Beyond “El Paso”: a story song survey

Story songs had won love from an admiring public since the days when drunken Vikings flung wandering skalds into a nearby volcano. When the wireless came along, story songs filled the air in a different way.

The story song “El Paso” carried a distinctiveness beyond mere musical virtue. It possessed a maturity seldom heard in a genre dedicated to historical novelty tunes like “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” and to a booming market in dead teenager songs that in the late 1960s would expand to dead wives (“Honey,” by Bobby Goldsboro), dead hillbillies (“Ode to Billie Joe,” by Bobbie Gentry), and dead everyone (“In the Year 2525,” by Zager and Evans).

When “El Paso” landed as the first Billboard Number One of the 1960s, Marty Robbins became part of a wave of successful story singers, many of them now-forgotten nobodies. A partial survey of the competition perhaps makes it clear why Robbins stood so tall among his so-called peers.

“Tell Laura I Love Her,” by Ray Peterson (1961)

“Tell Laura I Love Her” is Ray Peterson’s story of Tommy, a boy determined to get the money to buy his girl a wedding ring. Trapped in a world without lottery tickets, Tommy has no choice but to do what any of us would do in his situation. He enters a small-town auto race.

Across the entire dead teenager genre, few moments ring out with the hysteric sincerity found only in the teen soul. One of them is Peterson’s chorus on “Tell Laura I Love Her.” It’s quite a feat of sustained emotion—he has to sing it three or four times, the last from beyond the grave.

“Patches,” by Dickey Lee (1962)

Not just a dead teenager song, but a dead teenager song about forbidden love and a double suicide. You can see why music fans shouted, “Turn it up!” from coast to coast.

King of the splatter platter, Dickey Lee told a story as old as Shakespeare, though Lee had greater vocal range than the Bard. Parents won’t let an ordinary boy see a girl from the other side of the tracks or, in this case, the other side of the polluted river. Patches, the girl, jumps into the coal-choked watery depths in her grief. The narrator prepares to follow just as soon as he finishes singing.

Indescribably wretched, “Patches” nonetheless set up Lee as a long-term hitmaker. He later released “Laurie (Strange Things Happen),” that creepy song you half-remember where the narrator picks up a girl, she borrows his sweater and takes it with her, and then it turns out she’s dead and he finds the sweater on her grave. In the Seventies, he gave the world “Rocky,” a song that inflicts both terminal illness and pregnancy on the narrator’s true love.

“Sink the Bismarck,” by Johnny Horton (1960)

“Sink the Bismarck” cemented Johnny Horton’s claim as the History Channel of pop music: not always accurate, obsessed with Germans, and enjoyable if there’s nothing on elsewhere. Horton and co-songwriter Tillman Franks nodded to their usual country audience by describing the battleship’s guns as “big as steers” and declaring it was “making such a fuss.” Pop fans hardly noticed. “Sink the Bismarck” rose to Number Three just months after “El Paso” topped the charts.

“Big Bad John,” by Jimmy Dean (1961)

Jimmy Dean had been in the sausage factory known as the music industry for years when, with his label itching to drop him, he came up with a tall tale punctuated by Gregorian harmonies. “Big Bad John” used a classic trope of fiction—a stranger comes to town. John, like Gatsby, provoked dark whispers involving murder, in John’s case of a guy who had fallen out with our titular hero over the affections of a Cajun Queen. John also (spoiler) died at the end, in his case in a mining disaster while saving his colleagues. “Big Bad John” would not be the last spoken-word story song to break the bank. In 1964, Canadian anchorman-turned-cowboy patriarch Lorne Greene would sell millions of records with the western-themed “Ringo,” a song not about the drummer in a then-popular band.

“Mack the Knife,” by Bobby Darin (1959)

Surprisingly few Marxist émigré playwrights have penned a hit song. But German lyricist Bertolt Brecht reached the toppermost of the poppermost with this jazzy ballad from his play The Threepenny Opera. Darin’s swinging and brassy version—called definitive by Frank Sinatra—proved that America’s musical tastes were omnivorous enough to include Weimar-era show tunes, as if anyone ever doubted it. More importantly, “Mack the Knife” reclaimed the story song for violent criminals, albeit too briefly.