Songwriting basics and tips 14: Story Time


Bob Leslie is an Independent Scottish Songwriter, Singer, and Recording Artist



What’s the point? …

There are different types of songs. Let’s ignore, for the moment, the emotional tone (happy, sad, funny, angry, love, hate, etc.) a song might possess, and look at the purpose-driven side of  songwriting.

The following is by no means an exhaustive list, just some of the more common purposes found in songs. 


  • Satire –  making fun of a subject via exaggeration orxmas.gif examining them from an unexpected angle. Tom Lehrer is a master of the art – give a listen to his A Christmas Carol where he takes a whole bunch of traditional festive season references and manages to make them all about money.


  • Description –  wild.gifwhy the singer loves someone/something – Percy Sledge’s hit  When a Man Loves a Woman,
    a take on what makes a person tick – this great version of The Lady Is a Tramp by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga,
    or the attractions of a lifestyle – Steppenwolf’s great rock classic Born to Be Wild.


  • Protest – there was a great explosion of protest songs in the ’60s and 70s, with songs such as Bob Dylan’s Masters of War and Neil Young’s Ohio.
    It’s a form that’s never NY.gifreally gone away – there’s arguably even more grounds for protest nowadays.
    Later highlights of the genre include Leonard Cohen’s song of “Psychic terrorism” First We Take Manhattan and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fundraiser for Puerto Rico which takes a sideswipe at Trump & Co.’s inaction and apathy Almost Like Praying.



Now, I write a lot of the last type of song cited above: storytelling.

So, I thought I’d look at one of those to give you an idea of how I put songs together. It’s a humorous take on a bit of personal “fake news” – Big Dead Bob.


Let me tell you a tale …ghost.gif

Here’s the story – as it actually happened!

A few years ago, I went to my regular Monday night at a session run by my friend Bernadette Collier.

When I entered the place suddenly went quiet, and people started nudging each other and whispering.
“What’s up?” I cheerfully remarked.
“You’re dead!” was the reply! 

Apparently, local singer Michael Fagan had reported that, on the previous Friday evening, I had come out of Glasgow bar The Clutha Vaults and had suddenly dropped dead.


The rumour mill …

I collared Mr. Fagan and asked where he’d heard

Mick claimed that a mutual friend, folksinger Joe MacAtamany, had given him the news.

Joe told me he’d heard it from Big Sandy Watson, singer with the Clutha‘s resident Thursday-night band The Vagabonds.

And Sandy … told me he’d got the story from Mick Fagan!

Talk about the circle being unbroken!

I never found out how the rumour had started, and it didn’t seem to even be a case of mistaken identity as no-one had died coming out of the Clutha that night.


And it came to pass …

For a year or more, people referred to me as “Big Dead Bob”,skel.gif and Bernadette suggested one night that the incident would make a good song.

So, I retired to my studio and started writing.


Break it up now …

Now, the trick to writing a narrative song is to first break the story into its constituent parts.

Make those as small and detailed as you can – you can always edit later. Then put them in order as they happened, and divide the incidents out over a number of verses.

So, here’s the sequence of events:

  • Verse 1 – a very folky intro line “Word came from …” that led into how the rumour took wings
  • Verse 2 – a description of my alleged passing
  • Verse 3 – the “Ghost of Bob” arrives at the Monday session
  • Verse 4 – I identify myself as Big Dead Bob, reveal that I’m very much alive, and thank everyone for mourning my loss.


SingalongaBob …

Then I had to come up with a cheery chorus – since I intended it to be a funny song.

A few lines just jumped into my head immediately:

  • “Big Dead Bob is in the building looking bigger than before” (the “b”s in “Big Dead Bob” made me look for more “b” words – “building”, “bigger”, and “before”)

  • one based on an old Scots saying,
    “Hell mend ye!”
    (usually said to kids who were being naughty).

I also wanted a contrast between a cheerfully-alive “ghost” and an ashen-faced, shocked public.

After a bit of shuffling about, the lyric for the chorus ended up like this:deil.gif

What’s that cheery cry
Who’s that coming in the door?
 Big Dead Bob is in the building
Looking bigger than before
As I look around the table
Every face is ashen white
Oh, my God, it’s Big Dead Bob
Hell’s mended him alright

I set it to a fairly simple folky melody, and then built the verses on the same model.

Once you’ve thrashed out a shape for a lyric, it makes things so much easier!

Since my initial intention was for a throwaway-type fun song, I didn’t bother complicating it with a bridge, and just used the chorus tune for the verses too.

Imagine my surprise, when my “throwaway song” became one of my most-requested at gigs and sessions!


Retracing my steps …gtr.gif

  • Lay out the narrative

  • Divide the incidents into verses

  • Scribble down some elements that you want in the chorus:
    “Big” Bob – larger than life, contrast his cheeriness with the shock of the other people, jokey last line based on “Hell mend ye!”

  • Devise a shape and simple tune for chorus, then fit the incidents of the verse into the same shape and tune


And here it is! –
Big Dead Bob © Bob Leslie 2017


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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter


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