You recognize that phrase, of course. You can probably recite the spare three verses of "All Along the Watchtower;" it's part of our shared Boomer memory. (I always get them mixed up, but I do have a few songs memorized correctly). A compelling story, really the outline of an epic like HBO's "Game of Thrones," is sketched out in it -- leaving much room for imagination. And that's one reason why story songs are so wonderful.
After 242 posts, I've told a few tales here. There are two original stories slipped in, only one of which is clearly a fiction.
Unlike tunes based on a beat, a hook or a clever turn of phrase, I never tire of finely crafted story songs. Here's a few that come to mind right away:
"It Was A Very Good Year" -- recorded by many from 1961 to the present, but the definitive version is Frank Sinatra's from his 1965 album "September of My Years." My dad had that one and I played it over and over when I was listening to Dylan and PP&M and surf music. Great is great, whatever the source or genre. Off the subject, the instrumental arrangement deservedly won an award. (William Shatner recorded a spoken-word version, intercut with lines from Hamlet. Can't you just hear him doing it?)
"Me and My Uncle" and "Pancho and Lefty" -- those dusty western ballads are riveting. John Phillips allegedly wrote the first during one deranged evening with Joni Mitchell among the group present, and if it weren't for her it would have been lost since John had no memory of it at all. The single most-performed song by the Dead, they say. And "Lefty" is a laconic gem by the terribly underrecognized Townes Van Zandt.
"Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" -- I missed the Newsweek story from 1975 because we received Time magazine at home, and had never given a thought to the hazards of Great Lakes navigation in any case. The haunting line, "the lake, it is said, never gives up her dead," sets the tone at the beginning of this fateful story, told in seven long verses.
"Molly O, The Lily of the West" -- Mark Knopfler contributed and performed this old ballad-style treat on a Chieftans album. When the record is forgotten, people will think this is a genuine 18th century folk song, it sounds so authentic. Faithless love...
"Long Black Veil" -- I thought this, too, was a traditional song when I heard it on a 1963 Joan Baez album, but it's a modern product recorded by Lefty Frizzell in 1959. Sounding so much like countless Appalachian murder ballads, it is chilling to the bone, like a Poe story.
"The Boxer" and others by Paul Simon -- this rings so true you have to think it was based on some real person, but even if not so specifically, it has probably played out that way for many poor souls over the centuries. A classic is timeless, and true even if not factual.
So many by Scots-Irish chantreuse Loreena McKennitt: "The Highwayman" (the Alfred Noyes dramatic poem set to her music), "Marco Polo," "The Mummers' Dance" (which explains the faraway, prehistory, roots of the Philadalphia Mummers Parade), and "Skellig," which tells, wistfully and with elegance, of an old monk on the isolated west coast of Ireland passing on his work and legacy to a novice:
O light the candle, John
The daylight has almost gone
The birds have sung their last
The bells call all to Mass
Sit here by my side
For the night is very long
There's something I must tell
Before I pass along...
It was said, and so truly, that a song is more like a play than a poem.
A great one is.