Cameroon’s Bamenda Highlands is a vibrant, verdant region awash with life. Rust-red tracks cut through mountainous forests that brim with mischievous monkeys and birds resplendent in colours you can barely imagine. And the locals? Well, they’re all obsessed with Dolly Parton.
Country music is heard everywhere. It blasts out from the tiny drinking dens that open on every village street once dusk falls. Songs by Dolly and her country cousins crop up on local radio stations at least once an hour – from nine to nine, never mind five. Even in nightclubs, Cameroon’s famous makossa music regularly steps aside for the sounds of America’s Appalacian mountains.
After a sweltering four-hour car journey during which the only available cassette was a half-chewed copy of In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad), I finally cracked. As the Harper Valley PTA were put in their place for the hundredth time, I asked one of my companions why was she so popular? His face assumed a calm, peaceful appreciation, which he held for a few moments before replying. ‘Ah, Miss Dolly,’ he said. ‘We Africans have a tradition of storytelling – and Miss Dolly, she is a storyteller!’
So, in tribute to the Tennessee legend and her legion of Cameroonian admirers, here are 10 of my favourite songs with a story…
10 Sha-La-La-La-Lee – Small Faces
At under three minutes, this is more novella than a full-blown novel, but all the key elements – set-up, middle act, conclusion – are there as the song moves swiftly from first date to wedding bells. Although not written by Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane (Kenny Lynch and Mort Shuman had that honour), it still epitomises the cockiness and bluster that made the band one of the more abrasive Sixties beat groups. From the outset, there’s no doubt in the narrator’s mind about how this story ends: his girl, his moment, his destiny.
9 Monday Morning 5.19 – Rialto
Small Faces were one of the major influences of the mid-Nineties Britpop era, but while the later era’s bands greedily borrowed the Sixties style, jingoism and, on more than one occasion, chord sequences, they didn’t all inherit the swagger. This track by one of Britpop’s minor players recounts an evening spent at home alone, wondering where his girlfriend is and fearing the worst. We’ve all been there and, like all the best writers, Louis Robert Eliot, the son of an earl, doesn’t give us a happy ending.
8 Ordinary Man – Christy Moore
Christy Moore also understands that the most compelling stories are those of hardship, misfortune and inequality. His tale of a hardworking factory employee begins with working-class anger towards society’s upper echelons and their unfailing capacity for self-preservation. Yet in the second act, the protagonist moves on to worry about his family and the future he can no longer provide for them. It’s a haunting listen each time, and may yet become more prescient if the fallacy of Brexit actually goes through. (For a more uplifting story by the Irishman, try Joxer Goes To Stuttgart.)
7 Telegraph Road – Dire Straits
If wealthy employers aren’t to be trusted, then why not go it alone? That’s what the hero of this sprawling epic does. Written by Mark Knopfler, one Newcastle’s favourite sons, it is almost Dickensian in scale. Over the course of 14 minutes (although quite a few are taken up with guitar solos), it traces the growth of an American metropolis from one man making ‘a home in the wilderness’ to ‘six lanes of traffic, three moving slow’. It’s not clear why he set it in America rather than his native UK, but the travails are much the same worldwide: a lack of work leads to anger and desperation for the working man amid ‘rivers of rain’ that betray the writer's English roots. For a truly American take on this theme, try Dry County by Bon Jovi (it’s one of their better ones).
6 Bold Jamie – Cara Dillon
Folk music was serving up tales of sex, violence and human misery long before Game Of Thrones exploded on our screens. From the double homicide in Matty Groves to the sorrow and devotion of I Am Stretched On Your Grave, folkies have always known how to bring the mood down. This more recent composition by Cara Dillon and Sam Lakeman is sung so tenderly that you could miss that it plays on similar themes – love, feuds, vengeance – but, like so many in the folk canon, it basically reminds us that life’s a bitch and we’re all going to die. Quite often by the hand of our girlfriend’s furious father, it seems.
5 The Guitar – Guy Clark
If you’re going to write a song about a magical instrument that – spoiler alert – was only ever meant to be played by a musician as gifted as yourself, you’d better be damn sure you can live up to the claim. Thankfully, Guy Clark, sadly departed, achieved this without so much as a sniff of trouble. The story, delivered in one of country-folk’s most joyously gruff baritones, is simple enough to leave space for some extraordinary acoustic picking by co-writer Verlon Thompson as both the ‘beat-up old guitar’ and its player fulfil their intertwined destinies. As stated by the album from which it comes, some days the song writes you.
4 Levi Stubbs’ Tears – Billy Bragg
That Billy Bragg is a master wordsmith is beyond argument: anyone who can conjure the rhyming couplet ‘She's gone to get the cat in’ and ‘She's mumbling in Latin’ is worthy of our enduring respect. But perhaps his greatest lyrical achievement is the opening 12 words to the heart-rending Levi Stubbs’ Tears:
With the money from her accident
She bought herself a mobile home
The mournful opening B minor chord warns us this is not going to be a happy few minutes’ listening. The details of the accident are never expanded upon, but it’s impossible not to sense that a mobile home is somehow an upgrade on the subject’s previous existence. Even this modest upturn in fortunes proves fleeting, and Bragg, perhaps the finest artistic champion of the UK’s downtrodden, maintains the songwriter’s preference of an unhappy ending.
3 She’s Leaving Home – The Beatles
Over-thought, overrated, overhyped and overplayed – yet in its finest moments, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band reaches the highest heights of the Beatles treasury. Based on a true story, in this beautifully arranged tune Paul McCartney (with a little lyric help from John Lennon) conveys the anguish that one person’s actions can bring to others. On an album that meanders from fixing holes to circuses to traffic wardens to whatever Within You, Without You is about, the touching narrative here couldn’t fail to stand out.
2 A Lady Of A Certain Age – The Divine Comedy
Does a letter count as a story? Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, the French author of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, certainly thought so, and this beautiful song, in melody if not lyric, appears to follow the style of a correspondence that recounts someone’s life back to them. As with so many of Neil Hannon’s witty, observational compositions, it’s not easy to tell if he is sneering at his subjects or sympathising with them. He is quick to note the trappings of his lady of a certain age: her ‘cheque book and family tree’, her ‘perfume by Chanel, and clothes by Givenchy’. Yet later he depicts the personal pitfalls that befall her and, by implication, others who value wealth above all else: marital breakdown, estranged offspring and a desperate yearning for the glory days. Empathy or envy? The answer probably falls somewhere in between.
1 The River – Bruce Springsteen
A friend once told me that while Hollywood taught him about coastal, urban America, Bruce Springsteen covered the rest. I suspect he stole that line, and whoever originally came up with it was wrong in one sense: New Jersey is just a short boat ride from New York, after all. But the sentiment is true for many of us. Springsteen songs rarely feature the celebrities and millionaires of New York, LA or Hollywood; instead, he tells us of the drifters, the racers, those living in ghettos or even Death Row. But The River is where his depiction of an oft-overlooked America is at its utmost. Following the trend of many fine novelists, he sets the scene in a minimalist first act:
I come from down in the valley
Where mister when you’re young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done
There’s only one adjective in there, but the listener knows instantly what kind of valley this is, and how men there act. There’s another simple yet powerful sketch towards the end of the second verse, as the anti-hero and his childhood sweetheart tie the knot – but has there ever been a bleaker telling of a big day?
No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle
No flowers, no wedding dress
The track contains several themes covered by other songs on this playlist: unemployment, the fading of youth, destiny and whether any of us can truly escape it. All Springsteen can offer – to his narrator and the listener – is brief respite in memories of happier times, before slamming home the realisation that they aren’t coming back. Springsteen, like many of the great lyrical storytellers here, knows that human suffering makes for the best tales.
The Bamenda Highlands is, like much of anglophone Cameroon, in the midst of a violent and under-reported crisis. You can read more it here and, if so minded, help raise awareness by contacting your MP.
Tim Woods is a Berlin-based writer. His debut novel, Love In The Time Of Britpop, an unromantic comedy about bad sex and great music, is available now. Twitter: @tim_woods77