The Greatest Stories Ever Sung, Part 1 [Think Tank]

The Greatest Stories Ever Sung, Part 1 [Think Tank]

This is the first of what we hope will be a regular feature. In Think Tank, we’ll all join forces to tackle one question. To kick things off: Which pop song has the best plot? “Jungleland,” Bruce Springsteen from lee … Continued

think_tank_logo_squareThis is the first of what we hope will be a regular feature. In Think Tank, we’ll all join forces to tackle one question. To kick things off:

Which pop song has the best plot?

“Jungleland,” Bruce Springsteen
from lee

To be honest, I have no idea what this song’s “plot” is about, but I assume it must be the most epic and grandiose tale ever told in the New York metropolitan area. The cop’s not just a cop; he’s the “maximum lawman.” Gangs don’t just fight; they have an “opera out in the turnpike,” fight their ballet in the alley, and “flash guitars just like switchblades.” Which I assume means that they duel with totally sweet hybrid knife-guitars. All of this takes place against the backdrop of the “giant Exxon sign that brings this fair city light.” That sign must be HUGE. And it all comes to a tragic end when the protagonist’s “own dream cuts him down” in a hail of gunfire in the “tunnels uptown.”

Sure, the lyrics are all over the place, but I’m convinced a talented director/scriptwriter could cobble all of this imagery together to make a killer musical/movie set in a sweltering 1970’s New York summer. And the guitar-weapon hybrid possibilities are just irresistible:

I'm pretty sure this is what Springsteen had in mind.

I'm pretty sure this is what Springsteen had in mind.

“Convoy,” C. W. McCall
from Matthew Belinkie


Yes, he's sniffing a flower. No, I don't know why.

The best stories create their own worlds – think about Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or Joyce’s Dublin. To those, add McCall’s American highways. We may not understand what he means when he says “cab over Pete with a reefer on” (it’s a refrigerated trailer pulled by a flat-faced Peterbilt truck), but for all the strangeness of his words, McCall’s message is clear: “Come on and join our Convoy, ain’t nothing gonna get in our way.” It’s a stirring anthem of working class solidarity that ranks right up there with Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” or Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

The song came out only a year after the National Maximum Speed Law made 55 miles per hour mandatory. The Smokeys weren’t just the enemy of the trucking subculture – everyone was picking up a C B radio. More importantly, in 1975 the country was still reeling from Vietnam and Watergate. Disgust towards the government was at an all-time high. In “Convoy,” the right to speed becomes symbolic of a return to an earlier era of freedom. There’s a direct line between “Give me liberty or give me death” and “So we crashed the gate doin’ ninety-eight, I sez, ‘Let them truckers roll, 10-4!'”

That’s the genius of the Convoy – it creates a fantasy of rebellion, of facing down the National Guard with your fellow citizens (only five years after Kent State!), but it also makes the fantasy harmless enough for mass consumption. It’s a grenade wrapped in bubblegum. No wonder it hit number one on the pop and country charts, and inspired a multi-million dollar film.

My fellow Overthinkers have picked some great songs. But do any of those other songs star Kris Kristofferson and Academy Award-winner Ernest Borgnine? ‘Nuf said. 10-4.

“Norwegian Wood,” The Beatles
from mlawski

The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” is a simple song. Other than the words “Norwegian” and “anywhere,” there is no word longer than two syllables long. A small child could read and understand these lyrics.

So why can no one figure out what actually happens in the song?

As far as I can tell, it’s about a woman who invites a man (John Lennon, probably) to her apartment. There, one of four things happens:

  1. John hits on the woman, but she rebuffs his advances by saying she has to work in the morning.


    This guy does weird stuff in bed.

  2. The woman hits on John and invites him to bed, but he rebuffs her advances by going to sleep in the bathtub.
  3. The woman and John flirt with each other, but their flirting game gets so out of control that they never manage to have sex.
  4. The woman and John flirt and do have sex during the instrumental bridge. (Sitars = bow chicka wow wow.)

After one of those four events happens, the woman goes off to work, and one of four things happens:

  1. John lights a fire in the fireplace and admires the apartment’s fine Norwegian wood.
  2. John lights up a doobie and enjoys the “Norwegian wood” within.
  3. John masturbates. Here the “fire” is metaphorical, as in “come on baby, light my fire,” and the “wood” is referring to John’s erection.
  4. John sets the woman’s apartment on fire. The “isn’t it good Norwegian wood” is ironic. I personally subscribe to this theory because Paul McCartney once said that this is what John would do if a woman actually turned him down for sex, and even though he and John used to mock reporters in interviews with fake answers, I see no reason to disagree with this assessment. For someone who was all “give peace a chance,” John could be an angry fellow.

There may not be a way to figure out what actually happened during “Norwegian Wood,” and that’s precisely why it’s my pick for the greatest story ever sung.

“There was an Old Lady (Who Swallowed a Fly),” Mills and Bonne (most famously recorded by Burl Ives)
from shechner

If you’ve heard of this song before today, it was most likely when you were about six years old, as it is purportedly (and inexplicably) intended for children. Specifically, it’s one of those cumulative types where the verses tell a continuous narrative, each reiterating its predecessors after extending the plot. As a refresher, here’s a video of a pleasingly plump, bespectacled, be-ten-gallon-hat-icled man singing it beside a campfire:

I remain unconvinced that it’s a campfire and not a funeral pyre.

Now, while my colleagues are likely discussing more epic matters – quixotic love, the struggle of the lower class long-haul trucker, the decay of the urban soul – I propose that I’ve never heard a story in song (maybe even a story at all!) that matches the sheer unsettling terror that this song induces in me: “Oh, so you’ve written a story about how the lower class rose up to fight oppression? Awesome; I once watched an elderly woman systematically consume a live ecosystem that remained alive in her gut. You’ve got a fantastical re-imagining of World War One, set in a magical world of Hobbits and Elves? That’s cool, I guess; this woman I know ate a LIVE FRIGGIN DOG AND CAT, and NONE INVOLVED DIED.”

And to top it all off, she's SMILING.

And to top it all off, she's SMILING.

There are so many things wrong about this piece.  I find it unsettling in much the way that the old “Twilight Zones” are: that so much horror can be found in the seemingly mundane, just by twisting minor elements around. After all, it’s subject matter is just some woman the singer knows – no one special – it could be just any old woman.  Really, who IS this person, and how has she developed the skill to consume other life – less like you or I eat it – and more as Chronos devours his living God-Children?  Why does no one else stop her from committing these monstrous, almost certainly suicidal acts?  Yes, that’s really the crux of it, I guess.  This is a song that ends each verse with the unbelievably passive, “Perhaps she’ll die,” ultimately culminating with the so-called ‘punch line,’ “She’s dead, of course.”  It’s a song about watching something fantastic and horrifying, and walking away from the experience with nothing but ennui.

In summary, having heard this song for better than 25 years, as far as I can tell its purpose is three-fold:

  1. To teach children about the inevitable Dark Shroud of Death that waits for us all, and how – as we become elderly – we desperately come to long for its touch.
  2. To teach children that the world as a whole is indifferent to human suffering, be it the self-inflicted tortures of our actions, or the aforementioned juggernaut of Death that proceeds endlessly around us.
  3. To teach children about the food chain.

And really, it’s number three that led me to put it on the list.

More Overthinkers weigh in tomorrow. But feel free to suggest your own greatest story ever sung in the comments, today.

17 Comments on “The Greatest Stories Ever Sung, Part 1 [Think Tank]”

  1. mlawski OTI Staff #

    The weirdest thing about the old lady who swallowed a fly to me is the order of the animals. You say the song is about the food chain, Shechner, but since when do goats chase/eat dogs? And since when do cows chase/eat goats?

    No, it should have gone like this: fly, spider, lizard, bird, cat, wolf, bear.

    Also, if the original song really is about the food chain, does that mean that humans are second to the top of the food chain and horses are at the very top? W. T. F?


  2. JT #

    You’re all wrong.
    Tom Petty’s Into The Great Wide Open

    He went to Hollywood, got a tatoo!
    He had chains that would jingle!
    I know Kristofferson was cool, but this vid had Johnny Depp! No need for a movie.


  3. stokes OTI Staff #

    @mlawski – If it’s the food chain, really it should end with
    “I know an old lady who swallowed a human/
    oh what a shame/
    she caught and ate the most dangerous game!”


  4. stokes OTI Staff #

    “Perhaps she’ll die… of kuru.”


  5. Darin #

    I don’t know if this rates anywhere near ‘Greatest’ but I like the simplicity and the imagery of ‘Gimme Three Steps’

    I was cutting the rug
    Down at a place called the Jug
    With a girl named Linda Lu
    When in walked a man
    With a gun in his hand
    And he was looking for you know who.
    He said, hey there fellow,
    With the hair colored yellow,
    Watcha tryin to prove?
    cause thats my woman there
    And Im a man who cares
    And this might be all for you.

    I was scared and fearing for my life.
    I was shakin like a leaf on a tree.
    cause he was lean, mean,
    Big and bad, lord,
    Pointin that gun at me.
    I said, wait a minute, mister,
    I didnt even kiss her.
    Dont want no trouble with you.
    And I know you dont owe me
    But I wish youd let me
    Ask one favor from you.

    wont you give me three steps,
    Gimme three steps mister,
    Gimme three steps towards the door?
    Gimme three steps
    Gimme three steps mister,
    And youll never see me no more

    This guy is ‘cutting the rug’ aka dancing really well at a place called the Jug. We don’t know what the Jug looks like, yet everyone can imagine what a placed called the Jug would look like. He’s dancing with Linda Lu. Jug + Linda Lu = southern rock.

    The guy points a gun at him – tension, possible violence. He pleads ‘I didn’t even kiss her’, while staring at a ‘forty-four’. The pulp is thick, and then the chorus which is something you wouldn’t expect.

    He asks for a head start.

    Great imagery, great story, short, fast, well told.

    On a different note (sorry just had to), I have to acknowledge “Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot.


  6. kuri #

    I vote for “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” by the Decembrists.

    The story is epic: Some Creep takes up with a Boy’s widowed mother, then dumps her and leaves behind nothing but debts. Mom and Boy get tossed out on the street. Mom goes crazy, gets TB, and dies. But before she dies, she tells her son to avenge her, leaving the best chorus in the history of music as her last words:

    Find him, bind him
    Tie him to a pole and break
    His fingers to splinters
    Drag him to a hole until he
    Wakes up naked
    Clawing at the ceiling
    Of his grave

    Boy gets taken in by monks. He grows up and finds out that the Creep is now the captain of a whaler, so he becomes a pirate. His pirate ship is about to attack the whaler, when a whale sinks both ships and swallows the Boy and the Creep.

    Inside the whale’s stomach, the Boy tells the Creep the whole story. Just before he kills him.


  7. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Kuri – WOW! That actually does sound like the Greatest Story Ever Sung. Wait, let me watch it… [ten minutes later] Yup, that’s crazy-cool.

    Hey, someone remind me to write about Jollyship the Whiz-bang sometime.


  8. lee OTI Staff #

    @Darin: good call on the Lynyrd Skynyrd, but even the third verse doesn’t fully disclose how the confrontation ended:

    Well the crowd cleared away
    And I began to pray
    As the water fell on the floor.
    And I’m telling you son,
    Well, it ain’t no fun
    Staring straight down a forty-four.
    Well he turned and screamed at Linda Lu
    And that’s the break I was looking for.
    And you could hear me screaming a mile away
    As I was headed out towards the door.

    “The water fell on the floor”: I’ve always assumed that it means he peed his pants.

    Anyway, he’s clearly making a run for it while the dude with the gun is screaming at Linda Lu, but presumably, a wild chase ensues. Maybe he gets away scott free; maybe the big dude shoots him in the back as he’s trying to run away.

    They never did a sequel to this song?


  9. Wade #

    I nominate Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”

    It’s the ultimate song about throwing garbage over a cliff on Thanksgiving Day and subsequently going to court over the matter that’s (apparently) actually about the Vietnam War.

    Not to mention that the only reason the song is 18 freakin’ minutes long is because Guthrie’s singing is less singing and more pot-addled rambling.


  10. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @kuri: Yeah Mariner’s Revenge Song! That was on my short list. Actually, half of the Decemberists songs are [ridiculous] stories, so to pick only one is almost unfair.

    By the way, if anyone cares, the rest of my short list:
    -Space Oddity (Bowie)
    -Poem on the Underground Wall (Simon & Garfunkel)
    -Wooden Ships (CSNY or Jefferson Airplane)
    -Monkey & Bear (Joanna Newsom)


  11. Gab #

    Ok, now it’s telling me there have been duplicate comments or some jazz… I broke the website. Greeeat.


  12. Gab #

    Alright, I’m getting really frustrated, so since I continually seem to be having problems commenting, I’m just going to link you to the MySpace page and tell you the name of the song. “She Moves in Secret Ways.”

    It’s about a woman’s right to choose.


  13. Dennis O'Brien #

    I don’t know. I think that the song with the best story is The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” It reminds me of an elegiac Western. We look at the end of the Confederacy not as a war, won or lost, but as one person’s personal experience.


  14. Hazel #

    How about “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by Charles Daniels? It has a greed, passion, and an epic mano-a-mano confrontation with evil using the power of rock and roll. Also, it has a blinged-out fiddle, and who wouldn’t want that?

    Its less known cousin, Travis Meyer’s “The Devil Went to Jamaica,” explores the Devil’s further adventures abroad.


  15. Marcela #

    I would have to say, both as a plot and as historical documentation: “American Pie” by Don McLean (the whole 8 minute version).
    It is emotive, critical, historically accurate, first-person p.o.v., tells the tale of a whole generation through the eyes of one of its own… takes a look at the history of rock and roll… features John Lennon, Hell’s Angels, and The Rolling Stones…
    There is so much to read into this song!


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