Back in 1981, just before I left school and my friends and I were playing in local folk clubs, Isla St Clair a Scottish singer and minor TV personality teamed up with Steeleye Span to produce a BBC children’s program called The Song and the Story. The show sought to alert children to the existence of folk music and of the way many of the best and most resilient songs tell a tale of some sort. I found the actual show a bit bland (it was aimed at a market several years younger than I was at the time), I was particularly offended by the nursery rhyme treatment they gave to Rudyard Kipling’s The Smuggler’s Song, which is not a ‘nice’ poem, and needed investing with more menace and less sugar. Nevertheless, the theme tune they used was Sovay which we played in the clubs and which Kate Rusby is singing at the moment (we got it off a Martin Carthy album). St Claire dressed as a highwaywoman and galloped around singing, and Duran Duran and The Specials would be on Top of the Pops later on. The folk revival was over for the next ten years.
I’ve never forgotten the principle that a really great folksong should tell a story. I was delighted with Cold Missouri Waters and the story behind it because it’s a really modern example of the genre. There are whole cycles of related songs; Streets of Laredo exchanges gun fighting for syphilis as in St James’s Infirmary but they carry so many of the same elements that it’s obvious that they’re telling the same story (choose your lovers wisely).
I’d like a list of suggestions for tale-telling songs. I’ll weed out the ones that don’t tell a tale – they may still be folksongs, worksongs or lullabies for instance, but it’s the story I want. Pop songs that tell a tale are welcome.