Here and there we come across songs that tell good stories. Sure, they ALL tell stories to some extent, but there are some that blatantly do so, and the stories are interesting in and of themselves. All the better when the music is at least as good as the narrative.

Here are my favorites, with a brief description of what the story is about, so I don’t ruin the suspense if you decide to listen to them. For each song I’ve embedded a video, and included the lyrics. There’s also a YouTube playlist with all the songs at the bottom.

1. Marty Robbins: El Paso (1959)

Marty Robbins sings of a man who goes to the West Texas town of El Paso, falls in love with a Mexican girl, and gets himself in the worst sort of trouble.


This is the kind of song that could make anyone (including me) begrudgingly admit that country/western music might not all be bad at all. This reminds me of a joke which has to be told with a Southern drawl, “I like all kinds of music, Country AND Western.”

El Paso

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl
Nighttime would find me in Rosa’s cantina
Music would play and Felina would whirl

Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina
Wicked and evil while casting a spell
My love was deep for this Mexican maiden
I was in love but in vain, I could tell

One night a wild young cowboy came in
Wild as the West Texas wind
Dashing and daring, a drink he was sharing
With wicked Felina, the girl that I loved

So in anger I
Challenged his right for the love of this maiden
Down went his hand for the gun that he wore
My challenge was answered in less than a heartbeat
The handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor

Just for a moment I stood there in silence
Shocked by the foul evil deed I had done
Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there
I had but one chance and that was to run

Out through the back door of Rosa’s I ran
Out where the horses were tied
I caught a good one, it looked like it could run
Up on its back and away I did ride

Just as fast as I
Could from the West Texas town of El Paso
Out to the badlands of New Mexico

Back in El Paso my life would be worthless
Everything’s gone in life; nothing is left
It’s been so long since I’ve seen the young maiden
My love is stronger than my fear of death

I saddled up and away I did go
Riding alone in the dark
Maybe tomorrow, a bullet may find me
Tonight nothing’s worse than this pain in my heart

And at last here I
Am on the hill overlooking El Paso
I can see Rosa’s cantina below
My love is strong and it pushes me onward
Down off the hill to Felina I go

Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys
Off to my left ride a dozen or more
Shouting and shooting, I can’t let them catch me
I have to make it to Rosa’s back door

Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel
A deep burning pain in my side
Though I am trying to stay in the saddle
I’m getting weary, unable to ride

But my love for
Felina is strong and I rise where I’ve fallen
Though I am weary I can’t stop to rest
I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle
I feel the bullet go deep in my chest

From out of nowhere Felina has found me
Kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side
Cradled by two loving arms that I’ll die for
One little kiss and Felina, goodbye

 2. Pentangle: Cruel Sister (1970)

This offering by British Folk/Baroque Rock band Pentangle with it’s bitter/sweat vocals by Jacqui McShee is one of the most exquisitely beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.


Why the album was a commercial disaster, I can’t imagine. The song tells of a rivalry between two sisters, and the sadness of the outcome is palpably conveyed in the plucked strings and mournful singing. One stanza of the lyrics captures this synchronicity in word and sound: “They made a harp of her breastbone … Whose sound would melt a heart of stone”. pentangle proves that folk music, when it succeeds, can do so by harnessing the long oral history of our species.

Cruel Sister

There lived a lady by the North Sea shore
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
Two daughters were the babes she bore
Fa la la la la la la la la la

As one grew bright as is the sun
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
So coal black grew the elder one
Fa la la la la la la la la la

A knight came riding to the lady’s door
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
He’d traveled far to be their wooer
Fa la la la la la la la la la

He courted one with gloves and rings
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
But he loved the other above all things
Fa la la la la la la la la la

Oh, sister will you go with me
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
To watch the ships sail on the sea?
Fa la la la la la la la la la

She took her sister by the hand
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
And led her down to the North Sea strand
Fa la la la la la la la la la

And as they stood on the windy shore
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
The dark girl threw her sister over
Fa la la la la la la la la la

Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
Crying, “Sister, reach to me your hand”
Fa la la la la la la la la la

Oh sister, sister, let me live
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
And all that’s mine I’ll surely give
Fa la la la la la la la la la

Your own true love that I’ll have and more
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
But thou shalt never come ashore
Fa la la la la la la la la la

And there she floated like a swan
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
The salt sea bore her body on
Fa la la la la la la la la la

Two minstrels walked along the strand
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
And saw the maiden float to land
Fa la la la la la la la la la

They made a harp of her breastbone
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
Whose sound would melt a heart of stone
Fa la la la la la la la la la

They took three locks of her yellow hair
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
And with them strung the harp so rare
Fa la la la la la la la la la

They went into her father’s hall
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
To play the harp before them all
Fa la la la la la la la la la

But when they laid it on a stone
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
The harp began to play alone
Fa la la la la la la la la la

The first string sang a doleful sound
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
The bride her younger sister drowned
Fa la la la la la la la la la

The second string as that they tried
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
In terror sits the black-haired bride
Fa la la la la la la la la la

The third string sang beneath their bow
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
And surely now her tears will flow
Fa la la la la la la la la la

3. Gryphon: Three Jolly Butchers (1973)

Gryphon is a band I discovered as a teen by buying used records with enticing covers.


I was far more into progressive rock, but Gryphon’s blend of folk, medieval and Renaissance music, and a range of woodwind instruments including some I’d never heard of, like the crumhorn, were so unusual that eccentricism made up for a perceived lack of synthesizer and more contemporary subjects. Don’t be fooled, as the song starts off rather jolly with bawdy sounding vocals, but ends rather not. The three men are riding to town when they come across a naked woman with her hair tied to the ground. One of the men decides to rescue her.

  Three Jolly Butchers

They were going to some market town their money for to pay
They rode together for a mile or two and a little more besides
Said Johnson unto Jipson “Stop I heard a woman cry”
“Then stop I won’t” said Jipson, “And stop I won’t” said Ryde
“Then stop I will” said Johnson, “For I heard a woman cry”
So Johnson he alighted and viewed the place around
And saw a naked woman with her hair tied to the ground
“How came you here?” said Johnson, “How came you here?” said he
“Two highway men have robbed me that you can plainly see”
Then Johnson being a valiant man a man of courage bold
He took the coat from off his back to keep her from the cold
Then Johnson being a valiant man a man of valiant mind
He sat her up upon his horse and mounted up behind
And as they rode along the road as fast as they could ride
She put her fingers to her lips and gave three piercing cries

Out sprang ten bold highwaymen with weapons in their hands
They strode up to young Johnson and boldly bid him stand
“Stand I will” said Johnson “as long as ever I can
For I was never in all my life afraid of any man”
Then Johnson being a valiant man he made those bullets fly
Till nine of them bold highwaymen all on the ground did lie
This wicked woman standing by young Johnson did not mind
She took a knife all from his side and stabbed him from behind
This day it being a market day and people passing by
They saw this woman’s dreadful deed and raised a hue and cry
Then she was down to Newgate brought bound down in irons strong
For killing the finest butcher as ever the sun shone on

4. Guy Clark: Let Him Roll (1975)

A sad, sad tale by Guy Clark about a guy who falls in love with a “Dallas Whore”, and what becomes of him after she rejects his marriage proposals.


Another outstanding example that country music can hit home in a profound and personal way.

 Let Him Roll

Well, he was wino, tried and true.
Done about everything there is to do.
He worked on freighters, an’ he’d worked in bars.
He worked on farms, an’ he’d worked on cars.
It was white port that put that look in his eye,
Grown men get when they need to cry.
We sat down on the curb to rest,
And his head just fell down on his chest.

He says: “Every single day it gets,
“Just a little bit harder to handle and yet. . .”
Then he lost the thread and his mind got cluttered,
And the words just rolled off down the gutter.

Well, he was elevator man in a cheap hotel,
In exchange for the rent on a one room cell.
An’ he’s old: years beyond his time,
No thanks to the world, and the white port wine.

So he said: “Son.” He always called me son.
Said: “Life for you has just begun.”
An’ then he told me the story I’d heard before
How he fell in love with a Dallas whore.

Now, he could cut through the years to the very night,
When it ended in a whore house fight.
And she turned his last proposal down,
In favor of being a girl about town.

Now it’s been seventeen years, right in line,
He ain’t been straight in none of the time.
It’s too many days of fightin’ the weather,
An’ too many nights of not being together.
So he died.

Instrumental break.

An’ when they went through his personal effects,
In among the stubs from the welfare checks,
Was a crumblin’ picture of a girl in a door,
And an address in Dallas and nothing more.

An’ the welfare people provided the priest,
A couple from the mission down the street,
Sang “Amazing Grace”, and no one cried,
‘Cept some lady in black, way off to the side.

We all left and she’s standing there,
A black veil covering her silver hair.
Ol’ One-Eyed John said her name was Alice,
An’ she used to be a whore in Dallas.

Let him roar, lord, lord het him roll,
I bet he’s gone to Dallas rest his soul.
Let him roll, lord, lord let him roar,
He always said that heaven was just a Dallas wh***.

Just you let him roar, Lord, let him roll.
I bet he’s gone to Dallas, rest his soul.

5. Fairport Convention: Matty Groves (1969)

The English “electric folk” band, Fairport Convention, cut an unforgettable version of the old English folk ballad, Matty Groves.


The story is about a woman who invites a young man she fancies home from church while her rich husband, Lord Donald, is away. One of Lord Donald’s servants overhears and goes to warn him. The tale is as relevant as ever, dealing with the perennial issues of youth, romance, class, desire, honor, vengeance, morality and justice. The musical arrangement is so convincing one wouldn’t guess the musicians hadn’t written the story themselves.

Matty Groves

A holiday, a holiday
And the first one of the year
Lord Donald’s wife came into the church
The Gospel for to hear

And when the meeting it was done
She cast her eyes about
And there she saw little Matty Groves
Walking in the crowd

“Come home with me, little Matty Groves
Come home with me tonight
Come home with me, little Matty Groves
And sleep with me ’til light”

“Oh, I can’t come home, I won’t come home
And sleep with you tonight
By the rings on your fingers
I can tell you are Lord Donald’s wife”

“But if I am Lord Donald’s wife
Lord Donald’s not at home
He is out in the far cornfields
Bringing the yearlings home”

And a servant who was standing by
And hearing what was said
He swore Lord Donald he would know
Before the sun would set

And in his hurry to carry the news
He bent his breast and ran
And when he came to the broad mill stream
He took off his shoes and swam

Little Matty Groves, he lay down
And took a little sleep
When he awoke, Lord Donald
Was standing at his feet

Saying, “How do you like my feather bed
And how do you like my sheets
How do you like my lady
Who lies in your arms asleep?”

“Oh, well I like your feather bed
And well I like your sheets
But better I like your lady gay
Who lies in my arms asleep”

“Well, get up, get up”, Lord Donald cried
“Get up as quick as you can
It’ll never be said in fair England
I slew a naked man”

“Oh, I can’t get up, I won’t get up
I can’t get up for my life
For you have two long beaten swords
And I got a pocket knife”

“Well, it’s true I have two beaten swords
And they cost me deep in the purse
But you will have the better of them
And I will have the worse”

“And you will strike the very first blow
And strike it like a man
I will strike the very next blow
And I’ll kill you if I can”

So Matty struck the very first blow
And he hurt Lord Donald sore
Lord Donald struck the very next blow
And Matty struck no more

And then Lord Donald he took his wife
And he sat her on his knee
Saying, “Who do you like the best of us
Matty Groves or me?”

And then up spoke his own dear wife
Never heard to speak so free
“I’d rather a kiss from dead Matty’s lips
Than you or your finery”

Lord Donald, he jumped up
And loudly he did bawl
He struck his wife right through the heart
And pinned her against the wall

“A grave, a grave,” Lord Donald cried
“To put these lovers in
But bury my lady at the top
For she was of noble kin”

6. The Decemberists: The Mariner’s Revenge Song (2005)

I had this song by the Decemberists on my MP3 player for a while, and didn’t know anything about it. It would play occasionally according to the algorithm of “shuffle”, and then one time the lyrics caught my attention, and I was thoroughly caught up in the story.


As it so happens, I was in a supermarket in China at the time. My surroundings had to take back seat to a story the likes of which I’d never come across in Rock music before. Two men found themselves in the belly of a whale, and one of them recognized the other. He considered it “divine intelligence” that had brought them together. The unique vocals, instrumentation, and especially the strings and the accordion present exactly the right flavor to complement this extraordinary and peculiar tale.

The Mariner’s Revenge Song

We are two mariners
Our ship’s sole survivors
In this belly of a whale
It’s ribs are ceiling beams
It’s guts are carpeting
I guess we have some time to kill

You may not remember me
I was a child of three
And you, a lad of eighteen
But, I remember you
And I will relate to you
How our histories interweave
At the time you were
A rake and a roustabout
Spending all your money
On the whores and hounds
(Oh, oh)

You had a charming air
All cheap and debonair
My widowed mother found so sweet
And so she took you in
Her sheets still warm with him
Now filled with filth and foul disease
As time wore on you proved
A debt-ridden drunken mess
Leaving my mother
A poor consumptive wretch
(Oh, oh)

And then you disappeared
Your gambling arrears
The only thing you left behind
And then the magistrate
Reclaimed our small estate
And my poor mother lost her mind
Then, one day in spring
My dear sweet mother died
But, before she did
I took her hand as she, dying, cried:
(Oh, oh)

“Find him, find 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”

It took me fifteen years
To swallow all my tears
Among the urchins in the street
Until a priory
Took pity and hired me
To keep their vestry nice and neat
But, never once in the employ
Of these holy men
Did I ever, once turn my mind
From the thought of revenge
(Oh, oh)

One night I overheard
The prior exchanging words
With a penitent whaler from the sea
The captain of his ship
Who matched you toe to tip
Was known for wanton cruelty
The following day
I shipped to sea
With a privateer
And in the whistle
Of the wind
I could almost hear
(Oh, oh)

“Find him, find 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

There is one thing I must say to you
As you sail across the sea
Always, your mother will watch over you
As you avenge this wicked deed”

And then, that fateful night
We had you in our sight
After twenty months, it seemed
Your starboard flank abeam
I was getting my muskets clean
When came this rumbling from beneath
The ocean shook
The sky went black
And the captain quailed
And before us grew
The angry jaws
Of a giant whale


Don’t know how I survived
The crew all was chewed alive
I must have slipped between his teeth
But, oh, what providence
What divine intelligence
That you should survive
As well as me
It gives my eye great joy
To see your eyes fill with fear
To lean in close
And I will whisper
The last words you’ll hear
(Oh, oh)

 7. Ween: Buenos Tardes Amigo

Ending on a lighter note, I’ve thought for a long time that the secret to Ween‘s creative success was that in attempting to make music that was so bad it was funny, they freed up their imaginations to make music that was actually innovative and good. This song is sung in a phony Mexican accent, and in a faux Mexican musical style, but manages to tell a story that comes off as sincere in spite of itself, and once heard is not soon forgotten.


A man tracks down the murderer of his brother and seeks revenge on the behalf of his mother. But, of course, there’s a twist.

Buenas Tardes Amigo

Buenas tardes amigo
Hola, my good friend
Cinco de Mayo’s on Tuesday

And I hoped we’d see each other again

You killed my brother last winter
You shot him three times in the back
In the night I still hear mama weeping
Oh mama, still dresses in black

I looked at every fiesta
For you I wanted to greet
Maybe I’d sell you a chicken
With poison interlaced with the meat

You… you look like my brother
Mama loved him the best
He was head honcho with the ladies
Mama always said he was blessed

The village all gathered around him
They couldn’t believe what they saw
I said it was you that had killed him
And that I’d find you and upstand the law

The people of the village believed me
Mama… she wanted revenge
I told her I’d see that she was honored
I’d find you and put you to death

So now… now that I’ve found you
On this such a joyous day
I tell you it was me who killed him
But the truth I’ll nevver have to say

Buenas tardes amigo
Hola, my good friend
Cinco de Mayo’s on Tuesday
And I hoped we’d see each other again

You can listen to all the songs in this playlist:

~ Ends

See the best of my new art here.

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