Sometimes, songs tell us the story of our own lives. Sometimes, they tell the stories of others. And in some cases, those two things even intersect. What are our favourite story songs? What is it about them that brings relatable themes forward, and even create a sense of empathy while wrapping everything in a beloved tune?
Here’s what we said about some of our favourite songs that tell a story.
I’m going to choose “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by one of my favourite bands, The Band. The story comes from the point of view of one-time Confederate soldier Virgil Kane, reflecting on his time in the civil war; his losses, and his disillusionment.
Singer/drummer Levon Helm, who’d later actually turn to acting a number of years later, brings Virgil to life, singing in a pained and defeated voice and yet also bringing out the epic quality of the song written by bandmate Robbie Robertson. Helm advised Robertson on the content of the song, since Helm was the sole American member and from the south to boot. Between the two bandmates, and with sterling playing from the whole Band (Rick Danko on bass and backing vocals, Richard Manuel on piano and backing vocals, and Garth Hudson on organ) there’s a whole movie contained in this song.
Virgil Kane is a living, breathing character that really comes to life. His perspective is about how bereft he is, even placing blame on the yankees that laid his brother in a grave. Kane can’t see past his own losses, even when what was fought over and won goes well beyond them. His perceptions are damaged and untrustworthy. Yet thanks to Levon’s singing, we feel his pain, even if we don’t share his heritage or point of view.
Recently I’m told, because of its connections to the Confederacy, this song seems to have been appropriated by alt-right assholes as some kind of “lost cause” anthem to the proud heritage of white southern life as it is often portrayed during years of African slavery in America. I guess they see Virgil Kane as the real victim, and by extension see themselves as the same. They view this song as one about the southern states’ rights being trampled upon by an oppressive government, and the loss of a noble way of life. I do see how this song has become controversial in the light of all that, given when it takes place and who the narrator of the story is.
But, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is not a paean to lost white southern pride at all, nor is it a defence of the pernicious myth about the Antebellum period being a kind of idyllic, unspoiled agricultural paradise where everyone was happy in their place. Instead, this song is a story of betrayal at the hands of ideologues who formed the Confederacy in the first place, perpetuated that very same myth to manipulate people, and pushed an agenda that also pushed many (poor) people into their graves on either side of the conflict in a bid to retain their positions and their wealth, which at the time was based on slave labour.
Coming out just as the Vietnam war was escalating, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” portrays a man undone by powers who treat regular people as nothing but pawns in their game (at best!), and cannon fodder for the wars those games tend to create. On that level, it’s incredibly resonant even if some of the imagery and specific historical context is culturally loaded.
A song which really moved me when I was much younger, and still moves me now if truth be told, is Billy Joel’s Goodnight Saigon which tells the story of being an American soldier in Vietnam in such a haunting way. The whole experience listening to the song is thoughtfully constructed, starting out with a brilliantly executed sound collage of nighttime crickets and helicopters overlaid with maracas, windchimes and very subtle orchestral music. All this is done to say: you are there.
The story of being a soldier in Vietnam starts off being told very sparsely so sparsely, with a little bit of piano and guitar. And every rhyme Billy Joel makes is created for the maximum impact of pulling the rug out from under the listener:
We met as soulmates on Parris Island
We left as inmates from an asylum
And we were sharp, as sharp as knives
And we were so gung-ho to lay down are lives.
(And that’s not even my favourite rhyme in the song, which is: “We came in spastic, like tameless horses / we left in plastic, as numbered corpses”).
One of the little mentioned talents that Billy Joel is that he often plays the character of the song he’s singing. So he butches if up for “Uptown Girl”, affects a bit of a working class drawl for “Allentown”. And in “Goodnight Saigon” he takes the listener on a journey just from his vocal performance. It starts out high pitched and nervous, peaking with “We dug in deep, and shot on sight / and prayed to Jesus Christ with all of our might”.
And then the very next line, the drums kick in and Billy Joel’s voice hardens. “We had no cameras to shoot the landscape / we passed the hashpipe, and played our Doors tapes” and Billy’s voice becomes a growl–more resonant worn down and angry– and it all builds into this amazing chorus. And the song just continues that trajectory for the remainder of the seven-minute song as it builds to a literally orchestrated climax as there’s a brief flashback (“And the night seemed to last as long as six weeks on Parris Island”) before smashing back to Vietnam where the enemy “were sharp, as sharp as knives / they heard the hum of the motors, they counted the rotors and waited for us to arrive.”
With that, the chorus of “And we would all go down together” suddenly has so much sadness imbued in it. And, having made the point, the song ends the way it begins– with a sound collage of menacing music fading into helicopters taking off and leaving us with nighttime crickets.
I’m not normally one for recapping a song in detail, but that’s the only way to explain the effect “Goodnight Saigon” has on me: it doesn’t just tell the story of being an American soldier in Vietnam, it becomes the story. And I get shivers every time I hear it.
My selection is thematically about as far away from that as you can get, but, such is the beauty of Deeper Questions! I’m going with what is honestly one of my favorite songs of all time – “Tribute” by Tenacious D. Written by Jack Black and Kyle Gass, this is the first (FIRST!) song released by the duo. And damn do I love it.
Comedic songs are exceptionally hard to nail down, and musically speaking they have to be spot-on. The joke has to be in the song, not the music itself. If you can’t take the musicality seriously then the comedy falls flat on its face. Tenacious D knocks it ALL out of the park. “Tribute” is a total earworm. This song will get stuck in your head for days. And it’s just a well done, high energy rock song. (Find me a better fist-raising moment than “and we said nay, we are but men – ROCK.” You can’t, there isn’t one.)
The harmonies are locked in, the guitar riffs are killer, and the whole track soars. When I was deep in my late 90’s early 2000’s head banging phase, Tenacious D stood side by side with The Strokes, Green Day and Foo Fighters as just a killer band. They were completely on par with other rock bands I loved regardless of the fact that they were cracking dirty jokes through all their songs.
As for the plot, “Tribute” continues to stand on the shoulders of classic rock stories. It’s equal parts Spinal Tap and Robert Johnson – particularly the whole selling his soul to play the blues mythos. “Tribute” is right in that wheelhouse: Jack and Kyle stumble upon a demon that wants to “eat their souls” unless they can play the best song in the world. Our heroic duo is unaffected by the demon and immediately start playing the greatest song in the world, felling the devilish threat.
The late-stage reveal that this isn’t actually the greatest song in the world, because “the song we sang on that fateful night, it didn’t actually sound anything like this song” comes after an a capella breakdown and top notch guitar solo. For my money, this is the greatest song in the world, no matter what Jack and Kyle say. But hey, it’s just a matter of opinion.
What about you, Deeper Cuts fans? What story song does it for you?
Tell us all about it in the comments!