Through a Vale of Tears: The Story-Song

Joni Mitchell in 1974
Joni Mitchell in 1974  

To sing is to have the self confidence to make oneself more accessible to others. Perhaps this is what Augustine meant when he said that “the person who sings prays twice.”

Are there spheres of communication that have a perfect form?  Are there ways to express the nearly inexpressible? These are grand but interesting questions with at least a partial answer. One plausible way to adding meaning to a message is to carry its burdens in two dimensions: for example, in words and images, or in words and music.  Sometimes it seems like the world increasingly prefers the first option.  We have seemingly insatiable appetites for even bad video and film, with even worse sound.  But I keep coming back to the revelatory power of the other pairing centered on the aural: words and music. The combination can suddenly make apparent what cannot be made visible or represented in language alone.

The song–from folk to opera–is potentially expression times three: words laid within the “hooks” of melodies, modulated in attention-getting  triads within major or minor keys, and sometimes set literally to the rhythm of the heart. The effect is both poetic and disclosive, nudging the voice into a registers that seem to make the soul more transparent. To sing is to have the self confidence to make oneself  more accessible emotionally. I’d like to think this is what Augustine meant when he said that “the person who sings prays twice.”

Story-songs are a special case. Lately they’ve been celebrated in feature films such as the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), as well as popular documentaries such as Laura Archibald’s Greenwich Village: Music that Defined a Generation (2013).  And while it’s hard to avoid being hopelessly reductive when discussing music, it’s relentless pull on our attention  still manages to bait us into the effort. Bears have honey.  We have music.

Narrative ideas are sometimes worked out in so-called “concept albums.” Cabaret singer Nancy Lamott’s My Foolish Heart (1993) has a string of pieces that start with a couple’s first infatuation (The Best is Yet to Come) and ends 10 songs later in a relationship that is spent, the broken couple dividing up their books as they prepare to move on (Where do you Start?).  

The story-song goes even further to construct its own three act play, often in very personal terms.  And if there’s not always a full third act, there is at least the expressive power bound in a sequence of events cast in the prose of personal biography. Few working in this more intimate  style settle for the kinds of statements of sheer romantic bliss that iconic writers of the Great American Songbook took as their norm. Instead, the best are individualized narratives that still manage to tap feelings we already know. The story-song offers a para-history:  partly someone else’s biography and–because of the empathy  a fragment of sentiment evokes–partly ours as well. The effect can be transformative. The mingling of words and music in three or four chords can be more precious to its listeners than multi-million dollar films that often squander their mandates to tell a compelling story.

Identifying classics of this form will always be an idiosyncratic exercise. Story songs have obviously sprung from everywhere, including Southern Appalachia (Iris DeMent’s Our Town), the folk revivals of the 1960s and 70s (Bob Dylan’s Ballad in Plain D), Nashville (Taylor Swift’s Love Story), and even suburbia (Richard Shindell’s Hazel’s House).

There are so many songs that could be called iconic.  Everybody’s playlist is different and not to be dismissed. Consider a small sample:

For a full three-act narrative there’s Marty Robbins’ 1959 ballad, El Paso. To say that it got its share of airplay in its time is an understatement.  Robbins wrote it for his Gunfighter Ballads, album, doing in four minutes what the popular horse operas of the day spread over 90.  It retains the same masculine form emphasizing action over feelings as Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (1976). Lightfoot put to music the widely known drama of a Great Lakes freighter lost in a fierce Lake Superior storm.

Sometimes story-songs seem take us very close to a writer’s past, such as Dar Williams After all (2000), It recounts a family in disarray, and her subsequent bouts of depression as a younger woman.  Some of the same kind of despair exists in The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York (1987), where the alcohol-induced meltdown of the Irish group seems to be happening during the recording.

Kris Kristofferson once said to Joni Mitchell that she was maybe too biographical in her music: “Oh Joni – save something of yourself,” he cautioned after hearing one of her sets decades ago.  Her Night Ride Home (1991) avoids the darker cast of so much of her output. It it she simply celebrates the freedom of heading out with her friends in the band after a successful performance.  No cares or phones.

Two story-songs deserve special mention for the sheer beauty of their visions. One is Shindell’s, Wisteria.  If ever a song catches an adult’s wistful sense of a place he once knew, this might be it.  And there is also Michael Peter Smith’s The Dutchman (1968), an earnest folk song in the tradition of its era, and a surprisingly touching story of an aging couple trying to hold on. Woods Tea Company found the perfect venue to record it, using the kind of coffee house intimacy the ballad demands.

Story-songs usually have a melancholy cast. Ironically, they give pleasure by taking us through endless cycles of suffering and release.  In our world they are perhaps the closest counterpart to “the vale of tears” a Christian is said to pass through on the path to a better life.


Thanks to my daughter, Hilary Woodward, for introducing some of these songs to me.