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Some of the best songs leave you with questions


June 9, 2019

Songs can tell a story, but the best ones leave a little something out of the story.

As I was watching and listening to a made-for-pledge-week PBS special called “Story Songs” I realized I had a few questions about the lyrics of some of the most famous songs.

In Jimmy Dean’s hit from the early 1960s, “Big Bad John,” what made Big John stay to himself? Was it just because he’d killed a man over a Cajun queen? Was he Cajun? Was he a black man that wasn’t too accepted in the coal mine?

If Big Bad John had met up with Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, just who would have been the baddest man in the whole damn town? John stood about 6-foot-6 and weighed 245, but Leroy was only 6-foot-4. Did both men really learn a lesson about messing with the wife of a jealous man?

In the song “Tom Dooley,” what part exactly does Grayson play? Was he just a witness to Tom’s stabbing of a beautiful woman? Why would Dooley kill a beautiful woman? Was she making time with Grayson? Was that what threw Dooley into a rage?

So many questions about women and homicide.

In Marty Robbins’ ballad of “El Paso,” we get a lot more information about the relationship between the primary character and wicked Felina the girl that he loved, but there is still a major question. Why did he run after the handsome young stranger fell dead on the floor? It says his challenge was answered in less than a heartbeat. I take that to mean the stranger drew first. If he was a stranger and our main cowboy was a regular, it would have made a lot more sense to stay and let the rest of the saloon back him up.

Apparently Felina spurned him when he was a regular at Rosa’s, but kissed him up when he was dying.

“Ode To Billy Joe” by Bobbie Gentry was a story song that left us all with more questions than answers.

What was thrown off the bridge by the girl and Billy Joe MacAllister? Was it a baby? I always thought it was. Was it a ring or flowers? My wife thought maybe the girl threw Billy Joe off the bridge. I pointed out the song says he jumped.

If he jumped, the family eating dinner (noonday meal) sure was nonchalant about the subject of suicide, especially since the victim’s lover was probably at the table.

Mrs. Johnson managed to ask all the questions that nobody else in town was brave enough to ask in “Harper Valley PTA.” She did ask a couple of questions I would still like answered, however.

Did Mrs. Taylor make ice cream or just iced tea when her husband was away? Why did she use all that ice? And why does Widow Jones need to keep her window shades all pulled completely down?

Then there’s the last song they got around to playing — “American Pie.” Well, I could start in on all the questions created by this 8 1/2-minute ode. The questions go on for days and I’m out of room.

Karl Terry writes for Clovis Media Inc. Contact him at:

[email protected]


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