If You Haven't Heard It, You Should: Story Songs #1
The Purpose of The Series
Welcome to If You Haven't Heard It, You Should. This begins a series of articles that will discuss various songs and a bit of the history behind the song and/or artist(s) that created it. There are two types of music: Songs you connect to and Songs you don't connect to. Some songs get heavy airplay. Some haven't been much or at all on terrestrial radio or television.
But, regardless of how much airplay a song gets, once you make a connection with a song, you'll never forget it. Maybe it was the beat that got you. Maybe it was an outstanding guitar solo or two. Maybe, in this case, it was a short story done in song that made you stop what you were doing to listen.
This isn't a top 10 or 20 list. Instead, this series is about suggestions. I'll leave it up to you to rank them yourselves. You're a music listener and you have that power. In fact, if any of you have heard a story song that you believe should be discussed in future IYHHI articles, feel free to leave a comment after you've read Story Songs #1. Who knows? You might help get fellow readers to connect to it as well.
Clarence Carter got a call from record producer, Rick Hall, the architect of the famed Muscle Shoals sound. Hall told Carter he had a song for him to do. The song was "Patches", a creation of Chairmen of the Board singer General Johnson and songwriter Ronald Dunbar.
Hall felt the song hit home for him. Hall bought his father a brand new tractor to thank his dad for molding him into the hard working man he became. Unfortunately, one day, the tractor flipped and pinned his father, killing him. Hall felt the song would be a great tribute to his father, especially with this famous refrain from the song:
He said, Patches
I'm dependin' on you, son
To pull the family through
My son, it's all left up to you
In the documentary "Muscle Shoals", Hall said Carter didn't want to do the song because "he thought it was a downer for his people, black people." But, Carter found a way to convey the song, giving it a triumphant, inspiring feel. Hall went from the studio in Alabama to a studio in LA and added a string arrangement to it.
In addition, the original writers of the song - Johnson and Dunbar - would win the 1970 Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Song. Carter was also nominated for Best R&B Vocal Performance that year, but he lost out to the late, great B.B. King and his song "The Thrill Is Gone".
Canadian Railroad Trilogy
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) commissioned legendary songwriter Gordon Lightfoot to write a song about the Canadian Pacific Railway. It would be presented during programming on January 1, 1967 - Canada's centennial.
He used the structure of a Bob Gibson song, "Civil War Trilogy", borrowed from the CBC library a book written by the railway's chief engineer, and crafted a song that not only celebrated the growth and expansion of a young nation, but also "the navvies" - the laborers who toiled to build the railway. In a interview with Q TV, Gordon says he wrote the song in three days.
Canadian Railroad Trilogy became so influential in Canadian culture that back in 2010 (44 years after Lightfoot recorded it in 1966), the lyric was made into an illustrated book. Prior to releasing Canadian Railroad Trilogy, Lightfoot's songs were being sung by other artists, such as Ribbon of Darkness, Early Mornin' Rain, and For Lovin' Me. Canadian Railroad Trilogy cemented Lightfoot as a talented songwriter and presenter of stories. That reputation would only get stronger and much more widely known as he entered the 1970s.
What's in a great song?
To you, what is the #1 most important thing a song needs for you to be interested and connect to it?
Warning: Explicit Language
Dance With The Devil
Don't let the intro of Henry Mancini's "Love Story" fool you. This is probably one of the most unflinching and poetic stories ever told in Hip Hop.
The genre has a history of some great storytellers: Slick Rick, 2Pac, and Nas, for example. Immortal Technique released "Dance With The Devil" on his debut album "Revolutionary Vol. 1". Since the album premiere in 2001 (three days after 9/11), the album and the single have been considered underground classics.
To tell you what the song is about would take away from the experience of hearing it. It's a compelling narrative of youth and the streets with a soul-crushing apex and resolution.
The Peruvian-born rapper, who lives in NYC, has made a reputation for lyrically drawing portraits of harsh and complex realities in the midst of life. Along with his interest in political science, he infuses the themes of classism, struggle, and poverty into his lyrics. His talent has led to collaborations with hip hop star Talib Kweli and the legendary Chuck D.
Tracy Chapman was chosen to perform at Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday celebration. She had already performed a set that day, but later on, Stevie Wonder was running late to play his set. The organizers asked Chapman to go back on stage to entertain the huge crowd.
Chapman chose to perform "Fast Car", a song about the devolution of a relationship while in the midst of financial struggle. The show was televised around the world. Almost instantly, Chapman's star rose. A subject like this was not rare for Chapman to cover in song. She brought a social consciousness back into the music business in the 1980s with songs like Talkin' 'Bout A Revolution. She, then, continued to have chart success throughout the 1990s.
"Fast Car" became a top ten hit in 1988. In February 1989, Chapman walked away with three Grammys: Best New Artist, Best Contemporary Folk Recording, and Best Pop Vocal Performance. Years later, Rolling Stone would pick "Fast Car" as #167 in their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
Pancho and Lefty
What do Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Toby Keith, Bob Dylan, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Kris Kristofferson, Darius Rucker, and Frank Turner all have in common? At some point through the years, they all covered "Pancho and Lefty". This masterpiece is written by one of the most underrated songwriters in the past 50 years, Townes Van Zandt.
"I realize that I wrote it, but it's hard to take credit for the writing because it came from out of the blue," Van Zandt told PBS in 1984. "It came through me and it's a real nice song. And I think I've finally found out what's it about. I always wondered what it was all about. I kind of always knew that it wasn't about Pancho Villa. And then somebody told me that Pancho Villa had a buddy whose name in Spanish meant Lefty. But, in the song, my song, Pancho gets hung. They only let him hang around out of kindness I suppose and Pancho Villa was assassinated."
Van Zandt also told a story of two police officers he encountered and stated he could have written the classic tune about them. He originally released the song on his second album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt back in 1972.
Pay attention to the official music video from Willie and Merle's version of "Pancho and Lefty". In the video, you will see a cameo by Van Zandt acting as one of the federales. Willie and Merle took the song to number one on the country charts in 1983. Country crooner Don Williams and Emmylou Harris also had a top five country hit with his cover of Townes' "If I Needed You".
Some of Johnny Cash's career awards/honors
Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame
Country Music Hall of Fame
Pioneer Award (Academy of Country Music)
Grammy Legend Award
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
Gospel Music Hall of Fame (posthumous)
A Boy Named Sue
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 gonna die!"
Recorded live from San Quentin State Prison in California in 1969, the song is still one of Johnny Cash's most beloved songs. You can hear that very version in the video above. The lyrics were written by children's book author, songwriter, and poet Shel Silverstein. The song poetically tells the tale of a son meeting up with the father that gave him a female first name. They fight, but the father takes the time to explain why he gave him that name. Silverstein has said the San Quentin performance was the first ever performance of the song.
Silverstein was a creative artist. He got the idea to write "A Boy Named Sue" from the experience of Jean Shepherd, who had what is usually referred to as a female first name (Shepherd was famous for A Christmas Story). Silverstein also went on to write two songs that have had major airplay on classic rock stations - Dr. Hook's "The Cover Of The Rolling Stone" and "Sylvia's Mother". He also wrote songs for Tompall Glaser, Gordon Lightfoot, and Bobby Bare. Silverstein even wrote a song called "The Father of the Boy Named Sue", which is the same story told from his dad's perspective.
Johnny Cash was one of the greatest musical artists of all time and his death in 2003 has left a tremendous void in the country music world and beyond.
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There will be more articles like this to come. In the meantime, feel free to leave a comment. Tell me what you liked about it...what you didn't like about it...and most of all, if you've heard a story song that you think should be featured here. Eventually, it won't be just story songs for this. But, we'll keep it going as long as we can.
For now, I will leave you with the following song: