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Songs That Could Be Novels

I listen to Ben Folds a lot while I’m running.

A lot of reasons for that. His songs have a nice tempo for running and they’re upbeat. But the more I listen, the more I appreciate how good of a storyteller Ben Folds can be with his songs.

In fact, some of his songs are like mini novels. They have characters and tension and even resolution.

We’ve talked about great literary bands before, but what about songs? One of my favorite Ben Folds songs is “Fred Jones, Part 2”–a slower song (not necessarily great for running) about an older guy who gets laid off from newspaper he’s working at for 25 years.

The lyrics:

Fred sits alone at his desk in the dark

There’s an awkward young shadow that waits in the hall

He’s cleared all his things and he’s put them in boxes

Things that remind him, life has been good

Twenty-five years, he’s worked at the paper

A man’s here to take him downstairs

And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, it’s time

There was no party, there were no songs

‘Cause today’s just a day like the day that he started

No one is left here that knows his first name

And life barrels on like a runaway train

Where the passengers change, they don’t change anything

You get off, someone else can get on

And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, it’s time

Streetlight shines through the shades

Casting lines on the floor and lines on his face

He reflects on the day

Fred gets his paints out and goes to the basement

Projecting some slides onto a plain white

Canvas and traces it, fills in the spaces

He turns off the slides, and it doesn’t look right

Yeah, and all of these bastards have taken his place

He’s forgotten but not yet gone

And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, and I’m sorry,

Mr. Jones And I’m sorry,

Mr. Jones, it’s time

When I started thinking about other songs that could be novels, “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam came to mind as well. More recently, I think Mumford & Sons have an abstract storytelling style in their songs–“Little Lion Man” for instance. On the rap sad of things, Eminem is an incredible storyteller.

Who else? Use your musical acumen today and tell us what songs would be great as novels?

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29 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tyler #

    Oh, too many to choose from.

    What about “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen?

    Like

    March 21, 2012
    • Great one. Any song involving murder and momma has great potential for a novel!

      Like

      March 21, 2012
  2. Teresa #

    Tom Waits. His early work could be a Malamud novel. The middle work is going to look more like a non-sexual William Burroughs meets philip Dick In a song from Swordfish Trombone, with music reminiscent of Blade Runner, he describes an invisible Underground world with very strange beings: ‘They’re alive, they’re awake while the rest of the world is asleep

    Like

    March 21, 2012
    • I know Waits but I’m not super familiar with him. Just showing my ignorance.

      Is he kind of Bob Dylanish?

      Like

      March 21, 2012
    • The whole Rain Dogs album reminds me of some kind of drunken, stumbling journey through all kinds of seedy settings. Would make a great novel!

      Like

      March 21, 2012
  3. EddieB #

    I have a hard time putting Eminem and “incredible” in the same sentence. But of course I hate rap music. Great song by Ben Folds.

    I always thought the Eagles, Hotel California would make a great movie…. “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”

    Like

    March 21, 2012
    • Sounds kind of like an older Stephen King novel.

      Like

      March 21, 2012
  4. This reminds me of your post (I want to say rant, but it wasn’t really a rant) about Never Let Me Go only to find out that it was a song title in the book, and in the past few months I found it’s probably my favorite song off the Florence + the Machine’s new album. It’s amazing, how awesome songs can be, but more so the albums when they tell a story throughout.

    Like

    March 21, 2012
    • I saw her open for U2 last summer and she was incredible. Had never heard of her then but she’s everywhere these days. Amazing voice and energy.

      Like

      March 21, 2012
  5. I’ve thought a number of Bob Dylan songs would make great novels, but the one I always go back to is “Isis.” He meets a stranger while running away from a failed relationship and goes off on a graverobbing adventure that finds him exploring “pyramids all embedded in ice.” Like you said about Ben Folds, it’s a song that’s filled with characters, tension, and resolution.

    Like

    March 21, 2012
    • A few of Tracy Chapman’s are fantastic stories. ‘Behind the Wall’ and ‘Mountain’s O’ Things’, ‘For My Lover’ some of the less famous ones.

      Like

      March 27, 2012
  6. Great, now the lyric, “just like Quite Riot did” is stuck in my head.

    Like

    March 21, 2012
    • “Except that they were talented…”

      Like

      March 21, 2012
  7. Dominick Sabalos #

    Frank Turner!

    I immediately wanted to mention a whole bunch of songs/bands, but decided to pare it back to just one suggestion in the hope of making that suggestion stand out more. Frank Turner is a remarkable songwriter – intelligent, warm, direct, brave – and pretty much every song I’ve heard by him so far is an incredible piece of storytelling.

    “Love, Ire & Song” and “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous” clamour to be recommended in this regard, but my personal pick would be “Long Live the Queen”, which is a tremendously sad song, but also a strangely life-affirming one. Also it has a good video.

    Like

    March 21, 2012
  8. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band. I could easily see Salman Rushdie, Christopher Moore, Terry Pratchett, or Gregory Maguire getting a novel’s worth of material out of it.

    Like

    March 21, 2012
  9. Teresa #

    Yes, in that he appeals to the alternative crowd. He’s not cynical- but he is a deep thinker.

    Like

    March 21, 2012
    • Teresa #

      That’s in reference to Tom Waits.

      Like

      March 21, 2012
  10. Tim #

    Dig into Richard Thompson’s catalog and there are stories and colorful characters aplenty: “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven,” “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” “Galway to Graceland,” “Beeswing.”

    Like

    March 21, 2012
    • Shem the Penman #

      Glad to hear someone else thinks Beeswing would make the saddest novel ever written.

      Like

      March 21, 2012
  11. Patrice #

    Same Old Lang Syne by Dan Fogelberg … ahhhhhhhh. And if not a novel, certainly there should’ve been a video!

    Like

    March 21, 2012
  12. “Powderfinger” by Neil Young , “Scarecrow” by John Mellancamp come to mind.

    Like

    March 21, 2012
  13. Hey Robert,

    Interesting subject. To my mind comes whiskey in the jar and other Irish folks? also a Danish band named “suspekt” but again to the darker and sad rap side. Have you ever been to poetry slams? They can sometimes take the form of a song-like verse.

    Like

    March 21, 2012
  14. Morrissey! The Smiths’ songs often have good stories to them–‘Girlfriend in a Coma,’ ‘The Queen is Dead,’ ‘Rusholme Ruffians’…

    Like

    March 21, 2012
  15. Piano Man, by Billy Joel; American Pie, by Don McLean; Fast Car, by Tracy Chapman. There are lots of great storytellers in the hip-hop genre, although I am not at all fond of Eminem.

    Like

    March 21, 2012
  16. A lot of songs by Fish, the former lead singer of Marillion. The song Kayleigh, for instance, is a song about a man looking back on a lost love and finally being able to apologize. A lot of the songs he has written are small stories in itself.

    Like

    March 26, 2012
  17. The Coral have some songs that are fantastic stories – Bill McCai is a bit like how Fred Jones sounds (though I can’t play the song at the moment).

    Like

    March 27, 2012

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