The Art Of The Story Song – The Key To Narrative Songwriting

At  4.00 o’clock on a December morning, the narrator of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat begins to tell the heart rending tale of a triangular relationship between two men and one woman.

IOK let’s face it, it’s a subject that that is a staple of popular song, drama, fiction and just about any other art form you can mention.  But Cohen –  like all good writers – take this most over-worked scenarios  and turns it into what might be called nowadays, a fully immersive experience that leaves you shaken and stirred.

Famous Blue Raincoat is a song you can come back to again and again,  perhaps because Cohen doesn’t reveal the whole picture. The arc of the narrative is clear.  The narrator is writing a letter to a friend who has betrayed him by sleeping with his wife (or partner), Jane. The couple stay together but the relationship has changed.

But it’s the detail that intrigues. Prior to the betrayal,  the one time friend goes to a station to meet a train, but return alone with his raincoat ‘torn’ at the shoulder. Cohen gives no further detail. You’re left to fill in the details yourself.  Similarly, the betrayer is no said to be living in the desert. At one stage, he intended to ‘go clear.’ Again no further details. What this means is that every time the listener returns to the song, the imagination  builds a bigger world around these carefully crafted pointers.

Cut to Tangled up in Blue, my favourite Dylan song. The first verse references a marriage and relationship breakdown. From there we go on a disjointed journey, where each verse seems to shine a torch into another period of the narrator’s life (it may even be multiple narrators).  Each scene is vivid. You see the faces, feel the pain and joy,  but Dylan doesn’t join the narrative dots.   He leaves that up to the listener.

Compare and contrast with Springsteen, who often writes with the precision of a screenwriter.  It’s all laid out. But here’s the trick. Every time you come back,  you rebuild the scenes a new, because the writer puts a projector and screen into your mind.

I am fascinated by the narrative song – from traditional ballads to today’s rock, rap, folk and/or Americana.   And there is more than one way to  tell a story

Arguably the real test of a story song is whether or not the listener feels inclined to hear it more than once. Give away too much, the song could be like a joke that isn’t funny second time round.

Here some songs – on a spotify playlist – that I feel have stood the test of time – along with a couple of mine.



Heroes Next Door – Support Your Local Music Legends

Chicago 2017. I’m standing at a bar in Buddy Guy’s Blues Legends club.  It’s jam night and I’m watching a local singer – the imperious and rather wonderful Holle Thee Maxwell –  wow a crowd that is largely comprised of tourists, such as my good self.

At one point, Holle plugs an upcoming concert, at which she will be playing with members of blues legend,  Willie Dixon’s band.  As it turns out, several members of that band are in the  room, all of them  pointed out by Holle.

For a music obsessed traveler, it is a wonderful moment. This is the America of my dreams.  A place where you can walk a few blocks, pay a $5 cover charge and find yourself standing at the bar with men and women who are an acknowledged part of musical history. And let’s not forget Holle, herself.  A blues, soul an opera singer, she is also part of Chicago’s heritage.

Bert’s Blues

But I live in England, so let’s jump back further in time. I first saw  saw Bert Jansch play in the cellar bar of a pub in North West London and a few weeks later in the upstairs room of a another bar in Clapham.  On both occasions he played inspiring sets that made me a) want to practice harder and b) encouraged me to buy a Yamaha LD10, just like Bert’s.

Bert was, of course, a musical  legend. One of the key figures in the UK folk revival of the 1960s,  he was a master musician who has, by now, influenced several generations of musicians.  But like many on the folk/blues scene, you might find playing a pub folk club on Wednesday and the Albert Hall on Saturday.  He was, in short, not only a guitar genius but also an accessible, jobbing musician. The same could be said for others of his generation, such as Martin Carthy or Steve Tilston.

Close to the Action

The great thing about small pub gigs is that – from the point of view of a guitarist  – you can really see what’s going on – or to put it another way, you are close to the action and can clearly see every piece of left hand fingering and right hand technique.

And if you’re lucky, you might also see a real legend at work. To drop another name, I was once luck enough to see former Fleetwood Mac guitarist at a bar in Southampton.

So what am I saying here. Musicians start off in small pubs and club and in some cases that’s where they stay or return to.   We live in an age of stadium rock, but small venues are where new music is made and where it can often be seen and heard at its best.   So support the heroes next door – the ones that have already earned their place in history and the ones taking their first step in that direction.