Some of the most cherished songs of all time are based on true stories. In many cases, these are events from the songwriter’s own life. Autobiographical songs can have a special meaning because they came from a real experience that gives us a quick glance into the singer’s life. At times, these songs can also let us know that we are not alone in our own experiences. Others have felt the same despair, heartbreak, or joy that we have also felt.
So here are 10 autobiographical songs that really tell a story.
10 “Baby Girl”
There were a lot of memorable songs from Sugarland’s 2004 debut album, and “Baby Girl” is probably the most tenderhearted. It is the story of a struggling young singer who writes letters home telling her parents about the modest venues she is playing. She asks them to send her money but at the same time, assures them that her big break is just around the corner. The last verse is a happy ending. The character describes her success and glamorous lifestyle while making it clear that her values have not changed and that her family still means everything to her.
The song, which was written by Jennifer Nettles, Kristen Hall, Kristian Bush, Robert Hartley, Simone Simonton, and Troy Bieser, is very much about the process of chasing dreams. As Jennifer Nettles points out, it is something nearly everyone can relate to. In a 2010 interview with Songfacts, Nettles was asked if the song was autobiographical and replied: “Oh, you bet. It was not only autobiographical, but it was also a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that it was the first single, and it manifested itself in a way of showing that success.”
9 “Tenterfield Saddler”
One of the most iconic and unique singer/songwriters to gain a following in the 1970s was flamboyant showman Peter Allen. His sentimental ballads were often as popular as his upbeat dance numbers.
Some of Allen’s most indelible songs, from “Don’t Cry Out Loud” to “Continental American” and “I Still Call Australia Home,” strongly reflect his own experiences. As The Guardian reports, Allen once said that “it was his songs that serve as his true biography.”
His most obviously autobiographical song is the poignant 1972 ballad “Tenterfield Saddler.” The song talks about Allen’s grandfather, a saddler in the little town of Tenterfield, Australia. It then goes on to describe his troubled, heavy-drinking father, who committed suicide. The song finally concludes with a glimpse of Peter Allen’s own eventful life since leaving rural Australia.
8 “Coal Miner’s Daughter”
Country music, which is rooted in folk songs, is full of autobiographical tales. Loretta Lynn has written and recorded a number of popular songs taken from her own life, including “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man” and “One’s on the Way.”
However, the most famous is her signature song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” released in 1970, which is also the name of her autobiography and a film adaptation. The song harkens back to her childhood in rural Butchers Hollow, Kentucky. She talks about growing up poor in material things but rich in love. Like a Grandma Moses painting, its simplicity and lack of pretension serve to heighten the beauty of this compellingly nostalgic ballad.
7 “The Heart Wants What it Wants”
Occasionally, we will get an autobiographical song about an artist’s relationship with another well-known artist. These types of songs can be very juicy and sources of much gossip, such as Carly Simon’s hit “You’re So Vain.” (People are still pondering who that song was really about.)
However, Selena Gomez takes a soft-hearted approach with “The Heart Wants What it Wants” (2014). This song is about her turbulent relationship with Justin Bieber—which was co-written by Antonina Armato, David Jost, and Tim James. But, instead of bitterness and accusation, we hear the artist’s vulnerability as she lays her feelings bare. Something else unusual is that, according to Gomez, her ex actually liked this song. Gomez did joke that Bieber might have been “a little jealous” of the guy in the video, but she said that he “thought it was beautiful.”
“The Heart Wants What it Wants” also got the approval of Gomez’s good friend Taylor Swift, which means a lot considering Swift could be considered queen of autobiographical break-up songs.
An interesting footnote reported by The Los Angeles Times is that “the emotionally raw voiceover in the video’s opening—in which she cries over a relationship low—actually happened.” The audio was captured by “a mic that was taped under a table in the room where Gomez went to collect herself.”
6 “Mr. Bojangles”
One of the most widely covered songs based on a true story is “Mr. Bojangles.” There have been versions sung by such diverse artists as Bob Dylan, Whitney Houston, Neil Diamond, Nina Simone, and Sammy Davis Jr. The original version was recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker for his 1968 album of the same name. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band scored a big hit with their 1970 rendition of the song, which holds up well today, maybe because the blend of country and rock that the crossover band brings to it suits this melancholy tune about a down-on-his-luck street performer.
Just as Walker’s lyrics describe, he met the homeless man who called himself Mr. Bojangles in a New Orleans jail and listened as he recounted various stories from his life. At some point, the man responded to a request from one of the other inmates to “cheer everyone up” by doing a dance.
Bojangles was a popular nickname among street performers like this man in honor of the actor/tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who was Shirley Temple’s memorable dance partner in films such as The Little Colonel.
5 “Coat of Many Colors”
Like Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the 1971 Dolly Parton song “Coat of Many Colors” recalls a childhood marked by poverty but enriched by love. Parton’s family cannot afford to buy her a coat, so her mother makes her one from rags. As she sews it, she tells young Dolly the biblical story from Genesis about the gift that Joseph received of a multi-colored coat, which provoked the jealousy of his brothers. However, instead of envying Parton’s coat of many colors, her classmates make fun of the patchwork garment.
One of the most impressive things about this song is that despite her age, the little girl has the wisdom and maturity to value the coat for the love that went into making it. She feels a sense of pride in wearing the coat even though it makes her a target of ridicule.
On tour with Porter Wagoner when she wrote the song, Parton “jotted the original lyrics down on the back of one of Wagoner’s dry-cleaning receipts. The framed receipt now hangs next to a replica of the original coat, also sewn by Parton’s mother, in Dollywood’s Chasing Rainbows museum.”
More than just a touching ballad, the song has taken on a life of its own, serving as the inspiration for two TV movies and a children’s book.
4 “Clancy’s Tavern”
With the 2011 feel-good tune “Clancy’s Tavern,” co-written by W Scott Emerick, Toby Keith pays homage to his unconventional grandmother and her supper club in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Keith has frequently and very successfully mined his life story for song ideas.
“Clancy’s Tavern” tells the tale of his grandmother’s place, where as a young boy, he got his start in music. Keith said his grandmother “was like Miss Kitty” and went on to explain, “when I was a kid, some of the earliest memories I have of being on this earth were going by her nightclub and seeing my grandmother.”
3 “I Wonder”
One particularly heartrending song in the autobiographical category is the very personal 2006 ballad “I Wonder” by country crossover artist and American Idol alum Kellie Pickler. The tearjerker was, of course, inspired by Pickler’s memory of growing up without her mother. The sensitive lyrics express the pain a young girl feels during special moments and times when she needs her mother the most. She also wonders whether her mother has missed her over the years.
“I Wonder” was a collaboration between Pickler, Aimee Mayo, Chris Lindsey, and Karyn Suzanne Rochelle, who co-wrote the song.
Pickler’s moving performance of “I Wonder” at the 2007 CMA Awards matched the deep emotion and vulnerability within the song itself.
2 “At Seventeen”
Like so many autobiographical ballads, Janis Ian’s most famous song, “At Seventeen” (1975), has a coming-of-age theme. Initially inspired by a newspaper article about a debutante, Ian deals very effectively with the pains and disillusionment of growing up as she contrasts the experiences of popular girls with “ugly ducklings.” She laments the fate of plain, awkward girls to sit at home, rejected by boys who pursue more conventionally attractive young women.
It may sound like a pity party set to music at the beginning, but there is an interesting twist. Ian reflects on what often turns out to be unfulfilling destinies of the beautiful girls who make advantageous but loveless matches. This gives the narrative a more balanced perspective and reminds us that although beauty may seem like the most important thing during adolescence, it does not guarantee happiness down the line.
1 “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again”
Something that sets Elton John’s 2019 song “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” apart from typical autobiographical songs is that, instead of covering a specific event or chapter in the life of the artist, it is about the evolution that has occurred over Elton John’s lifetime, leading him to a good place. Written by Elton John and his longtime collaborator Bernard J. P. Taupin, the song is from the legendary entertainer’s biopic Rocketman. It was recorded as a duet by John and Taron Egerton, who portrays him in the film.
“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” is also an upbeat tune, which is another departure, as most of these songs are ballads. One thing that makes this song so appealing is that it has a positive message because self-love is something that so many people, regardless of their background, have struggled with at some point.