The verse and chorus of the human condition

I was in pop culture heaven: the characters on ’30 Rock’ – one of my favourite TV shows – were singing ‘Midnight Train To Georgia’ – one of my all-time favourite songs.

It was the episode in which the innocent page, Kenneth, having been corrupted by the twin evils of coffee and doughnuts, tells Tracy Jordan, Dot Com and Grizz that he’s leaving New York and going back to the farm in Georgia. He’d sworn to his mother that New York wouldn’t seduce him into bad behaviour and now he’s let his mother down. ‘I’ve been Sodomised!’ he declares. Gladys Knight, who sings the original ‘Midnight Train To Georgia’ makes a cameo appearance at the end of episode, telling the cast to knock it off because she’s trying to take a nap.

‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ is one of the great story-songs in that it somehow manages to convey something essential about the human condition in two verses and a repeated chorus. It’s a simple story: man from Georgia goes to LA dreaming of being a star; fails; decides to go home. The person telling the story is his woman and with one line she introduces the conflict of the narrative: ‘I’d rather live in his world, than be without him in mine.’ You get the picture that ‘his world’ is not really where she’d choose to be if left to her own devices but if she decides to stay in LA, with its excitement and opportunities, she’ll have to forego her man. Add classy call-and-response singing from Gladys Knight & The Pips. Serve loud.

And by the way, just how gorgeous are the Pips with their chair-groovin’ and Gladys Knight’s pink pantsuit?

That ‘30 Rock’ episode made me think of other favourite story-songs. What an artform! If you think capturing a narrative in a short story is hard, try doing it with a few verses and a chorus and put it to music that people want to hear. Maybe the degree of difficulty of writing a story-song explains why most of them tell tales of violence and despair.

Let’s play a game: if I give the précis of the story, can you name the song?

  1. A black boxer is framed for a triple murder
  2. Girl dumps her boyfriend because Daddy doesn’t like him; feels regret when boy dies in motorbike accident
  3. Man goes to rehab; returns triumphant to wife and kids
  4. Woman writes to ‘Charlie’ about how well her life’s going; turns out she’s in jail and wants him to send bail
  5. A man cries for the first time in his life; can’t stop crying; dies of dehydration
  6. Woman dreams of going out with the king of Sweden but ends up in jail, then in an asylum, then dead (Hint: has ridiculously cheery chorus)
  7. Man gets his girlfriend pregnant; has to marry her; his life turns to crap
  8. Man writes to friend to tell him he’s forgiven him for stealing his girlfriend (girlfriend has returned with a lock of girlfriend-stealer’s hair)
  9. A fan gets mad that his idol hasn’t written back to him and drives himself and his girlfriend off a bridge
  10. A girl called Lottie writes a confession letter from the prison/asylum, having been convicted of murdering several folk in her town.

Anyone want a crack at getting all ten?  I’ll give the full list of answers in my next post.

OK, I’ll give you the last one:


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