Songs that contain a story have always fascinated me. Often, these stories are presented with limited, if any, context. One intriguing case is "Fire and Rain" by James Taylor. Who was Susan, and why did anyone want to "put an end" to her? And, at the risk of being a bit macabre, what kind of "end" are we talking about? From a more logistical point of view, how much advance notice had James Taylor expected, or at least hoped for?
In Elton John's song "Daniel" (written by Bernie Taupan), how did Daniel come to develop such a fondness for Spain? What is the origin of the pain that Daniel may or may not be experiencing today?
One of the most touching songs I have ever heard is "Mandy." The name of the character in the song was actually changed from "Brandy," the original one used in British version of the song, when Bary Manilov recorded his version. (This change was made because to avoid confusion with another well known song that had then made its mark on the U.S. music scene). The lyrics provide a hint of what took place in the past, but the details are far from clear. The song certainly is a reminder to value what we have.
Rod Stewart's song "You're In My Heart" is quite vague about what kind of room the woman initially entered. Since she spoke with a Dutch accent, it is likely that she was either from Holland or South Africa (or spent time in one of those locations), but what kinds of journeys ultimately led the two characters to the room in question?
One of my favorite singers is Jim Croce. What happened to the lovers in "Alabama Rain?" Jim does admit that the doesn't actully "know what happened," but could he at least propose some hypotheses? Why did they choose Friday nights for their drive-in movies? The song "Roller Derby Queen" at first seems a bit crude, but when one thinks about it, it really does focus more on the experience of one man's feelings. Did he ever get to understand how the feelings originated, and did they last? In a live album, Jim remarks that the story was in part inspired by a true story, to this raises an interesting issue of what the "real" background for the story actually is.
Even when the context specified is limited, these songs can be quite captivating and can inspire a great deal of feeling, if not outright empathy. (I will have a lot more to say about that last word in future posts.) It could be that the songs are actually so intriguing in part because of the ambiguity. Sometimes, the songs may inspire one to try to figure out the context. One of Elton John's lesser known songs, "In Neon," appears to discuss the life of an aspiring actress seeking fame. The song is touching in part because it offers hope (e.g., "... a glimmer of hope and delight") while at the same time alluding to sadness and disappointment ("... a promise that dies.")
Country songs often feature stories that are written from the perspective of--at the risk of being tautological--country music. For years, I wasn't quite sure why these stories often fascinated me. One day, a friend of mine, in discussing country songs, suggested that these actually "have a sense of humor." People who view country songs as being somehow intellectually deficient may find this hard to believe, but I actually have to agree. Many country songs do, indeed, come close to the stereotype of the theme of these genre, but sometimes I have come to wonder whether the songs were really intended as "genuine" or if they were intended as parodies. Perhaps there really isn't a clear line to be drawn. Ed Bruce sings a number of songs with "prototypical"--if not outright stereotypical--lyrics (e.g., "My First Taste of Texas") that receive a great deal of airplay on traditional country stations. Yet, his song "Girls, Women, and Ladies" must be either a "perfect" country song or intended as satire. David Allen Coe, in his song "You Never Even Call Me By My Name" does deliberately set out to create "the perfect country song." To remedy deficiencies in an earlier draft that left out some important themes, he very efficiently adds an anecdote (seemingly unrelated to the previous plot) about being "drunk the day my mom got out of prison." Nevertheless, he goes to pick her up in his pick-up truck, but tragically, before he can get there, she is "run over by ... a train."
In the interest of fairness, I should say that some songs do, in fact, provide a more complete context. Leann Womack's song "I'll Think of a Reason Later" is a good example here.