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Layered Storytelling in Music

Discussion in 'Anything goes' started by Songbird, Sep 14, 2017.


Which song tells the best story?

  1. Esther (Phish)

    2 vote(s)
  2. Paradise by the Dashboard Light (Meat Loaf)

    3 vote(s)
  3. Scenes from an Italian Restaurant (Billy Joel)

    3 vote(s)
  4. Other

    8 vote(s)
  1. micropolitan guy

    micropolitan guy Well-Known Member

    And "Canadian Railroad Trilogy."
  2. Jake_Taylor

    Jake_Taylor Well-Known Member

    The Road Goes On Forever is a great story. It's actually a Highwaymen cover, but Ely rocks it.
  3. Buck

    Buck Well-Known Member

    I should clarify, that I'm just saying 'Maze' is a great song.
    It's not really a 'storytelling' song. It is just great.

    And Trey Anastasio is awesome.
  4. PCLoadLetter

    PCLoadLetter Well-Known Member

    Dyno likes this.
  5. Huggy

    Huggy Well-Known Member

  6. Riptide

    Riptide Well-Known Member

  7. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    So I wrote a blog about this a couple years ago, but in terms of pure storytelling — taking the musical element out of the analysis — the best song ever is actually A Boy Named Sue by Johnny Cash (but really Shel Silverstein).

    Well, 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

    Right away, the first three lines of the story does a lot of great work. It establishes the two main characters, it gives you some good details (an old guitar, empty bottle, he ran out when the narrator was only three) and it establishes the tension throughout the song. Daddy named me Sue, which was mean as hell. Verse one is 56 words, and already we’ve got two characters, rich detail and motive.

    Well, he must o’ thought that is quite a joke
    And it got a lot of laughs from a’ lots of folk
    It seems I had to fight my whole life through
    Some gal would giggle and I’d get red
    And some guy’d laugh and I’d bust his head,
    I tell ya, life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue

    Here in the second stanza we have action. Action is essential to great storytelling. How do characters move in the world? People are laughing which leads to embarrassment and fighting.“Some gal would giggle and I’d get red; and some guy’d laugh I’d bust his head” is such a great line that shows, not just tells you, how this miserable name has shaped Sue’s entire life.

    Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean
    My fist got hard and my wits got keen
    I’d roam from town to town to hide my shame
    But I made a vow to the moon and stars
    That I’d search the honky-tonks and bars
    And kill that man who gave me that awful name

    Here we have our main character deepening the tension of the story. “I made a vow…” This is essentially the end of the first act. Sue is hardened by this curse, and vows to seek vengeance. As soon as you get this far in the song, you know that the conflict is going to build to a boil.

    Well, it was Gatlinburg in mid-July
    And I just hit town and my throat was dry
    I thought I’d stop and have myself a brew
    At an old saloon on a street of mud
    There at a table, dealing stud
    Sat the dirty, mangy dog that named me Sue

    Another great line that seems like a throwaway (Well, it was Gatlinburg in mid-July) actually does more great work. It establishes a time element, and where we are as the conflict is about to unfold. Then we have more great details: A dry throat, a beer in a saloon on a street of mud, and a man dealing cards. You can picture every element here simply because Silverstein chose the right details.

    Well, I knew that snake was my own sweet dad
    From a worn-out picture that my mother’d had
    And I knew that scar on his cheek and his evil eye
    He was big and bent and gray and old
    And I looked at him and my blood ran cold
    And I said, “My name is Sue, how do you do
    Now you’re gonna die!

    (yeah, that’s what I told him)

    Maybe the best line in the song makes an appearance: “I knew that snake was my own sweet dad from a worn-out picture that my mother’d had.” The imagery (and rhyme) is perfect. Sue had been looking at that pic for most of his life. And his dad is now bent and old and gray, three simple but perfect descriptive details, but he has the same scar and evil eye. More action: My blood ran cold. We also get the first line of dialog in the song, which is more or less the end of the second act. It makes you laugh because you can visualize it , Sue shouting to the whole saloon “My name is Sue! How do you do? Now you’re gonna die!”

    Well, I hit him hard, right between the eyes
    And he went down, but to my surprise
    He come up with a knife and cut off a piece of my ear
    But I busted a chair right across his teeth
    And we crashed through the wall and into the street
    Kicking and a’ gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer

    Again, we have more great action, movement, and the tension in the story is boiling over. “Cut off a piece of my ear” is a way better detail than just getting stabbed. It’s sooo much more memorable.

    I tell ya, I’ve fought tougher men
    But I really can’t remember when
    He kicked like a mule and he bit like a crocodile
    I heard him laugh and then I heard him cuss
    He went for his gun and I pulled mine first
    He stood there lookin’ at me and I saw him smile

    And he said, “Son, this world is rough
    And if a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be tough
    And I knew I wouldn’t be there to help ya along
    So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
    I knew you’d have to get tough or die
    And it’s the name that helped to make you strong”

    I love how the story pivots here. Suddenly naming a boy Sue wasn’t the cruel joke by a cruel man, but a last-ditch effort by a flawed and self-aware dad who knew he wasn’t going to be around. His true motives were kept from us until the song was almost over (defusing the tension), meaning it’s almost a journey of discovery.

    He said, “Now you just fought one hell of a fight
    And I know you hate me, and you got the right
    To kill me now, and I wouldn’t blame you if you do
    But ya ought to thank me, before I die
    For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye
    ‘Cause I’m the son-of-a-bitch that named you Sue”

    One of the things Cash (certainly a great storyteller in his own right) contributes to the song is really capturing the inflections and bad grammar of how a deadbeat stud-dealing outlaw might talk. It’s not “your eye.” It’s “ya eye.” It’s son of a bitch. Seven verses begin with the conversational “Well…” That’s having an ear for real dialog.

    Well what could I do? What could I do?
    I got all choked up and I threw down my gun
    And I called him my pa, and he called me his son
    And I came away with a different point of view

    We have one last bit of action here, throwing down your gun, one last bit of capturing how these characters might talk (it’s not “papa” or “dad” it’s “pa”) and then we have two great twists that defy where you think the story might go. He sees what his dad did differently and he realizes they’re not so different and then … he makes you laugh by saying he still hates that name.

    And I think about him, now and then
    Every time I try and every time I win
    And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him...
    Bill or George! Any-damn-thing but Sue!

    In summary, this song is just a great roadmap for how to tell a story:
    1. Establish characters
    2. give me revealing details
    3. establish motive and tension
    4. show the characters in motion
    5. more rich scenery detail
    6. give us dialog, characters talking to one another
    7. make the story all the more memorable by finding an ending that’s not what you think it might be.
  8. Songbird

    Songbird Well-Known Member

    The story in the song is really strong. I think the video makes it one of the all-timers.

  9. QYFW

    QYFW Well-Known Member

    Song, you're one of my favorites but your taste in music sucks. :)
  10. Songbird

    Songbird Well-Known Member

    Zip it. I know that song is treacle but every man is allowed half a gram of treacle in his musical library.

    And this ...

    It’s best to view Desert Moon not as a bold statement of independence from the shackles of Styx, or a coming-of-age party for a veteran songsmith, or even a good album, but simply the humble work of a pop music journeyman. Although I’m sure this collection disappointed fans of Styx’s late-70s dinosaur rock, there was probably never any doubt in Dennis DeYoung’s mind that he would clean up his image and pasteurize his sound to appeal to fans in a new decade. He wanted to sell records, not make a statement. If the tenor of the times said keyboards were cool and a man could wear a perm without getting his ass kicked, well, that was just fine with him.

    The Cut-Out Bin #6: Dennis DeYoung, Desert Moon (1984)
    QYFW likes this.
  11. Songbird

    Songbird Well-Known Member

    Plus, you like Jason Fucking Isbell.
  12. QYFW

    QYFW Well-Known Member

    I'm not the only one.
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