1. Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue”
Johnny Cash’s wise-country-storyteller persona lent itself naturally to story-songs, from traditionally inspired ballads like “Legend Of John Henry’s Hammer” to funny goofs like “One Piece At A Time.” But one of his best was the epic saga “A Boy Named Sue.” Shel Silverstein’s dense, witty lyrics follow the titular character on a hunt for the deadbeat dad who gave him his awful name and abandoned him in childhood. Turns out there was method to daddy’s madness, which “Sue” accepts in the end, though not to such a degree that he’s willing to repeat the process with his own theoretical future kids.
2. Elvis Presley, “In The Ghetto”
“In The Ghetto” might be a more soulful song if Elvis Presley didn’t sound entirely aware of how very, very soulful he sounds, but the material is still mighty sad—and general enough to be an iconic illustration rather than the story of any one specific person. In an unspecified Chicago ghetto, “a poor little baby child is born” to a mother who can’t deal with another mouth to feed. Growing up impoverished and hungry, he also grows up mad and desperate, leading to a tragedy that Mac Davis’ lyrics present as inevitable. Davis’ much-covered (even on American Idol) song could stand to be subtler—the bridge where Presley demands “People, don’t you understand / The child needs a helping hand / Or he’ll grow to be an angry young man some day”—is particularly overwrought. Then again, it’s also true.
3. Eminem, “Stan”
Somewhere between funny and tragic, Eminem’s saga “Stan” mostly comes in the form of an series of letters from a young super-fan who doesn’t understand why his idol won’t call him or answer his letters, even though “I left my cell, my pager, and my home phone at the bottom.” Stan’s clueless desperation veers between laughable and miserable; his life as he describes it is truly awful, and it’s sad to think that he’s pouring all his energy into reaching out to a celebrity who doesn’t know he exists. Still, it’s easy to laugh as he repeatedly goes over the top in his assumptions and demands. The chuckling ends when a despairing Stan crams his pregnant girlfriend into his trunk and deliberately drunk-drives off a bridge, too late for him to be reached by Eminem’s warm, detailed, surprisingly caring response letter. It’s almost as though Eminem is suggesting that celebrities occasionally don’t know whether to be flattered or horrified by their most ardent fans.
4. Bob Dylan, “Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts”
Dylan has so many story-songs under his belt, from the surrealist goof of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” to the ripped-from-the-headlines “Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll,” that it’s hard to single out just one. But one of his finest yarns turns up on 1975’s Blood On The Tracks—this Western about a charming rogue who blows into town and gets the better of villainous mine owner Big Jim, with the help of Jim’s showgirl mistress Lily and put-upon wife Rosemary. The song’s cinematic sweep makes it feel like it might have been a great film in the hands of a director like Howard Hawks or Dylan’s friend Sam Peckinpah. And in fact, Dylan tried at least once to get a screenplay based on “Lily” off the ground.