Tell me a story...
I like music. And, obviously, I like a good story.
While I like the pure sound of a riff from a good rock instrumental, and like the mood that a superb orchestral piece will put me in, I like best when I hear a story. I'm quite sure that's where the love of opera comes from for most folks; it's a mixture of the two. My problem with opera is that: I don't speak Italian or German, and I'm too impatient to wait 2 hours to see a story that easily could have been told in one of my daughters' old Little Golden Books. That, and most of it (though not all of it) wears me plumb out. (I have to admit that the dumpy amateur British fellow does manage to reach me, somehow.)
The other day, I was listening to an excellent piece by Gwen Thompkins on NPR Weekend Edition about Kenyan radio. Guess what their all-time favorite genre is? They love American country music. It seems that Kenyans have a long tradition of story-telling, and like it in their songs. When they started modernizing and listening to pre-recorded music, they found that the one style of popular music that appealed to their oral tradition most was American Country & Western music, especially from the 1970's and '80's, and especially from (get this): Kenny Rogers. Kenny is HUGE in Nairobi. (Who knew?) Songs like "The Coward Of The County," "The Gambler," etc. tell stories. As for female vocalists, it's all about Dolly Parton. (They especially love "Coat Of Many Colors.")
I thought about that.
While I'm not a huge fan of country music, I've been learning to embrace it more and more, lately. I'm growing away from the silly musical pieces that were the hallmark of my youth (Just what was the story behind "Pour Some Sugar On Me"?), and seeking out music that expresses a story, or at least a complete thought. Oh, it still has to have a catchy tune, without which "The Road Goes On Forever", or "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald", or "El Paso" would never have survived as they do.
The skill of storytelling in music is not dead; it's just not popular with those who currently control what we listen to: 12 to 24 year-old radio-listening kids. They make the requests, and they buy the albums (or MP3's), and they're moving the market to their focus. The Old 97s, a country/rock crossover band that seem to have managed to find a niche, do a decent job of telling stories in their music. They clearly recognized the beauty of a story in a song (indeed, their very band name refers to a famous folk song recounting a terrible train wreck), when they remade Marty Robins' aforementioned "El Paso," complete with a blistering guitar solo. Listen to it twice before giving up on it; it's greatness. They also tell a disturbingly concise tale of revenge in their song "Waiting For The Other Shoe." ("You've got your pride, and a blue steel .45/ And you're waitin' for the other shoe to fall."). And it was only 11 years ago that the late (great) Johnny Cash finally put the last verses on his old song "Mean Eyed Cat", and recorded "I Never Picked Cotton." Some folks still sing stories.
A local radio station (KZPS "Lone Star") has been attempting a "new" format of music that they've declared as "outlaw music." It's fronted by none other than Willie Nelson, and plays a lot of country music, but still pulls from their old rock and roll music collection. It's a decent attempt, but they still seem to be seeking their roots. One of the songs that they've been playing the most, lately, is "Breakfast In Hell." Slaid Cleaves hisses a tale of a tough lumberjack breaking up his final log jam in a conspiratorial manner that makes you turn up the radio and sing along with the chorus, even though you've heard it twice that day already. I wonder if our radio station has figured out that the reason they're getting so many calls for pieces of Americana like that and Junior Brown's "Broke Down South Of Dallas" are so popular. It's for the same reason that most folks can still recall the premise, if not the complete lyrics, to "Ode To Billie Joe"-- there's a story in there.
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Several years ago, a rookie cop that I used to work with introduced me to a rather... uh, base... site called "Stick Death". I repeatedly told him that it was a timewaster that was probably going to get him in trouble for watching on his coffee breaks, but on stormy nights I found myself sometimes watching some of the simple GIF animations over his shoulder. One of them, set to metal music, I found strangely... compelling for some reason that I couldn't figure out. "5MOCA" ("Five Minutes Of Crap Animation") Then I suddenly recognized the lyrics of the Metalica remake: it was an old Irish ballad "Whiskey In The Jar."; they'd only changed the lyrics a tad. So I watched the 5 minute animation of the old old song. And you know? It kind of sticks with you. (Warning: that animation is not particularly explicit, but then again, it's not entirely work- or kid-safe.) Funny how songs written hundreds of years ago that tell a story will do that, even in the strangest of contexts.