “One” (1989)
Metallica

- “Alexander the Great” (1986)
Iron Maiden

#1: “Stan” (2000)
Eminem feat. Dido

Mixing Dido’s “Thank You” with Eminem’s original verses, “Stan” tells the story of an increasingly obsessed fan of Eminem’s alternate persona Slim Shady. We hear the story from the first person perspective of Stan as he writes a series of increasingly aggressive and angry letters to Slim. The narrative takes a really dark turn, showing how obsession and emulation can completely consume someone’s life and impact the lives of those around them. Not only was the song a huge hit but “Stan” has also entered the cultural vocabulary as a term for overly obsessed fans.

Agree with our list? Do you have a favourite episodic ballad? For more musical tales published daily, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.
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