I see what this topic is up to. It’s trying to be sneaky.
Oh, it may play coy, fluttering its serifs at me, but it is trying to lure me into a deadly trap: the trap of defining the terms. It is trying to lead me from an open field onto a broad road, onto a slim path, into a narrow alley, into a cramped corridor, into a spot so precise and so narrow that I realize I can’t ever fit into it. No, topic, I am not going to spend the better part of this entry defining what I mean by “a great story.” I am not going to explain what makes a story great by objective metrics. I’m not even going to explain my subjective feelings about what makes for a great story. Because I’ve been trying to write more fiction, to create more stories. And I know that, if I spend too much time contemplating What Makes A Story Great, I’m only going to realize that there is nothing I could possibly write that would meet my own standards. Having expressed those standards, I wouldn’t be able to pretend that I didn’t know any better and was just haphazardly writing as my muse willed it. Nope, that wouldn’t fly anymore; I would have written some thoughtful, well-reasoned rubrics for What Makes A Story Great, then completely failed to live up to them in every single way. And so, if just because I am really not in the mood right now to have my opinion of my utility devalued any further, I’m just not even going to mess with it.
What makes a story great? For the purposes of this entry, it is Because I Said So. I might explain what I like about each one, and what elements of their stories appeal to me, or – as is my heathen wont – whatever irrelevant personal memory substitutes for reasoned critique. But I am not going to create criteria for What Makes A Story Great and then look for the songs that fit the mold.
Thinking chronologically, one of the earliest story-songs that I remember enjoying is Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.” I remember perching on the arm of my dad’s red-orange armchair as he listened to it on the stereo. With its jaunty honky-tonk attitude and its sing-along chorus, it was hard to ignore the appeal! Even though it’s a jaunty honky-tonk singalong about a pool-hall knifing.
Speaking of barroom ballads wherein someone gets murderlated for hustling the wrong guy, I had a soft spot for “Stagger Lee,” as well. I know, now, that it’s quite an old song that’s been covered a vigintillion times, but Lloyd Price’s version is the one I’ve known best.
What was the appeal? Was it how exaggerated and ridiculous the fights were? How pat the songs ended, without getting into the finicky little repercussions like, oh, police involvement, vengeful friends, or simple guilt? The way they were as simple as morality tales, only without those pesky morals? It may just be that I inherited my mom’s streak of morbidity – though I definitely didn’t pick up her fondness for 60s-era teen tragedy songs. Leader of the Pack, Teen Angel, Last Kiss? No and thank you. Getting in a fight over someone hustling your money was way more reasonable to me than getting creamed by a freight train because you went back into the stalled car for a ring. That’s not romance, Skeezix, that’s just idiocy.
Nick Cave pens some fine gore-spattered stories, as well, and has an entire album of – and entitled – Murder Ballads. In fact, that album even has another version of “Stagger Lee.” But the song that’s most memorable to me isn’t on any of his albums – except for a compilation of B-Sides and Rarities.
And, of course, I’ve got an anecdote to go with it. You were warned.
I was a tremendous fan of The X-Files back in its day. I’d never seen anything on TV quite like it, and it seemed to have everything my adolescent brain enjoyed. Mysteries! Crime! Murders! Conspiracies! Secret truths THEY didn’t want you to know! Put-upon underdogs! Will-they-or-won’t-they relationships! Unnecessarily poetic field reports! It all meshed so well with adolescence – these ideas that the world had fantastic things in it, things adults couldn’t understand or were actively keeping from you, but that someone who was persistent enough, clever enough, and brave enough could stay aware of the weirdness of the world – horrors and all – and share that wisdom with others.
But these were the dire days when TV shows could only be seen at their regularly scheduled times, and when watching a show at other times required you to either buy the VHS tape or record it yourself – commercials and all. It was long before the days of Netflix binge-watches, automatically playing one episode after the other unless you specifically told it to stop. It was even before Tivo, which would considerately record things for you and help you avoid the ads. It was harder to engage with the primary source material, and so my ravenous knowledge-hunger had to stretch out into secondary media.
Which, delightfully, was plentiful. There were episode guides and magazine features and fun facts written on collectible cards. And the confluence with the rise of the Internet helped, as well: The X-Files website was the first I can ever remember visiting. So, in addition to the tapes, the t-shirts, the trading cards, and my well-worn copy of the official episode guide… I also got the soundtrack.
For being the soundtrack to a mid-90s sci-fi show on Fox, I suppose it’s not so bad, even objectively. And I felt a few songs were clunkers, even through my fervid fandom. But I would still listen to the whole works, especially when going to bed at night. Portable CD player nestled close to my head, flimsy headphones clamped down tight in hopes they wouldn’t fall off, I’d lay there and imagine solving X-Files, discovering Bigfoots, or first-contacting aliens until I fell asleep. Sometimes the music would weave itself into the dreams, which was often an odd experience.
But the oddest experience of all came in that nebulous, liminal state between waking and sleep. I woke up from a confusing dream sometime on the far side of midnight. The battery indicator glowed amber on the CD player, the music still playing through headphones (askew.) But it was a song I’d never heard before.
I’d listened to the CD more times than I could count, beginning to end, and never – not once – had I heard this. As consciousness seeped back into me, it brought confusion. I slipped off the headphones, wondering if this was somehow something on the stereo, but it was certainly the CD. So I listened. It was slow to the point of funereal, thick with regret and haunted by violins. A British-sounding voice, detached and dolorous and disdainful, sang of wastefulness and silence – of losing a message, of buying a house and a car, of caging birds and listening to their songs. The violins cried out again – and ended. The amber light turned red. The disc whirred to a stop. The batteries had run out.
The next day, I listened to the CD straight through again. Nothing remotely similar was on it. There were no hidden tracks at the end. I tried to research, the next time I was at the library – searching for song lyrics that included “and we bought a cage and two singing birds,” the only line I was certain I remembered in full. Nothing. Had I still been dreaming somehow?
I scoured my perpetual sty of a room, and found the CD case again. I pored over the liner notes, and saw the cryptic message I’d ignored before: “Nick Cave and the Dirty Three would like to remind you that 0 is also a number.” So I loaded up the CD, pressed play, pressed the back button – and it only went to the start of Track 1 again. But that night, I pressed and held it – drifting in and out of sleep again. And it rewound through minutes of silence. Then through a strange squealing cacophony: music. I let up – and it wasn’t the song. It was some parallel-universe cover of The X-Files theme. So I rewound again, through the silence, through the cover, through more silence. And then came something else. I let it get all the way back to the beginning, hoping it was what I was looking for – worried it somehow wasn’t.
But it was the mysterious dirge I’d been looking for – stricken and purple and with angst enough to drown an entire low-lying town. Blame adolescence again, but I loved it.
Eventually, I learned the song’s title – “Time Jesum Transeuntum Et Non Riverentum.” -And I was rather dismayed, some years later, to learn that it did not mean that boding refrain, “Dread the passage of Jesus, for he does not return,” but was instead almost completely meaningless. That, or demons just speak really terrible Latin.
I can’t seem to think of any story-telling songs that truly gripped me in high school or college. I’m sure one will come to me overnight – having fallen asleep with my finger on a mental rewind button.
But I think the story-telling song I like best right now, though, goes even farther back than my teenage years or my childhood – forever-ago as those were. Rather, it’s a Swedish folk song from centuries ago called “Herr Mannelig.” It tells of a mountain troll who tries to marry a noble knight, offering him gifts and gold – and he rejects her. Not because she’s, y’know, a mountain troll, but because she isn’t a Christian mountain troll. And if that’s not hilarious, I don’t know what is.
I think the first version I heard was Garmana’s, which I’m sure is fairly accurate in instrumentation and pronunciation.
That being said, In Extremo’s version rocks faces off pretty well. …Even if they pronounce it more like Herman Gully.
Folk music like this is just fascinating, to me. To think that these songs have been sung for centuries, were once only heard when actual people took up actual instruments in an actual place, and you heard them when you were physically close enough for the vibrating air molecules to strike your eardrum – but now an mp3 can be Googled in the blink of an eye, a video pulled up on YouTube, a version downloaded. I only heard this song in the first place because an Internet Friend DJ’d it, after all.
I think that’s what I love most about these story-songs: not the stories they tell, but the stories they are. The layering of history and culture, the changes in language through time, the loss of original context and the recreation of it. Each song is its own ship of Theseus, sailing through the generations – its instruments swapped out one by one, some of its melodies tweaked, its words altered, its origins forgotten, but still sailing on and still considered “the same song.”
I can’t exactly sing – though I like to – and I don’t play any instrument very passably anymore. And yet I have this strange yen to record my own versions of some of these songs. To follow, if limping, in those footsteps of old; to steer, if three sheets to the wind, that ship.
Sure, I’d put the baddest of bad into “Leroy Brown,” I’d murder “Stagger Lee” as good as he’d done Billy, and I’d make Herr Mannelig believe as much as Nick Cave that Jesus had abandoned this world – but at least I’d have joined the stories.