Writing this in the middle of a three-day weekend, and on the day after I went to a terrific concert in Atlanta. (James Taylor at Chastain Park. I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I got my first James Taylor album when I was seven years old. His music has, in a way, been the soundtrack of my life.) Traffic is usually a little slow at the Magical Words site on holiday Mondays, so I thought I would do something a little fun and different (not to mention a little shorter than usual) for this week.
Listening to Taylor’s music last night, I got to thinking about songs that not only tell a story (many do) but that actually stir story ideas inside me, and/or make me think of fantasy or science fiction plot lines. And so I thought I would create a list to that effect and invite you to do the same. Again, these are not merely songs that tell a story, but songs that inspire stories in me, particularly ones with a speculative fiction theme. (And now I’m humming “Ramble On,” the Led Zeppelin song inspired by Lord of the Rings — that’s kind of what I’m talking about).
These are in no particular order.
1. “Something the Boy Said” — Sting, Ten Summoner’s Tales. One of my very favorite songs on the list. This could be in the soundtrack for every fantasy movie made. The song is sung from the POV of a soldier who, as he and his comrades are mustering, hears the Captain’s son prophesize that the army will never return, but will instead be “food for a carrion crow.” Brilliant lyrics, haunting music. Wonderful song.
2. “Jacob’s Dream” — Alison Krauss, A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection. It’s the Spring of 1856, and two boys have wandered from their home and gotten lost. A massive search ensues, and one man, Jacob Daggart dreams of where they will be found. Also haunting, with Alison Krauss’s devastatingly beautiful voice and gorgeous instrumentation. The chorus, song from the POV of the lost boys, will stay with you for days.
3. “Frozen Man” — James Taylor, New Moon Shine. He inspired the list, so I thought I should put him on it. A man thought to have been lost at sea a century ago is found alive, having been preserved in ice. By the miracle of modern science, is made “whole” again. Except that of course he isn’t whole at all. His family is gone, his body is a blend of natural and prosthesis. “The newspapers call me state of the art/But the children, when they see me, cry.” Brilliant.
4. “Rocket Man” — Elton John, Honky Chateau. Chances are you know about this one, so I won’t say much. Except that my wife would have killed me if I hadn’t included it. And to be honest, the list would have felt incomplete without it.
5. “Space Oddity” — David Bowie, Space Oddity. You know this one, too, though you might not recognize the title. “This is Ground Control to Major Tom . . .” I was never a huge Bowie fan, but this song might well have captured the days of Apollo and Neil Armstrong and lunar landings better than any other. “Check ignition and may God’s love be with you . . .”
6. “Ramble On” — Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II. Combining Lord of the Rings and raunchy rock and roll, this one became an obvious favorite for teen boys across the globe. Personally, I find that since I gave up getting stoned, the song doesn’t do as much for me as it used to. Still, I do love the lines about Gollum.
7. “House Carpenter” — Various artists, including Tony Rice, Church Street Blues and Nickel Creek, This Side. This is an old traditional piece that has been covered by many artists. The Nickel Creek version may be my favorite. Talk about haunting — my daughters get freaked out every time they hear it. A man returns to the home of his first true love, and convinces her to leave her husband and child and sail with him to the New World. She realizes her error on the ship and curses her love. And their ship and all aboard are lost when the ship sinks.
8. “Look at Granny Run Run” — Ry Cooder, Bop ‘Til You Drop. One of my very favorites and not at all like the others on this list. Funny lyrics, very cool music. Today, it wouldn’t even qualify as speculative in any way. But when the song came out in 1979, this opening was still a fantasy: “Look at Granny run, run/ Grandpa running close behind. Look at Granny run, run/ Something on Granddaddy’s mind. Because he went to his doctor/Got a brand new pill. Doctor said sonny, you ain’t over the hill/He can’t keep still. Oh great gosh almighty won’t you look at Granny run, run!”
9. “Thriller” — Michael Jackson, Thriller. Yeah, I know. But I had to put it on the list for all the zombie fans out there. Truth is, I love the song. And there has never, ever been a music video to match it.
10. “Sympathy for the Devil” — Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet. I’m assuming you all know this one, too. How could I not include it? A song written from the POV of Satan? The line, “I shouted out ‘Who killed the Kennedys’/When after all, it was you and me” still gives me chills every time I hear it.
So there it is: my list of songs that make me think of speculative fiction story lines. Care to share a list of your own?
Enjoy your Memorial Day!David B. Coe