Songs That Tell Stories


There’s no doubt that songwriters everywhere aim at telling stories through their song lyrics. Perhaps a main reason why we listen to music is because song lyrics resonate with us: we connect with words and sounds. No wonder so many well-known quotes come from song lyrics: think John Lennon’s powerful “Imagine” lyrics, “You may say I'm a dreamer / But I'm not the only one / I hope someday you'll join us / And the world will live as one”. We all know that every song is part music composition, and part creative writing.  Through this mixture a story is born. But, there are some songs that truly top the charts with the stories they tell:

  1. “American Pie” by Don McLean: This 8+ minute masterpiece is folk singer McLean’s signature song, and recounts the tale of “The Day The Music Died,” the 1959 plane crash that killed famous musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr.). The song also has a nostalgic feel and alludes to life in the 1950’s, when pick up trucks and rock ‘n roll were the keys to happiness.

  1. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel: A catchy, feel-good song that has more historical allusions in it than any textbook you’ll ever read. Joel’s No. 1 US hit single has over 100 references to important news headlines ranging from 1949 to 1989…someone paid attention in history class.

  1. “Candle in the Wind” by Elton John: Originally written as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe after her passing, John re-wrote the lyrics in 1997 to commemorate the death of Princess Diana. Songwriter Bernie Taupin, who co-wrote the original version with John, has been quoted saying that the song is mainly about “someone being cut short in the prime of their life.”

  1. “Mockingbird” by Eminem: Arguably one of the best rapper-storytellers of our generation, Eminem’s 2005 chart-topper tells the story of his tumultuous relationships with his wife and daughter. Emotional, sensitive, raw and real describe Eminem’s undeniable passion in one of his most important songs to date.


  1. “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin: If you think you’ve never heard this song, think again. Chapin’s infamous ’74 folk song is told in first-person, from a father’s point of view. His problem? He’s too busy with work to spend time with his son. The “cat’s in the cradle,” and Chapin’s other lyrical allusions like “Little Boy Blue” and “Man in the Moon” refer to childhood games…oh, the irony when papa isn’t around to play them…

  1. The Temptations, “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”: After 10+ minutes of musical interlude, The Temptations start singing a soulful tune about the father figures they never understood.


... And the list goes on and on. While most of these songs are about struggle, tragedy and strife, these lyrics and stories have resonated with listeners for years and years. Beause life isn’t all sunshine and roses: we all experience ups and downs. But thankfully, songwriters and musicians share their meaningful stories to let us know that in life, we’re not alone.


Image source:  flickr user Michael Brown

What We ThinkJen Lassen