Storytelling songwriters are much more than just songwriters – they are poets. They can take you to places far beyond your imagination. To be able to do this is what turns a good song into a memorable one.
Some of these songwriters, in a sense, owe their success to being able to do this. People like Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Harry Chapin. They are all represented here, along with some other great songs that tell a story.
So, as I take a closer look at each of the best songs that tell a story, it won’t be sufficient to just say, “This is a good song.” It will require some information and even some of the lyrics to give you the full picture. So, let’s get started with one of those names I just mentioned…
Top 215 Best Songs That Tell a Story
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot
Gordon Lightfoot has given us some memorable songs over a career that lasted decades. But, when he says this is the best song he ever wrote, we should sit up and take notice. It was included in his album Summertime Dream.
The Edmund Fitzgerald was a large boat carrying iron ore from Wisconsin on Lake Superior. The date was November 24th, 1975. A storm blew up, and she sank with the loss of all 29 men on board in deep water 17 miles from Michigan. “And all that remains — Is the faces and names — Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.”
Lightfoot wrote the song, and he often performed it on his stage set as a way of commemorating those that perished. “The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down – Of the big lake, they call Gitche Gumee – Superior they said – Never gives up her dead.” A special song from one of the great storytellers.
Ode To Billie Joe by Bobbie Gentry
When this song was released in 1967, it caused a little stir as people tried to work out what it was about. Its popularity ensured it was also the title track of the first album she released.
The story was thought to be fictitious about a family that lived in Mississippi. Gentry lived in that state when she was younger, which added a bit of fuel to the fire. The story centers around the family’s daughter. She has a boyfriend, Billy Joe McAllister, who allegedly commits suicide by throwing himself off the Tallahatchie bridge.
It is cleverly written how they all sit down to dinner and discuss it while talking about the food. It’s as if the death means very little. “And papa said to mama as he passed around the black-eyed peas – Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits please.”
The daughter is apparently not eating much. “Mama said to me child what’s happened to your appetite? – I’ve been cooking all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite.”
The mother mentions that the local preacher saw a girl who looked like the daughter on the bridge with Billie Joe. They were throwing something off the bridge. The plot deepens, and explanations are not given. They made a film of the story in 1976.
Bobbie Gentry eventually quit music and went to study Psychology. Sorting out dark secrets might just be her forte after this intriguing story. It is interesting to consider if the story is just about the suicide, if indeed that is what happened. Or the family’s apparent indifference to it.
Lola by The Kinks
Ray Davies wrote and released this song in 1970, which became a strange tale at the time. But, looking back, it may well have been the first song that was commercially successful in addressing an LGBTQ+ subject.
In the story, a man goes to a bar in Soho and meets a lady…
He seems to be confused at first, “Well I’m not dumb but I can’t understand – Why she walks like a woman and talks like a man?” She takes him back to her place, and he finds out that she is actually a man. And he is happy with that.
“Girls will be boys and boys will be girls – It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world – Well, I’m not the world’s most masculine man – But I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man – And so is Lola.”
Always ahead of their time musically, this song reached #2 in the UK, #9 in America, and #1 in many other countries. To date, “Lola” remains one of the most memorable songs that tell a story.
Living For The City by Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder was one of if not the most talented artists of the 70s. On this track, for instance, he played every instrument. It was taken from his album, Innervisions, released in 1973.
It is a song that tells a story that is still relevant to an extent today. The lyrics give us an insight into the problems African-Americans faced and, in some places, still face in America. This song is based on a family living in the Civil Rights era.
“Her brothers smart, he’s got more sense than many = His patience’s long but soon he won’t have any – To find a job is like the haystack needle – Cause where he lives they don’t use colored people – This place is cruel, nowhere could be much colder – If we don’t change, the world will soon be over.” An artist at work.
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by Joan Baez
This is a song describing scenes in the American Civil War that are packed with emotion. It was written by Robbie Robertson of The Band. The song is talking about raids made by the Union army against the South in southwest Virginia.
These incidents took place towards the end of the war in 1865. At the time, the South had already lost, so the raids and the killing were quite unnecessary. That adds to the drama and the emotion of this famous song that tells a story.
And, just for a pleasant change, it is historically quite accurate…
Thankfully, no one from Hollywood was involved in the writing. The song is about the hardships suffered by the South during this time. “In the winter of ‘sixty-five – We were hungry – Just barely alive.”
And, of course, the inevitable loss of family members. He is a non-slaveholder who has lost his brother and fails to understand why, “Like my father before me, I’m a working man – And like my brother before me, I took a rebel stand – Oh, he was just eighteen, proud and brave – But a Yankee laid him in his grave.” One of the best songs and stories on this list of the best songs that tell a story.
Brother Louie by Hot Chocolate
One of the most underrated bands of their time, and, in Errol Brown, one of the best singers around. They were more successful than most realize, having at least one successful record each year from 1970 to 1984. Not many can claim that.
This particular song reached #7 in the UK. Hot Chocolate worked with blues legend Alexis Korner on the recording, and he also recommended a couple of extra musicians to help out.
This is a song that was, as Errol put it, something he had seen in his past. It is the story of a black woman and a white man in love with each other. The families, though, won’t accept it and disown them.
She takes him home, and he gets a hostile reception…
“I don’t want no honky in my family – You dig, no honky in my family.” The same reaction occurs when he takes her to meet his family. “I don’t want no spook in my family – Get it, no spook in my family.” Never afraid to walk away from a social comment, this is a story that became, and in some places, still is typical.
They were a good band with no prima donnas, which is just about the ultimate rarity in music. And they often wrote songs about things they had experienced. This was one. Incidentally, the band was made up of black and white musicians.
Father And Son by Cat Stevens
A track from another great songwriter that comes from his 1970 album Tea For The Tillerman. Originally, the song was written for a musical play that never happened, so he decided to use it on the album.
The story of the song is essentially a discussion between a father and his son. His father wants him to stay at home and work on the family farm. But, the son wants to go and join the army to fight.
It is a touching story about a young man who wants to follow what he believes in. His father, who at first doesn’t understand, is then afraid for him. He just wants him to settle down and get married and lead a quiet life on the farm. It wasn’t a hit for Stevens when it was released as a single, yet it has become one of his best-loved songs.
Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin
When we lost Harry Chapin in a road accident in 1981, we lost one of the great storytellers in music. We also lost a wealth of material that was yet to come. This is a well-known song that tells a story taken from his album from 1974, Verities & Balderdash.
Chapin didn’t write songs; he wrote stories and poetry and crafted music to go with those words. Take a listen to “Mr. Tanner,” which I didn’t include in my list because of space.
A Sense Of Time
This song is written with a sense of time. The story unfolds in chronological order with the father having a son, “My child arrived just the other day – He came to the world in the usual way – But there were planes to catch and bills to pay – He learned to walk while I was away.”
As time moves on, we see the depressing story of a man who hasn’t the time to spend with his growing son. “‘Can you teach me to throw’, I said ‘Not today’ – ‘I got a lot to do’, he said, ‘That’s okay’.” He just wants to spend some time with his father. “When you comin’ home, Dad – I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then.”
The story progresses to the point where the roles become reversed…
The father is retired and wants to spend time with his son, but his son is too busy. He’d grown up just like his father, with the same values. “I said, ‘I’d like to see you if you don’t mind’ – He said, ‘I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time’ – And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me – He’d grown up just like me – My boy was just like me.” A song with a story but also a song with a message.
Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles
Not much needs to be said about this song. Probably one of the best-known story songs there is. It is a story on a couple of levels and was included in the album Revolver.
The story has imagery that describes certain situations. Post-war Britain in 1918 is one as Eleanor, “Waits at the window – Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door – Who is it for?” Possibly waiting for a soldier, son, husband, or father to return. Another is the decline of the Church of England, “Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear – No one comes near.”
It is a story that traces the paths of loneliness of two people…
And even possibly depression. The characters portray the symptoms of both. McCartney has claimed that both names were made up. But, go to the churchyard where he and John first met, St Peter’s Church, Woolton in Liverpool. In the graveyard, there is the grave of Father McKenzie, once the priest at the church. And just yards away, the grave of scullery maid Eleanor Rigby who died in 1939.
It is an early indication that The Beatles were sure of their abilities to tackle subjects like this head-on. And to create the music and the arrangement, with Sir George Martin’s help, of course, to suit the song. Needless to say, it was a #1 hit single in every country where people draw breath.
Kathy’s Song by Paul Simon
Paul Simon is a consummate songwriter and storyteller, but this is a special song that tells a story. Seeing him perform this live sends chills up the spine. It was originally included in his album, The Paul Simon Songbook. Later, it was included in the album, Sounds Of Silence.
In the 60s…
Paul Simon spent a lot of time in the UK. It is where he found the old English folk song “Scarborough Fair.” But, he also developed a very close relationship with an English girl, Kathy, whom he met at a folk club in Brentwood, Essex. He wrote this song about her and mentions her in three other songs. In particular, “Homeward Bound.”
Written on a railway station in Widnes, Lancashire, Kathy is the girl who “waits silently for me” in Essex. She is also mentioned in his song “America.” “Kathy I’m lost I said though I knew she was sleeping – I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why?”
“Kathy’s Song” is a tribute to her and the love he felt once he had returned to New York. “I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets – To England, where my heart lies – I stand alone without beliefs – The only truth I know is you – I know that I am like the rain – There but for the grace of you go I.”
The romance was not to last…
She just couldn’t handle the success that surrounded him even then. She was shy and introverted, and the only picture Simon has granted us of her is on The Paul Simon Songbook album cover.
Hardly anything is known of “Paul’s Kathy.” Today, she lives in a very rural village in Wales with her memories and leads a very quiet life. Thanks, Kathy, for what one music critic called Paul Simon’s greatest work. Indeed, it’s one of the best songs that tell a story ever written.
The Hurricane by Bob Dylan
This is Dylan at his best, sticking it to authority figures who abuse their positions of trust. It was released on the album, Desire in 1976. He wrote the song along with Jacques Levy, who gave some help and insight. In turn, they created one of the most popular songs that tell a story.
If you want a story in a song, this one cannot be missed out…
It tells of black boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and his arrest in 1966 and imprisonment for a murder that he did not commit. The arrest and imprisonment have one motivation – race. The song tells the story from before the event to during the arrest and trial. It provides the racist profiling that led to the guilty verdict despite overwhelming evidence he was innocent.
“Four in the mornin’ and they haul Rubin in – They took him to the hospital, and they brought him upstairs – The wounded man looks up through his one dyin’ eye – Says, what’d you bring him in here for? He ain’t the guy!”
Nine years after the Dylan song, which he had performed at New Jersey State prison to the inmates in 1975, Carter was released. The song was not the reason. But, it brought the case to everyone’s attention and helped the momentum that was gaining ground. Let’s be clear, Carter was no angel, but he had not committed the murder as Dylan’s story tells.
A Better Place to Be by Harry Chapin
And so, we come to the end of our journey. We will close this list of the best songs that tell a story with, in my view, the greatest storyteller of them all. It is not unfair to say that we could just have listed every track on this album to make the list of the best songs with a story.
However, we have had to settle for just two. “Cats In The Cradle” I have already covered, and then there is this masterpiece. This is a song that is taken from the live album Harry Chapin’s Greatest Stories Live, from 1975. The song goes on for ten minutes and was first released on his 1972 album, Sniper And Other Love Songs.
The song revolves around three people…
A lonely man who works as a night watchman and has come in for an early morning drink. The bar lady, who is also on her own and lonely, and a young girl the nightwatchman had met.
The man comes in, and the bar lady asks him where he has been, and he tells the story.
And the broad who served the whisky – She was a big old friendly girl – And she tried to fight her empty nights by smilin’ at the world – A week ago at the diner, I stopped to get a bite – And this here lovely lady, she sat two seats from my right.”
He decides to start a conversation but quickly realizes she is as lost as he is. And, she answers him, “If you want me to come with you – Then that’s all right with me – Cause I know I’m goin’ nowhere – And anywhere’s a better place to be.”
He tells the story of what, for him, was a magical night that ended in despair…
“The mornin’ came so swiftly, but I held her in my arms – But she slept like a baby, snug and safe from harm – I come back with my paper bag – To find that she was gone – She’d left a six-word letter – Saying, “It’s time that I moved on.”
The song and the story close, with the man saying the words the young girl had said to him. “And if you want me to come with you – Then that’s all right with me – Cause I know I’m goin’ nowhere – And anywhere’s a better place to be.”
Harry Chapin, the master storyteller. If you play this song and you haven’t heard it before, make sure you are sitting quietly with plenty of tissues.
Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond
The Ballad of John and Yoko by The Beatles
Pinball Wizard by The Who
Mack the Knife by Bobby Darin
Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad by Meat Loaf
The Wrecking Ball by Bruce Springsteen
Hurricane Glass by Patty Griffin
(Don’t Fear) The Reaper by Blue Öyster Cult
Lost in Japan by Shawn Mendes
Make You Feel My Love by Adele
El Paso by Marty Robbins
Love Story by Taylor Swift
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John
Dancing in the Dark by Bruce Springsteen
Escape (The Piña Colada Song) by Rupert Holmes
We Didn’t Start the Fire by Billy Joel
In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins
Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles
The Thunder Rolls by Garth Brooks
Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple
Signs by Five Man Electrical Band
Sir Duke by Stevie Wonder
Small Town by John Mellencamp
Ain’t No Grave by Johnny Cash
Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl) by Looking Glass
In the Ghetto by Elvis Presley
The Last Saskatchewan Pirate by The Arrogant Worms
Independence Day by Martina McBride
Famous Blue Raincoat by Leonard Cohen
The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde by Merle Haggard
Two Black Cadillacs by Carrie Underwood
In the Ghetto by Elvis Presley
The General by Dispatch
A Boy Named Sue by Johnny Cash
Operator by Jim Croce
Dance With My Father by Luther Vandross
Mary, Did You Know? by Mark Lowry
I Will Always Love You by Dolly Parton
More 165 Songs That Tell a Story
- The Sound of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel
- Angie Baby by Helen Reddy
- The Legend of Wooley Swamp by The Charlie Daniels Band
- The Wreckers by Rush
- Stan by Eminem
- Jumper by Third Eye Blind
- 25 or 6 to 4 by Chicago
- Hotel California by Eagles
- The A Team by Ed Sheeran
- Ophelia by The Band
- Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen
- Stan Rogers by Northwest Passage
- One by Metallica
- Mr. Brightside by The Killers
- Paradise by Coldplay
- I’m Not Afraid by Eminem
- Little Red Corvette by Prince
- Vincent (Starry, Starry Night) by Don McLean
- Give Me Novacaine by Green Day
- The Dance by Garth Brooks
- Highwayman by The Highwaymen
- The Last Goodbye by Billy Boyd
- I Drive Your Truck by Lee Brice
- Tell Laura I Love Her by Ray Peterson
- Boys Don’t Cry by The Cure
- Copacabana (At the Copa) by Barry Manilow
- Meet Virginia by Train
- My Name Is Luca by Suzanne Vega
- Nantes by Beirut
- Night Moves by Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band
- No One Knows by Queens of the Stone Age
- One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer by George Thorogood & The Destroyers
- Ordinary World by Duran Duran
- Paranoid Android by Radiohead
- Puff, the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul and Mary
- Red Right Hand by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
- Rhiannon by Fleetwood Mac
- She’s Leaving Home by The Beatles
- Simple Twist of Fate by Bob Dylan
- The A-Team by Ed Sheeran
- The Wreck of the Old 97 by Johnny Cash
- Stagger Lee by Lloyd Price
- When You Were Young by The Killers
- The Night Chicago Died by Paper Lace
- The Freshmen by The Verve Pipe
- Annie’s Song by John Denver
- The Way We Were by Barbra Streisand
- The Circle Game by Joni Mitchell
- Copperhead Road by Steve Earle
- Gone Daddy Gone by Violent Femmes
- The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan
- A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke
- The Rose by Bette Midler
- I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor
- I Hope You Dance by Lee Ann Womack
- The House That Built Me by Miranda Lambert
- One Headlight by The Wallflowers
- What’s Love Got to Do with It by Tina Turner
- Hotel California by The Eagles
- Eleanor Put Your Boots On by Franz Ferdinand
- The End by The Doors
- Carolina in My Mind by James Taylor
- The Weight by The Band
- Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash
- Romeo’s Tune by Steve Forbert
- Hotel Song by Regina Spektor
- Boys of Summer by Don Henley
- I Don’t Like Mondays by The Boomtown Rats
- Say It Ain’t So by Weezer
- Rhinestone Cowboy by Glen Campbell
- Dancing Queen by ABBA
- The Gambler by Kenny Rogers
- I Want You Back by The Jackson 5
- My Sharona by The Knack
- The Devil Went Down to Georgia by The Charlie Daniels Band
- Rocky Mountain High by John Denver
- Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits
- Papa Was a Rolling Stone by The Temptations
- The Battle of New Orleans by Johnny Horton
- Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits
- Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin
- The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia by Vicki Lawrence
- Hurricane by Bob Dylan
- Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels) by Jim Croce
- La Bamba by Ritchie Valens
- The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer by Johnny Cash
- The Boxer by Simon & Garfunkel
- The Streets of Philadelphia by Bruce Springsteen
- Mrs. Robinson by Simon & Garfunkel
- Harper Valley PTA by Jeannie C. Riley
- Coward of the County by Kenny Rogers
- American Trilogy by Elvis Presley
- Billy, Don’t Be a Hero by Paper Lace
- The Last Farewell by Roger Whittaker
- Atlantic City by Bruce Springsteen
- Operator by Manhattan Transfer
- Ode to My Family by The Cranberries
- Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad by Meat Loaf
- Maggie May by Rod Stewart
- The House of the Rising Sun by The Animals
- When the Levee Breaks by Led Zeppelin
- Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by The Beatles
- Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey
- Bad Company by Bad Company
- Behind Blue Eyes by The Who
- I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston
- Don’t Cry Out Loud by Melissa Manchester
- Piano Man by Billy Joel
- The Way by Fastball
- Hurricane by 30 Seconds to Mars
- A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan
- Bad, Bad Leroy Brown by Jim Croce
- Bennie and the Jets by Elton John
- Big Bad John by Jimmy Dean
- Coat of Many Colors by Dolly Parton
- Copacabana by Barry Manilow
- Desperado by Eagles
- Don’t Take the Girl by Tim McGraw
- Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley
- Hello by Adele
- Here Without You by 3 Doors Down
- House of the Rising Sun by The Animals
- Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry
- Killing Me Softly With His Song by Roberta Flack
- Last Kiss by Pearl Jam
- Leader of the Band by Dan Fogelberg
- Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts by Bob Dylan
- Lola Montez by Volbeat
- Me and Bobby McGee by Janis Joplin
- Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters by Elton John
- Murder on Music Row by George Strait and Alan Jackson
- My Way by Frank Sinatra
- Ode to Billy Joe by Bobbie Gentry
- Oliver’s Army by Elvis Costello
- One Tin Soldier by The Original Caste
- Paradise by the Dashboard Light by Meat Loaf
- Proud Mary by Creedence Clearwater Revival
- Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head by B.J. Thomas
- Ride Captain Ride by Blues Image
- Roxanne by The Police
- Sister Golden Hair by America
- Sloop John B by The Beach Boys
- Something by The Beatles
- Story of My Life by One Direction
- Angel from Montgomery by John Prine
- Fast Car by Tracy Chapman
- Rapper’s Delight by The Sugarhill Gang
- One Tin Soldier by Coven
- Sally G by Paul McCartney
- Runaway Train by Soul Asylum
- Riders on the Storm by The Doors
- The Pina Colada Song by Rupert Holmes
- Harper Valley P.T.A. by Jeannie C. Riley
- Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone by The Temptations
- Pancho and Lefty by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard
- Fancy by Reba McEntire
- A Day in the Life by The Beatles
- Hello in There by John Prine
- Long Black Veil by Lefty Frizzell
- The Leader of the Pack by The Shangri-Las
- The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll by Bob Dylan
- The Great Pretender by The Platters
- The Last DJ by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
- Mr. Bojangles by Jerry Jeff Walker
- Drops of Jupiter by Train
Looking for More Meaningful Music?
Well, check out our thoughts on the Best Songs With Figurative Language, the Best Songs About Life, the Best Songs About Soldiers, the Best Songs About War & Anti-War, the Top Songs to Describe Your Life, and the Best Songs With Deep Meaning for more insightful song selections.
Of course, you need to listen to them. So, take a look at our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones for Music, the Most Comfortable Headphones, the Best True Wireless Earbuds, the Best Sound Quality Earbuds, the Best Bluetooth Headphones for Commuting, and the Best Bluetooth Headphones Under $200 you can buy in 2023.
Best Songs That Tell a Story – Final Thoughts
It is a privilege to spend some time with these great composers as they share their stories with us. Some have been from personal experiences, and some have been inspired by things they may have seen. In some cases, they were created by using their imagination.
It is unlikely we will witness their likes again. Yes, there are songwriters today that tell stories. But I doubt they have the insight that some of these people have. It was a magical generation and one that we have all been privileged to share.
Until next time, happy listening.