Top 50 Songs That Tell a Story
Every songwriter approaches his or her craft differently, and there are, ostensibly, as many ways to write a song as there are songs in existence.
But one word you'll often hear songwriters use is "story," which implies a plot, characters, a conflict and perhaps a resolution. Just as one can write a novel with these literary tools, one can also condense it down into a song.
Sometimes, it's based on real-life events, with real people and real outcomes. Other times it's entirely imaginary, culled from the minds of some exceptionally creative people. But in either case, it can be fun to follow the narrator as they recount a tale, like in the below 50 Short Story Songs.
"Here comes the story of the Hurricane," Bob Dylan sings near the top of this 1976 track co-written with Jacques Levy. The eight-plus minute song is about the real-life imprisonment of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, along with a man named John Artis, who was charged with the murder of three people in Patterson, New Jersey in 1966. They were convicted of the crimes, but Carter maintained his innocence, which Dylan evidently found compelling enough to put into song.
2. The Kinks, "Come Dancing"
From: State of Confusion (1983)
The inspiration behind the Kinks' "Come Dancing" is as tragic as it is personal. In 1957, Ray and Dave Davies' older sister Rene died of a heart attack she suffered while out dancing at the Lyceum Ballroom in London. She was 31 years old. Over 20 years later, Ray used "Come Dancing" to tell a fictional story of a local dance hall where the narrator's sister used to go, It shuts down for good, replaced with a parking lot.
In 1974, when Elton John released "Ticking," mass shootings weren't exactly as mainstream as they've since become, but that was the premise of the fictional song. In it, a young man whose "brain's just snapped" murders 14 people in a bar in New York City.
4. Harry Chapin, "Cat's in the Cradle"
From: Verities & Balderdash (1974)
Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" is a short story in the sense that it fits into a song, but it actually spans an entire lifetime. A father regretfully doesn't spend much time with his young son, only to find that decades later the roles have been reversed and the son has moved on with a busy life of his own. "Frankly, this song scares me to death," Chapin, a father of five, once said.
5. Arlo Guthrie, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree"
From: Alice's Restaurant (1967)
Arguably the most famous song having to do with Thanksgiving, Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" is a largely true spoken retelling of his own experience illegally dumping trash one evening. (A 1969 film titled Alice's Restaurant followed.)
It's not clear exactly who Georgie is in this Rod Stewart song, but what we do know is that he was a friend of Stewart and Ian McLagan of the Faces, a gay man who was murdered by a New Jersey gang. "I only knew him fleetingly," Stewart told The Guardian in 2016. "He would play songs for us and say, 'Have you heard this?' I remember him turning us on to Sam and Dave singing 'Night Time Is the Right Time.' I can tell you, he was a hell of a good-looking guy."
Co-written with Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty's "Into the Great Wide Open" recounts the adventures of Eddie, a fresh-faced high school graduate who sets off for Los Angeles and winds up a musician. But rock 'n' roll life turns out to be less glamorous than expected...
8. Johnny Cash, "A Boy Named Sue"
From: At San Quentin (1969)
Johnny Cash did not write "A Boy Named Sue," that was children's author Shel Silverstein's doing, but Cash recorded it for his 1969 live album, At San Quentin. It told the story of a boy whose father left home when he was three years old, later seeking revenge against him for naming his something so untraditional.
9. The Traveling Wilburys, "Tweeter and the Monkey Man"
From: Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 (1988)
As George Harrison would remember it, the beginning of "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" came about as he and Jeff Lynne sat around one afternoon listening to Bob Dylan and Tom Petty talk about "all this stuff that didn't make much sense." Nevertheless, it turned into this track, an outlandish story about a pair of drug dealers in New Jersey, where "anything's legal as long as you don't get caught."
10. Gordon Lightfoot, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"
From: Summertime Dream (1976)
It might be the most famous song about a boat ever written: Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." It's less short story than it is mini history lesson, as Lightfoot starts by describing "the pride of the American side" beginning its journey to Cleveland. But the boat never made it to its intended destination.
"Now somewhere in the Black Mountain Hills of Dakota there lived a young boy named Rocky Raccoon," Paul McCartney sings at the top of this White Album track. What follows is the story of Rocky's quest to win back his woman from another man in a classic Western shootout. The town clearly ain't big enough for the two of them.
12. Simon and Garfunkel, "The Boxer"
"I am just a poor boy though my story's seldom told," begins Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer." You can't exactly call it autobiographical, considering the boy in the story moves to New York City to find work while both Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel hail from there originally. The boy apparently receives no job offers, but chooses to stay — "the fighter still remains."
In this story, Levon Helm steps into the shoes of a character called Virgil Cane, a white Southerner watching the Civil War come to a bloody end, with references to several real-life events. Helm and Robbie Robertson worked on the song for months, even doing research on the war at the local library in Woodstock, New York.
14. John Prine, "Sam Stone"
From: John Prine (1971)
Originally titled "Great Society Conflict Veteran's Blues," John Prine's "Sam Stone" is a poignant story about a man who returns home from serving overseas, riddled with gruesome memories, only to develop an addiction to a drug that ultimately kills him. Prine was a veteran himself, and though this wasn't his story, it was for many others.
Brian May of Queen contains multitudes. When he's not ripping a guitar solo, you might find him studying Einstein's theory of relativity or consulting with NASA. In 1975, May had not yet earned his PhD in astrophysics, but he found a way to combine his interests in a song he wrote called "'39," in which a group of space travelers embark on what they believe to be a year-long trip, only to return and find that 100 years have passed.
When one is 18 years old, receiving a life sentence from a judge means an awful long time behind bars. That's what happens to the main character in Skid Row's "18 and Life," which sees a young man named Ricky shoot and kill a kid under the influence. Guitarist Dave Sabo would later say that the song was at least partially inspired by his own brother, Rick, who did not kill anyone but whose life was forever changed when he came back from the Vietnam War.
If the subject wasn't clear from the title of this Iron Maiden song, the lyrics will certainly help: "Near to the east / In a part of ancient Greece / In an ancient land called Macedonia / Was born a son / To Philip of Macedon / The legend, his name was Alexander." Naturally the song ends with the death of Alexander, brought on by fever.
In the 2013 documentary History of the Eagles, Don Henley described "Hotel California" as "a journey from innocence to experience...that's all." But there sure is a whole lot that happens in between those two things. A person, tired from driving through the desert alone, finds themselves trapped in a labyrinth of strange characters, pink champagne on ice and no way out.
Heart frankly wasn't thrilled to be recording "All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You." "Actually we had sworn off it because it kind of stood for everything we wanted to get away from," Ann Wilson noted in the liner notes to The Road Home. Written original for Don Henley by Robert John "Mutt" Lange, some of the words needed to be adjusted for a female singer, who tells a rather uncomfortable story about getting pregnant by another man since her own partner is infertile.
Here's another story about a young kid who grows up to be a mass murderer. It was actually based on two true stories. The first occurred in January 1981 when a 15-year-old boy named Jeremy Wade Delle shot himself in front of his English class in Richardson, Texas. And then there was also a student Eddie Vedder knew himself back in his school days in San Diego, who committed a school shooting.
The titular character in "Me and Bobby McGee," is based on a real person, a studio secretary named Barbara "Bobbie" McKee that Kris Kristofferson, the song's writer, misheard. The ensuing events, however, are all made up — the hitchhiking pair make their way through the Deep South and eventually wind up in California.
22. Steve Miller Band, "Take the Money and Run"
From: Fly Like an Eagle (1976)
Crime is an excellent subject for a story song. Take, for example, Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle," which involves a Bonnie and Clyde type situation, starring Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue who shoot a man for money and, ultimately, get away with it.
23. Prince, "Raspberry Beret"
From: Around the World in a Day (1985)
Have you ever met someone for the first time and immediately taken notice of a particular item of clothing they're wearing? That's essentially the premise of Prince's "Raspberry Beret," which the narrator of the song notes his love interest donning. They meet at the five-and-dime and end up lovers.
24. Sting, "I Hung My Head"
From: Mercury Falling (1996)
Growing up, Sting enjoyed watching TV westerns and listening to classic country artists like Hank Williams. "I Hung My Head" was sort of Sting's attempt at writing a song that incorporated both of those influences, about a young boy who steals his brother's rifle and sets out into the sun.
There's a number of Bruce Springsteen's songs that do an excellent job of painting a picture for a listener. One of them is "Jungleland," in which an individual known as the Magic Rat deals with gang crime, rock bands and barefoot girls. By the end, the Rat falls.
Telegraph Road is very much a real place; it runs for close to 80 miles, north to south, in Michigan, a road Mark Knopfler traveled himself on a tour bus and took inspiration from. Dire Straits' song recounts a bit of how the stretch of road came to be developed in the early 20th century, and how it changed over time.
Yes, Time Fades Away was a live album, but it consisted of entirely previously unreleased material. "Don't Be Denied" is, for all intents and purposes, an autobiographical song, that chronicles Neil Young's life from his parents' 1961 divorce all the way up through his complicated relationship with success and fame in the music industry.
One of the most prevalent events of 1969 was, of course, the landing of American astronauts on the moon. Space travel in general, and the risk of it, fascinated viewers, including David Bowie, who wrote an entire song about a man, Major Tom, who jets off into outer space and seemingly does not return.
There are many who might argue that Genesis' 1970 album Trespass is where they really began to hit their stride as prog-rock songwriters. And perhaps a good example of this is "White Mountain," a dramatic story about two wolves, Fang and One-Eye, whose duel leaves the "white mountain tinted with red."
In 1969, Roger McGuinn was approached by Jacques Levy about potentially writing a musical. "His loft in the Village had a mural of a cowboy riding into a bar," McGuinn told UCR in 2022. "So it was his idea to take Peer Gynt and turn it into a Western musical. And the Byrds has just done the Sweetheart of the Rodeo, so we thought that was a good combination." They wrote a handful of songs, including "Chestnut Mare" about an unbridled horse. The musical, Gene Tryp, enjoyed exactly one run at a college in Colgate, New York, but "Chestnut Mare" later found a place on (Untitled).
31. Jethro Tull, "The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles"
From: A Passion Play (1973)
The title of this song gives away the basic plot. Indeed, a hare misplaces his glasses. Helplessly blind without them, a number of other animals – an owl, a newt and a kangaroo — offer him some not-so-helpful advice.
You're likely familiar with Deep Purple's famous "Smoke on the Water" guitar, but are you aware of the story being told in the lyrics? It chronicles a real fire that took place in 1971 at Montreux Casino in Switzerland. At the time, the band was planning on recording there in a mobile studio rented from the Rolling Stones, but during a concert by Frank Zappa, the place caught fire and destroyed the entire casino complex — "It died with an awful sound," Ian Gillan sings.
Written by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas about a couple of cowboys traveling from Colorado to Texas, "Me and My Uncle" was first recorded by Judy Collins in 1964. Later, the Grateful Dead made it a staple of their live shows, plus recorded a studio version for 1970's American Beauty.
34. David Crosby, "Cowboy Movie"
From: If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971)
Like crime, cowboys make for a good story song. David Crosby's "Cowboy Movie" actually mirrors real-life events he witnessed with the members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — Raven the Native American girl represents Rita Coolidge, whom Stephen Stills and Graham Nash both had a crush on. Stills ended up winning that battle.
"Johnny was a schoolboy when he heard his first Beatles song," sings Paul Rodgers at the top of Bad Company's "Shooting Star." From there, the seed of Johnny's career in music is planted, but not everything turns out to be so glamorous. "It's a generic example of what has happened," drummer Simon Kirke explained in 1997, "and what can happen and, I'm afraid, will happen to people who come into this business and meddle with drink and drugs."
The interesting thing about Billy Joel's "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" is that it's essentially a story within a story. Two people sit with a bottle of wine and dinner, and before long they're reminiscing about their earlier days and how Brenda and Eddie's marriage sadly didn't last.
"A boy is born in hard time Mississippi," Stevie Wonder declares in the first line of "Living for the City." From there, the boy grows up in a troubled household, hops on the bus to New York City and ends up getting a decade behind bars. Not exactly a feel good story, but certainly a feel good groove.
38. The Hollies, "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress"
From: Distant Light (1971)
There's a lot going on in not a lot of time in the Hollies' "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress." "We wrote a song about Prohibition and all the bad people surrounding it," Roger Cook explained to The Tennessean in 2018. "The FBI raiding and this [woman] singing at the bar. [The narrator] doesn't want her to get in trouble. So he kind of saves her."
39. George Thorogood and the Destroyers, "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer"
From: George Thorogood and the Destroyers (1977)
"One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" was actually written by John Lee Hooker, but George Thorogood's version is perhaps the most famous. "Want to tell you a story about the house-man blues," it begins. What follows is a sad, liquor-soaked story about a man who loses just about everything.
40. Peter, Paul and Mary, "Puff, the Magic Dragon"
From: Moving (1963)
We interrupt this list of mainly crime and love stories to bring you something wholesome and innocent: Peter, Paul and Mary's "Puff, the Magic Dragon." The song was based on a 1959 poem by Leonard Lipton, who wrote it when he was 19 years old. Being it was the early '60s, some speculated that the song had something to do with drug-taking, but this simply wasn't the case — it's just a sweet story about a magic dragon and his human friend.
41. Jim Croce, "Operator (That's Not the Way It Feels)"
From: You Don't Mess Around With Jim (1972)
Jim Croce's "Operator (That's Not the Way It Feels)" is one of those songs that fits a fleeting moment into a single story. Here, the narrator politely asks the phone operator to help him locate the number of a girl he once knew, so he can tell her "I've overcome the blow." But within minutes, he's changed his mind.
42. The Charlie Daniels Band, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia"
From: Million Mile Reflections (1979)
When the Devil first arrives in Georgia, he's a bit disappointed given that he's "way behind" on stealing souls. So he sets to work, turning his attention to stealing the soul of a man named Johnny via a fiddle playing contest. "I'll take your bet, you're gonna regret," Johnny says. "'Cause I'm the best there's ever been."
43. Barry Manilow, "Copacabana (At the Copa)"
From: Even Now (1978)
The first Copacabana nightclub opened in 1940 in New York City and its legendary status took off from there. Barry Manilow's "Copacabana" focuses on one of the club's showgirls, Lola, her sweetheart Tony the bartender and a man named Rico who comes between them one night.
44. Cat Stevens, "The Boy With a Moon and Star on His Head"
From: Catch Bull at Four (1972)
This might be the most mythical sounding story song on this list. The narrator, on their way to their own wedding, comes across a woman — "Her hands were like the white sands, and her eyes had diamonds on." The result of their encounter is a child, a boy with a moon and star on his head.
45. The Boomtown Rats, "Diamond Smiles"
From: The Fine Art of Surfacing (1979)
In the Boomtown Rats' "Diamond Smiles," a beautiful woman "so sure and so poised" ends her own life. "She shimmers for the bright young boys / And says, 'Love is for others, but me it destroys.'" Yet, she's only remembered for her low-cut dress.
Just when you thought things couldn't get more twisted, they do in "The Deeper In" by Drive-By Truckers. "This song is about the only two people currently serving time in America for consensual brother/sister incest," Patterson Hood once explained of the track. "It is one of the few songs I've written in the third person.
47. Kate Bush, "The Wedding List"
From: Never for Ever (1980)
"We've come together in the very same room, and I'm coming for you," Kate Bush threatens in "The Wedding List," in which the narrator murders her betrothed. "Revenge is a terrible power, and the idea is to show that it's so strong that even at such a tragic time it's all she can think about," Bush told Record Mirror in 1981. "I find the whole aggression of human beings fascinating — how we are suddenly whipped up to such an extent that we can't see anything except that."
48. Chuck Berry, "You Never Can Tell"
From: St. Louis to Liverpool (1964)
Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell" is a wholesome story. It's about two teenagers, in love and ready to be married. Together they carve out a little life of their own, with a new car, phonograph and "seven hundred little records, all rock, rhythm and jazz."
49. Dan Fogelberg, "Same Old Lange Syne"
From: The Innocent Age (1981)
The holiday season often has a peculiar way of bringing old flames back together. In Dan Fogelberg's "Same Old Lange Syne," he meets his former lover in the frozen food aisle at a grocery store on Christmas eve — can you say Hallmark movie? They catch up on life and reminisce on old times, before parting ways again.
50. John Mellencamp, "Easter Eve"
From: No Better Than This (2010)
Somehow, in John Mellencamp's "Easter Eve," a peaceful evening walk with his 14-year-old son turns into a dramatic showdown with a stranger yielding a gun, and ends with jail time for the perpetrator. (To be clear, this did not actually happen to Mellencamp in real life.)
Explaining 60 Famously Misunderstood Lyrics
Gallery Credit: Madison Troyer