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Songs That Tell A Story | 21 Of The Very Best

songs that tell a story

Every songwriter brings their own distinct style to the art of music-making, with an range of techniques as varied as the melodies they create. Yet, many of them share a penchant for storytelling, weaving elements such as plot, characters, conflict, and occasionally, resolution, into their compositions.

Much like assembling the pieces of a narrative puzzle in a book, these artists manage to encapsulate a complete story within the compact framework of a song. Drawing inspiration from real-life experiences or fabricating worlds of pure imagination, these storytellers, through their exceptional creativity, invite listeners on a captivating journey.

So come with us as we discover the very best songs that mix music and narratives in the most perfect ways.

21 Of The Best Songs That Tell A Story

1. Bob Dylan, “Hurricane”

Desire (1976)

Bob Dylan’s 1976 piece “Hurricane,” featured in “Desire,” narrates the saga of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer, and John Artis, falsely accused and convicted for a triple homicide in Patterson, New Jersey, in 1966. Dylan, moved by Carter’s steadfast claim of innocence, encapsulated the story in this lengthy track.

2. The Kinks, “Come Dancing”

State of Confusion (1983)

The Kinks’ 1983 song “Come Dancing,” from the album “State of Confusion,” was inspired by a personal tragedy. Ray and Dave Davies’ elder sister, Rene, passed away from a heart attack while dancing in London’s Lyceum Ballroom in 1957. The song narrates a fictional tale about a dance hall frequented by the narrator’s sister, which eventually gets replaced by a parking lot.

3. Elton John, “Ticking”

Caribou (1974)

Elton John’s 1974 song “Ticking,” from “Caribou,” addresses the then-uncommon theme of mass shootings through the narrative of a young man’s mental breakdown leading to a tragic incident in a New York City bar.

4. Harry Chapin, “Cat’s in the Cradle”

Verities & Balderdash (1974)

Harry Chapin’s 1974 song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” from “Verities & Balderdash,” spans a lifetime, illustrating the regret of a father who missed his son’s childhood, only to realize later that their roles have reversed.

5. Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”

Alice’s Restaurant (1967)

songs that tell a story

Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” part of the album “Alice’s Restaurant,” is a semi-autobiographical, spoken-word piece recounting an incident of illegal trash dumping, later adapted into a 1969 film.

6. Rod Stewart, “The Killing of Georgie, Part I and II”

A Night On The Town (1967)

Rod Stewart’s 1976 song “The Killing of Georgie, Part I and II,” from “A Night on the Town,” tells the tragic story of Georgie, a gay friend of Stewart and Ian McLagan of the Faces, who was murdered by a gang in New Jersey.

7. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Into The Great Wide Open”

Into The Great Wide Open (1991)

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1991 track “Into the Great Wide Open,” from the album of the same name, chronicles the bittersweet journey of Eddie, a hopeful musician whose dreams clash with the harsh realities of the music industry.

8. Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue”

At San Quentin (1969)

Johnny Cash’s rendition of Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue,” performed live at San Quentin in 1969, humorously recounts the tale of a young man seeking retribution from his absentee father. This song brings back both good and bad memories.

9. The Traveling Wilburys, “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”

Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 (1988)

The Traveling Wilburys’ 1988 song “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” from “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1,” is a quirky narrative about two drug dealers in New Jersey, crafted during a jam session featuring Bob Dylan and Tom Petty.

10. Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

Summertime Dream (1976)

Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” from “Summertime Dream,” serves more as a historical recount than a short story, chronicling the ill-fated voyage of the American freighter bound for Cleveland.

11. The Beatles, “Rocky Raccoon”

White Album (1968)

songs that tell a story

The Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon,” from their 1968 album “White Album,” spins a tale of a young boy named Rocky Raccoon in the Black Mountain Hills of Dakota. Paul McCartney’s narrative unfolds with Rocky trying to reclaim his love from a rival, leading to a classic Western-style shootout, emphasizing that the town isn’t large enough for both of them.

12. Simon and Garfunkel, “The Boxer”

Bridge over Troubled Water (1970)

Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” from their album “Bridge over Troubled Water,” tells the tale of a young man’s struggle and perseverance in New York City. Though not autobiographical, the song’s lyrics, “I am just a poor boy though my story’s seldom told,” resonate with the struggles and the resilience of the human spirit.

13. The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”

The Band (1969)

The Band’s 1969 track “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” from their self-titled album, is a poignant narrative set during the Civil War. The song, intricately crafted by Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, tells the story of Virgil Cane, a white Southerner, amidst the backdrop of historical events.

14. John Prine, “Sam Stone”

John Prine (1971)

John Prine’s “Sam Stone,” from his 1971 self-titled album, delves into the tragic life of a war veteran coming home with haunting memories, eventually succumbing to drug addiction. Although not his personal story, Prine, a veteran himself, paints a heart-wrenching picture of a reality faced by many.

15. Queen, “39”

A Night At The Opera (1975)

Queen’s “’39,” a track from their 1975 album “A Night at the Opera,” is a fascinating blend of Brian May’s musical talent and interest in astrophysics. The song narrates the journey of space travelers who, upon their return, find a century has passed on Earth, reflecting on the relativity of time.

16. Skid Row, “18 and Life”

Skid Row (1989)

songs that tell a story

Skid Row’s “18 and Life,” from their 1989 debut album, captures the story of Ricky, a young man sentenced to life imprisonment after a tragic incident. The song, partially inspired by guitarist Dave Sabo’s brother’s experiences post-Vietnam War, reflects on the life-altering consequences of a single moment.

17. Iron Maiden, “Alexander the Great”

Somewhere in Time (1986)

Iron Maiden’s “Alexander the Great,” from their 1986 album “Somewhere in Time,” is a historical epic set to music, tracing the life and death of the legendary Macedonian ruler. The song’s lyrics vividly narrate Alexander’s journey, achievements, and untimely demise.

18. The Eagles, “Hotel California”

Hotel California (1976)

The Eagles’ iconic song “Hotel California,” from their 1976 album of the same name, is a metaphorical journey from innocence to experience. The song weaves a mysterious narrative of a traveler caught in a bizarre, inescapable situation, surrounded by enigmatic characters and events.

19. Heart, “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You,”

Brigade (1990)

Heart’s “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You,” from their 1990 album “Brigade,” tells a controversial story of love and desperation. The song, originally written for Don Henley, underwent lyrical adjustments to narrate a woman’s perspective on a complex, emotional entanglement.

20. Pearl Jam, “Jeremy”

Ten (1991)

Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” from their 1991 album “Ten,” is a dark narrative based on true events. The song recounts the tragic story of Jeremy Wade Delle, a 15-year-old who took his life in front of his classmates, intertwining with Vedder’s memories of another student from his school days.

21. Janis Joplin, “Me and Bobby McGee”

Pearl (1971)

Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” from her posthumous 1971 album “Pearl,” is a tale of love and freedom on the open road. The song, penned by Kris Kristofferson, narrates the adventures of two hitchhikers journeying through the American South to California.

Final Thoughts

As our journey through the realm of storytelling songs concludes, we leave with a deeper appreciation for the power of music to narrate, evoke, and inspire. These songs, each a unique blend of melody and tale, remind us that stories can be told in more ways than one, transcending the boundaries of traditional storytelling.

May the tunes and tales you’ve discovered here resonate, inspire, and accompany you, long after the last note fades.