Greatest Stories Ever Sung

Harry Chapin Portrait

By GORDON GLANTZ

Despite our many differences, we all have stories to tell.

And story songs — of all genres — have captured my imagination more than short stories, novellas or even those told around a holiday table.

There is a special skill to reeling in and holding a listener with a literal narrative of a beginning, middle and end within a span of minutes.

On Facebook, I created a page – Greatest Stories Ever Sung (“likes” accepted and appreciated). I have long-range plans for a book of the same title.

Here is a Cliff’s Notes look at the Top 10, which is anything but etched in stone:

10) Love Child – Released in late 1968, when music was at an unmatched zenith, this song is told from the perspective of a young woman explaining to her boyfriend her reservations about having intimate relations because she didn’t want to give birth to a “love child” who will endure the same childhood trauma she did. One of the heavyweight writers contracted by Motown, R. Dean Taylor, later had a 1970 hit with a noteworthy story song (Indiana Wants Me).

9) Same Old Lang Syne – From late singer/songwriter Dan Fogelberg, this wistful song is set against the backdrop of running into an old flame on Christmas Eve, making it a seasonal staple almost 40 years after its 1980 release. In this semi-true story (the real former flame came forward to confirm as fact, with some fiction, after Fogelberg’s death), they “laugh until they cry” and catch up on old times. As the narrator walks away, the scenic snow turns into rain, which is a poetic turn on the line earlier in the song about the woman’s husband who keeps her “warm and safe and dry.”

8) A Boy Named Sue – In the music word, the equivalence of being knighted was Johnny Cash covering one of your songs. In 1969, humorist Shel Silvestein was so honored when the man in black took this one to No. 2 on the charts (only to be blocked by “Honky Tonk Women” by the Rolling Stones). It tells the story of a boy growing up hard and tough because of the ridicule for having a girl’s name given to him by a father he never met – until the final verse, during which he tells his father his plans for naming a son — “I think I’m gonna name him Bill or George! Anything but Sue …”

7) Against The Wind – Bob Seger wrote several story songs, with the theme of comparing and contrasting the past to the present. While “Night Moves” and “Like A Rock” are brilliant turns on the theme, nothing tops the title track from his 1980 album of the same name. The lines “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then” may as well translate to “to be or not to be” in Gordonville.

6) Fast Car – I heard this late one night in 1988 and was in the record store the next morning buying what was one of the more seminal debut albums of my time. Here, Chapman paints a brilliant portrait of hope against desperation with a wisdom that exceeded her age at the time (24).

5) Coat of Many Colors – Dolly Parton does not get enough credit as a songwriter, and has repeatedly said that this song (reaching No. 4 on the country charts in 1971) is her all-time favorite. Telling the story of a coat stitched for her by her mother that was mocked by other kids at school, she reveals the lasting value of the garment that others didn’t understand. The impact of this song? A children’s book, a television movie (and sequel) and recognition from the Library of Congress Recording registry.

4) Highway Patrolman – Bruce Springsteen wrote a batch of story songs in 1981 and recorded them at home as demos for the E Street Band to perform. Instead, he turned this collection into the intimate 1982 Nebraska album. Just about any song from it could make the Top 10 list, but this story of a state trooper torn between loyalty to a brother who “ain’t no good” and his job as a lawman is the best of the batch.

3) In Color – Penned and released by country singer Jamey Johnson in 2008, this one tells the story of a young adult man sitting with his grandfather, looking at black and white pictures from the grandfather’s major events — Great Depression, World War II and wedding day. The grandson is told that the grainy black and white pictures don’t do the memories justice because he “should have seen it in color.”

2) Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald – The true story of a ship sinking is not the easiest of topics to turn into a song, let alone a successful one, but Gordon Lightfoot turned an article he read about the ship’s fate in a 1975 storm into a 1976 hit. Using a straightforward approach, Lightfoot sends the listener down with the ship in chilling detail.

1) Cat’s in the Cradle – Harry Chapin is sort of the Hans Christian Andersen of this sub-genre, writing many wonderful story songs (Taxi, I Wanna Learn a Love Song, etc.), but this is his ultimate masterpiece. I first heard it on Top 40 radio when it reached No. 1 in December of 1974. As a parent now, I know I have valued every second with Sofia as she has grown into a precocious pre-teen, and I partially credit Chapin and this gem for putting – and keeping — me in that mindset. The time flies, and whatever you put in – as Chapin’s narrator learns in this song – comes back to you.

Honorable Mention: Too many to mention.

This column first appeared in The Times Herald on March 10, 2019.

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