Everyone has a story to tell – whether it’s about their lives, the lives of inspiring figures, or just a made-up story that they think will inspire others.
Back in the olden days, stories were told through songs. These songs were passed down from generation to generation, and they were told in the form of a song to make the story easier to remember and to make it more interesting to tell.
These days, stories can be written down and shared with one click. But that never stopped songwriters from creating beautiful stories woven in with music. And while many of today’s popular songs tell a certain message (about love, loss, happiness, grief, etc.), there are still so many songs out there that capture our imaginations with the way they tell a story.
Below are some songs that tell a story – and in a way, it gives you a glimpse into the life and mind of the people who wrote it.
Pearl Jam – Jeremy
Starting off on a tragic note, we have Peal Jam’s Jeremy. This song was inspired by a school shooting that occurred in 1991. The titular Jeremy had always been a bit of a problematic child, but no one really paid attention to the signs – not even his parents. And then one day, during English class, Jeremy brought out a gun and shot himself in the head. If that’s not a PSA for troubled youths, we don’t know what is!
Story telling lyrics: At home drawing pictures
Of mountain tops with him on top
Lemon yellow sun, arms raised in a V
And the dead lay in pools of maroon below
Lukas Graham – 7 Years
A mix of a biography and his wishes for the future, 7 Years is about the life Lukas has lived so far and his dream of being like his father. In an interview, Lukas says that the song goes up to the age of 60 because his father passed at 61. He says that being a great father is the most important thing because his dad was perfect in his eyes.
Story telling lyrics: Soon I’ll be 60 years old, my daddy got 61
Remember life and then your life becomes a better one
I made a man so happy when I wrote a letter once
I hope my children come and visit, once or twice a month
Reba McEntire – Fancy
This song is one of the most heartbreaking stories because it rings true for so many women who want to escape the cycle of poverty. Fancy is about an 18-year-old girl who lives with her terminally ill mother and infant sibling. In a last ditch effort to the titular Fancy from poverty, her mother buys her a dancing dress, makeup, and perfume so she can entertain men. She does so and becomes financially independent.
Story telling lyrics: I knew what I had to do and I made myself this solemn vow
That I’s gonna be a lady someday
Though I didn’t know when or how
But I couldn’t see spending the rest of my life
With my head hung down in shame
You know I might have been born just plain white trash
But Fancy was my name
Tracy Chapman – Fast Car
Here’s another song about escaping the vicious cycle of poverty. Fast Car is a folk-rock song that tells the story of a poor working woman trying to change her life for the better. It’s a heartbreaking yet optimistic song about dreaming of a better life and actually trying to do something to achieve it.
Story telling lyrics: You got a fast car
I got a plan to get us out of here
I been working at the convenience store
Managed to save just a little bit of money
Won’t have to drive too far
Just ‘cross the border and into the city
You and I can both get jobs
And finally see what it means to be living
Harry Chapin – Cats in the Cradle
This song was actually written by Harry’s wife, Sandy. It was inspired by the distant relationship between her first husband and his father. It tells the story of a young boy who idolizes his father. Sadly, his father is too busy with work to give his son much attention. As they both grow older, the son becomes distant and the father reflects on how he wasn’t able to build a relationship with his son.
Story telling lyrics: I’ve long since retired and my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, I’d like to see you if you don’t mind
He said, I’d love to, dad, if I could find the time
You see, my new job’s a hassle, and the kid’s got the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me
Eminem – Stan
Stan is about a man who claims to be Eminem’s biggest fan. The song itself is styled as a series of letters to Eminem, with each letter becoming angrier and more aggressive. In the final act, Stan admits to locking his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk of his car and driving into a lake. Eminem eventually replies to Stan’s letters, only to realize that he had already heard about Stan’s suicide.
Story telling lyrics: I know you probably hear this every day, but I’m your biggest fan
I even got the underground shit that you did with Skam
I got a room full of your posters and your pictures, man
I like the shit you did with Rawkus too, that shit was phat
Anyways, I hope you get this, man, hit me back
Just to chat, truly yours, your biggest fan, this is Stan
Billy Joel – Piano Man
Piano Man is a semi-autobiographical telling of Billy Joel’s experience as a piano lounge singer in Los Angeles. He comes across several people at the lounge looking for their big break in LA. All the people in the lounge have dreams of a better life, and Billy Joel was there to supply the music as they sang the night away.
Story telling lyrics: And the piano it sounds like a carnival
And the microphone smells like a beer
And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar
And say, “Man, what are you doing here?”
Michael Jackson – Billie Jean
The thing about fame is that you’ll have fans who might want a piece of your paycheck. In Billie Jean the singer talks about a young woman who claims that he is the father of her son. Despite his adamant denial that she was never his lover, she insists on getting something out of the singer. It’s said that the song was inspired by girls who used to hang around with the Jackson 5 claiming they were pregnant by one of the band members.
Story telling lyrics: For forty days and forty nights
The law was on her side
But who can stand when she’s in demand
Her schemes and plans
‘Cause we danced on the floor in the round
So take my strong advice, just remember to always think twice
Heart – All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You
If you want a story that could very well become a movie, this is it. All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You is a song about a woman who engages in a one-night stand with a hitchhiker. After a passionate night together, they agree never to contact each other again. Years later, they see each other and the woman has a child who looks just like him. It’s then revealed that she only used the man to become pregnant because the man she loves can’t give her children.
Story telling lyrics: Then it happened one day,
We came round the same way
You can imagine his surprise
When he saw his own eyes
I said “please, please understand
I’m in love with another man
And what he couldn’t give me,
Was the one little thing that you can”
The Beatles – Eleanor Rigby
It’s sad and a little cryptic, but you can’t deny just how catchy this song is. Eleanor Rigby tells the story of two lonely people – the titular Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie. These two lonely figures eventually cross paths when Eleanor passes away and Father McKenzie was the only one to attend the funeral.
Story telling lyrics: Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name
Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved
Lefty Frizzell – Long Black Veil
Long Black Veil is told from the point of view of an man who was wrongly executed for murder. He refuses to give an alibi because he was having an affair with his best friend’s wife at the time of the murder. He takes his secret to the grave, though his best friend’s wife would often visit him wearing a long black veil.
Story telling lyrics: Oh, the scaffold is high, and eternity’s near
She stood in the crowd and shed not a tear
But late at night, when the north wind blows
In a long black veil, she cries over my bones
Suzanne Vega – Luka
Suzanne Vega’s highest-charting song deals with the issue of child abuse. Luka is a child who lives upstairs from the singer. He introduces himself to the singer, but he asks her not to mention the noise coming from their apartment. It’s revealed that Luka lives with an abusive family.
Story telling lyrics: Yes I think I’m okay
I walked into the door again
Well, if you ask that’s what I’ll say
And it’s not your business anyway
I guess I’d like to be alone
With nothing broken, nothing thrown
Dan Fogelberg – Leader of the Band
This touching song was written by Dan Fogelberg as a tribute to his father. His father was a musician and the leader of a band. Though he wasn’t born to be a musician, he pursued his passion and eventually passed it on to his son, Dan.
Story telling lyrics: The leader of the band is tired and his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through my instrument and his song is in my soul
My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man
I’m just a living legacy to the leader of the band
I am a living legacy to the leader of the band
David Bowie – Space Oddity
This haunting song is about Major Tom, an astronaut sent into space. He marvels at the beauty of the earth from outer space and asks Ground Control to tell his wife that he loves her. Unfortunately, Major Tom’s circuit goes dead as they encounter a problem. Ground Control has lost contact with Major Tom as he drifts off aimlessly into space.
Story telling lyrics: Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much she knows
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Peter Paul and Mary – Puff the Magic Dragon
This folk song tells the story of a young Jackie Paper and his dragon friend Puff. But as young boys grow into young men, Jackie eventually grows up and leaves his imaginary friend.
Story telling lyrics: A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys
Painted wings and giant’s rings make way for other toys
One gray night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more
And Puff, that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar
Barry Manilow – Copacabana
A song that features romance, intrigue, and murder to the beat of a dance hit, Copacabana is a tune that’s hard to get out of your head. It tells the story of a Copacabana showgirl named Lola whose lover is shot by a mobster. Years later, the bereaved Lola still shows up at the bar dressed in her glamorous showgirl costume.
Story telling lyrics: Her name is Lola, she was a showgirl
But that was 30 years ago, when they used to have a show
Now it’s a disco, but not for Lola
Still in dress she used to wear
Faded feathers in her hair
She sits there so refined, and drinks herself half-blind
She lost her youth and she lost her Tony
Now she’s lost her mind
George Jones – He Stopped Loving Her Today
Possibly one of the saddest songs ever written, He Stopped Loving Her Today remains one of George Jones’ most memorable songs. It tells the story of an old man who still loves a woman who has left his life long ago. His love for her remained up until he drew his last breath.
Story telling lyrics: He stopped loving her today
They placed a wreath upon his door
And soon they’ll carry him away
He stopped loving her today
Billy Joel – We Didn’t Start the Fire
Want a song that really tells a story? How about one that mentions every major event that happened between the 1940s to the 1980s? With rapid-fire lyrics Billy Joel enumerates up to 119 major world events – definitely a song to listen to if you want a crash course in history.
Story telling lyrics: We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No, we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it
Barenaked Ladies – Big Bang
In the same vein as We Didn’t Start the Fire, the Big Bang Theory song goes beyond the 1940s to beyond the time of man. It starts off with the Big Bang and tells the story of how the universe, the solar system, and eventually, the earth was formed.
Story telling lyrics: Our whole universe was in a hot dense state,
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started. Wait…
The Earth began to cool,
The autotrophs began to drool,
Neanderthals developed tools,
We built a wall, we built the pyramids,
Math, science, history, unraveling the mystery,
That all started with the big bang
Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody
To cap off this list we have one of the catchiest story songs ever written. Bohemian Rhapsody is a fantastical mix of operatic melodies, hard rock instrumentals, and vocals that only the late Freddie Mercury could provide. It’s a song about a young man who shoots someone and bids farewell to his mother. What follows is a fantastical tug of war between what seems to be his conscience, the law, the people who sympathize with him, and himself.
Story telling lyrics: I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me.
He’s just a poor boy from a poor family,
Spare him his life from this monstrosity
Which of these musical stories do you like the most? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!