Somebody please bring back the storytelling ballads!

Paul Revere in Boston

Maybe if Paul Revere had loaned his horse to Charlie, Charlie could have jumped off the train and ridden away! Paul Revere statue image courtesy of keencarlene, Morguefile.

So on New Year’s Eve, I’m sitting around playing a hilarious game of Uno with my mom and a friend. (Who knew the card game Uno could be so cutthroat??!!)

We’re chatting away and the friend mentions a song by the Kingston Trio called “M.T.A.” (Bostonians, quit giggling.) Oh funny song, where have I been all your life? How is it that I have never, ever heard of this song before? (See video below.)

My research tells me that this is quite the iconic song in the Boston area. It is the story of a man named Charlie forever trapped on a subway train due to a fare increase and was originally created as a song to get a local mayor elected.

(Oh, I could have fun writing a parody of this song for the DC area……)

Of course, if Charlie had a smartphone, he could send out a tweet or a Facebook post about it. Sympathetic users would pass on the message to others, and Charlie would be rescued more quickly. Poor guy.

It got me thinking, when was the last time I heard a good ballad from a modern artist? It’s been quite a while, because songs that tell a good story with a defined beginning, middle and ending aren’t really created these days.

It seems like the golden age of ballads was between the 1960s and 1980s. There was Bobbie Gentry’s Southern-Gothic “Ode to Billie Joe” in the 1960s (they made a movie out of that one), Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” in the mid-1970s, and Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” and “Leader of the Band” from the 1980s.

According to, the word “ballad” comes from Europe, where it originally meant “dance” or “dancing song”. Although dancing is a bit hard to picture when we’re talking about a song like “Ode to Billie Joe”. “Footloose,” it ain’t.

It would be fun to see ballads make a comeback, don’t you think? Blog readers, do you have one or two favorite ballads?

Video credit: Jan Hammer, YouTube.


Filed under Writing

22 responses to “Somebody please bring back the storytelling ballads!

  1. Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.” None better.

  2. Servetus

    Story-telling ballad I like: Rod Stewart, “Young Hearts.”

    I think part of the issue is that from my perspective, anyway, you have to a find a story (or make one up), that’s transgressive enough to be interesting, but not so transgressive that your market can’t sympathize with it. I can think of a lot of stories that probably deserve a song, but I can’t imagine broad swathes of society sympathizing with them. A lot of my favorite ballads are potentially edgy or were originally protest-related.

    • Now, the protests are coming through Twitter, YouTube and Facebook! 😉 I wonder….now that social media platforms give all of us with Internet connections a virtual and global soapbox to tell our stories, have we grown past the need for ballads of any kind?

  3. That song came out the year we moved to Worcester, Mass when I was little. My dad and (tormenting) older brother sang it constantly to the point I was terrified to go into the subway systems.
    But the Kingston Trio remains one of my favorites.Era of great music.
    (Uno – even small kids get brutal with it!)

  4. travelrat

    Here’s a British one for you … ‘Ernie: The Fastest Milkman in the West’ by Benny Hill.

    I know MTA … there was a parody called MTT in Adelaide, about an Italian immigrant who worked as a bus driver on that service. Used to be sung a lot at the Folk Club, but I don’t think it was ever recorded.

    I know ‘Uno’, too … which I thought was a bit of a rip-off, because the rules were about the same as those of ‘Find the Lady’ (to give it one of it’s printable names!) which was played with a regular pack of cards.

  5. We just covered ballads in English Lit. Thanks for giving me a couple of more titles of modern day ballads. Cold Play’s “Viva la Vida” is a decent ballad. There is also Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”, Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane.” Adele’s “Someone Like You” might qualify. They definitely aren’t as popular but the repetitious refrain aspect is there still (getting stuck in our brains–there’s a post: tune worms).

  6. It’s iconic in Boston in the sense of very silly. I was in New York when the song came out and while we didn’t have the MTA, we did have the BMT and the IRT and all the other T’s and we all asked why some member of Charlies stupid family didn’t just put a nickel in the bag with the sandwich. I still don’t have an answer. No one is THAT poor. Hell, they could raise a nickel, a penny at a time from passing strangers.

    • That would be the logical thing to do, wouldn’t it? Heck, I would have gone down there and thrown a whole bag of nickels through the window to poor Charlie.

      Charlie could also have performed a song and had people donate pennies for the performance. Oh, well.

  7. I always liked the Kingston Trio. I had forgotten about how good their music is. I don’t listen very much music unless I’m in the kitchen working or in my car alone going to town. Thanks for sharing this. I will save it so I can watch it again and again. Hope your New Year is a good one and for all mankind.

  8. Uno! The high school memories surface! But what? No mention yet of Don McLean’s American Pie? Ah, the Ballad of Metro—I would love to hear that one! 🙂

    • Sorry, I’m not counting Don. I had in mind songs that had a defined beginning, middle and conclusion. Generally involving an antagonist as well. But I do like Don’s song. A great summary of important events at the time.

  9. Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Love that song and it brings me back to my teen wonder years!

  10. musicbymelissa

    I saved commenting until my cd was complete: I’m a story-telling musician 🙂 My favorite humorous story-song is ‘My Crazy Week’. But if you care to hear a sampling, here’s a link!


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s