Storytelling Through Music

Published August 3, 2011 by caitlinnicoll

Older than the written word–older than civilization even, storytelling has always played a central role in society.  Tales were meant to provide entertainment. They were told to recount and immortalize historic events. They were cautionary tales, lessons. Stories were family histories passed down orally from one generation to the next.

One of the ways this was done was through verse; or song.

Some of the oldest, greatest tales, myths, and legends are written in verse– the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Edda, parts of the Arabian nights, the Vedas, the Kojiki, the old testament, and some of the traditional Irish epics. Even Tolkien used song in the Hobbit and LOTR as back story. Just as in our world, the people of Middle Earth told the tales of the great heroes through verse.

Think of Orpheus, arguably one of the most famous musicians. Pindar called him the Father of Song, and he wasn’t far off. Gifted by the gods, he was a man who, armed with only his lyre, was able to charm beasts, defeat the Sirens, and brave the Underworld to win back Eurydice. In a way, he was the ultimate hero. He used music to fight his battles. What a concept! Now, if everyone did that, the world would be a much better place.

Throughout history, people have used song to convey their messages. 

Troubadours would travel the countryside, telling their tales and singing their songs to kings and noblemen. These songs were silly, they were tragic, they were entertaining.

Slaves in the American South would create and sing songs while they toiled away in the hot fields. These songs would give them hope that they would one day rise above the oppression; they were a distraction from the horrors of their everyday lives.

During the Depression, folksingers used song to fight back against the government, to raise awareness, and again, to give hope. Woody Guthrie, perhaps one of the most prolific songwriters of our time, rambled and sang his way across the country. Like Orpheus before him, he battled discrimination with song. Armed with nothing more than his guitar, he stood up against a corrupt government, and gave a voice to the unheard.

Songs are a powerful way to get your message across. They are our fears, our desires, our hopes, our dreams, our losses, our celebrations, our sorrows, our joys, our memories, our experiences. They are, each and every one of them, a story.

What are some of your favorite songs that tell a story? Here are some great examples:

I chose them, not necessarily for the songs themselves, but for the execution. Each of these songs not only tell a story, but have interesting, unique, and oftentimes silly ways of going about it. As you will notice, they are mostly folk. My work may be rubbing off on me.

Rocky Raccoon

I think the way Paul gets every verse to rhyme, like a poem, is brilliant.

Alice’s Restaurant

Sure it’s long. Sure it’s meandering, but if Arlo is anything, he is a master storyteller.

Walt Whitman’s Niece

I love the atmosphere Woody conveys with this song. Hearing it, you feel as though you are sitting in the bar with him, talking over drinks, while he struggles to recall the details.

Albi the Racist Dragon

What a hilarious way to tell a story–with the contradictory said-isms and the magical, upbeat descriptions interwoven into an otherwise depressing tale.

In the Pines–Nirvana cover

This is a traditional song arranged originally by Leadbelly, but I love the raw intensity of Kurt Cobain’s cover.


8 comments on “Storytelling Through Music

  • I love that you included Albi the Racist Dragon!
    I love narrative songs. At the moment I am listening to a lot of Rasputina, “1816, The Year Without A Summer”, “Cage in a Cave” and “Incident in a Medical Clinic”.
    I also love a lot of Simon and Garfunkel because of the narrative.

    When I was a kid my dad thought it was funny to play a song called “Rusty” about a dog who waits for his master to come back to war. And meanwhile he’s dying on the battlefield. I used to cry whenever I heard it.

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