What’s The Story? – Punk Song Narratives

Let’s start at the beginning….

They say that songs started as a way to remember and tell stories, in the days before reading, writing and mass media were widespread. Before we get to the punk stories, let’s remind ourselves of how it all started – at least 800 years ago. Sometimes it would be an account of a battle, an uprising or a doomed love affair. Mostly it involved killing – sometimes accidental, but often jealous or hateful murder of women. Here’s modern interpretations of English and Scottish versions of the medieval ballad ‘Edward’ where a guy kills his own father/brother and then lies to his mother about it. The Scottish version is more dancey. Imagining living in a little village and having minstrels passing through to sing you these stories, which you could then add to your repertoire. If you couldn’t quite remember the original, you could improvise your own words.

In America, the same songs travelled around. This female version in the ‘Appalachian tradition’ has the singer confess to killing her brother-in-law who went away with her. It’s like the gory-gossip of the day. ‘I killed my sister’s husband’.

As well as the European influences for songs like ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett’ and ‘Jesse James’ , there were American story-songs; ‘Shi naasha’ tells of the 1868 release of the Navajo people from internment at Fort Summer. Black Americans feature in European-style songs – ‘John Henry’ is a story-song about a 19-year old African-American hammer driver who could beat a machine when making holes in rocks for explosives. The whole narrative blues tradition also originates from the Black American experience over many years.

There were quite a few ‘blueswomen’ singing this kind of narrative song. Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey who sang the story of killing an abusive husband in ‘Cell Bound Blues’, recorded in 1924. Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Bertha Hill and Memphis Minnie were also playing and singing narrative blues ballads.

Then there’s a long period in the 1960s and 1970s with story-songs a-plenty, as folk-rock, blues and country-rock gained mainstream popularity. Bob Dylan built a career on it, and this song ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ based on an appalling real event in 1963 is a classic.

The story behind the song – The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
The story behind the song – Harper Valley PTA

We also love this one – a story that apparently really happened …. a single parent was slut-shamed in an official letter from the parent-teacher-association so she turns up at a meeting in her mini-skirt and calls out the hypocrisy of the PTA. Small-town but big impact.

We’ll only mention in passing the story-songs of our childhood leading up to punk, like the good – ‘Angie Baby’, the bad – ‘Billy Don’t be a Hero’ and the ugly – ‘Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)’.

Punk stories

There’s a mixture of songs in the punk era based on true stories, although there are some completely fictional narratives.

Jilted John aka John Shuttleworth aka Graham Fellowes was a drama student – the Jilted John character and story started as a little one-off fun project but rapidly spiralled into defining the poor man’s life, when he could have been doing Shakespeare.

Like Bob Dylan’s inspiration for Hattie Carroll, the other Bob – Geldof got inspiration for a song from media reports of what turned out to be the first school shooting. Read our post about it here.

The Angelic Upstarts’ first 7″ went to number 1 in the independent charts, despite the fact that only John Peel would play the record. It’s based on the death in custody of a boxing coach, whose death was judged to be a ‘justifiable homicide’. The Jam and the Tom Robinson Band also produced songs that mention this case.

The story behind the song – The murder of Liddle Towers

The Adverts used the truth about murderer Gary Gilmore’s corneas being transplanted shortly after his death by firing squad, for their fantasy story ‘Gary Gilmore’s Eyes. This was featured in our recent print blogzine.

Like the Angelic Upstarts, The Partisans recorded and released a song about a death of a man in police custody – apparently a working-class man from Liverpool in 1981. The lack of specifics on the song and information currently online makes it hard to know exactly what the story was. Please add comments below if you know, or have a link to music press of the time.

If you know of any other punk-era story songs, please let us know in the comments below. We love a story song that has some truth behind it; the campaigning power of a true story in song is also immense. And we think that there are a shed-load of modern story songs still to be written, right?

The End.

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