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April 26, 2007

Sad Songs

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards--

What's your favorite sad song, and why? I'm not talking about weepers, but dry-eyed, unsentimental sad songs.Personally I would vote for: (1) Hank Williams' rendition of I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, (2) Mr. Williams' Cold, Cold Heart, (3) Tennessee Ernie Ford's Sixteen Tons and (4) Goodnight, Irene in various versions.

Okay, so my tastes seem to have congealed in the early 1950s. Deal with it.

I should probably kick #1 out, because it may quite possibly be the best pop song in history, and thus it transcends any category. I might replace it with Elvis' Mess of Blues although the narrator of this one hasn't quite seen the light (darkness?) and still hopes that he can get on a train and "leave these blues behind."

All these seem to capture the fact that many of the most important parts of life are the ones in which your heart's desires are ultimately frustrated, and not-ever-gonna-be-redeemed, at least not in this go round.

About once a month I remember a conversation I overheard about 10 years ago in a coffee shop. A man sitting at a nearby table said in a loud, cheerful voice, "Well, you know Bob, when his son didn't come home from Vietnam he started drinking pretty hard." I mean, how does one deal with a situation like that other than (1) start drinking pretty hard yourself or (2) write a sad song about it?

This consciousness doesn't seem to permeate pop culture much these days, although the energetic tone that replaced it seems motivated in part by repressed anxiety. Does anybody do really good sad songs today?



posted by Friedrich at April 26, 2007


Your own list is awfully hard to argue with, each one a classic. Let me add three more, one extremely famous and two fairly obscure. The famous one is Jimmie Davis' "You Are My Sunshine". There are literally hundreds of recordings of it. The one by Norman Blake on the "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack is as good as any. Then there's Neil Young's cryptic and lovely "I Believe in You" from 1970's "After the Gold Rush". Finally, reaching into the power pop 90s, there's Matthew Sweet's "You Don't Love Me" from "Girlfriend". An astute rock critic once wrote that nearly all of Sweet's songs could be summarized as "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy loses mind". And it's hard to stop when you're listing. I've always found Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" awfully sad. Again, lots of good versions, though my favorite is Sinatra's. Hope this helps. Or hurts.

Posted by: Michael P on April 26, 2007 5:31 PM

No, your taste has not congealed. Hank Williams is still the greatest songwriter America has ever produced. Listen to Jerry Lee Lewis' recent version of "Lost Highway." And that's just a minor Hank song.

Some of his songs are almost too good to be true.

And as I wonder where you are
I'm so lonesome I could cry

That is absolutely inspired.

I'll nominate one of my favorite songs: "Round Midnight" by Thelonius Monk. This song is a tremendous challenge for a musician, because its chord changes are the sort of gymnastics only Monk can throw at you. And the melody is sublime.

It begins to tell,
'round midnight, midnight.
I do pretty well, till after sundown,
Suppertime I'm feelin' sad;
But it really gets bad,
'round midnight.

Memories always start 'round midnight
Haven't got the heart to stand those memories,
When my heart is still with you,
And ol' midnight knows it, too.
When a quarrel we had needs mending,
Does it mean that our love is ending.
Darlin' I need you, lately I find
You're out of my heart,
And I'm out of my mind.

Let our hearts take wings'
'round midnight, midnight
Let the angels sing,
for your returning.
Till our love is safe and sound.
And old midnight comes around.
Feelin' sad,
really gets bad
Round, Round, Round Midnight

Sad songs are the best songs. I don't know why. One of my favorites is still "Tennessee Waltz," the Patti Page version. For sheer mind boggling despair, however, nothing beats "Is That All There Is?" by Peggy Lee.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 26, 2007 5:35 PM

That's a great list. As for me, I'm usually too drunk to remember afterwards. But it's almost always country and western. Nothing like a good c&w sad song to fall off the bar stool to.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 26, 2007 5:44 PM

'Sam Stone' by John Prine. But then, I am one aging, maudlin dude.

Posted by: Don McArthur on April 26, 2007 5:46 PM

Oh, Friedrich.

There is so much good songwriting today, and so many ways to find it and hear it. My guess is that the masses' natural tastes have not declined so much as ceased to be gently guided by the more knowledgeable. But that's too complex a question for today. Anyway, here are some recent downer songs that I really like:

Aimee Mann, "Save Me":

"If you could, save me,
from the ranks
of the freaks
who suspect
they could never love anyone."

This was the song at the end of the movie "Magnolia".

Gillian Welch, "Only One And Only". Pretty straighforward lost love song, the sort that could have been written by old Hank. Welch has a lot of these, alongside more contemporary singer-songwriter kinds of stuff.

Dar Williams, "February". Traces a failing relationship with the metaphor of winter.

Over the Rhine, "Suitcase". Another old-style song, with deceptively simple lyrics. This woman has an amazing unique voice, too.

Posted by: J. Goard on April 26, 2007 6:01 PM

Sondheim's Send In The Clowns

Posted by: ricpic on April 26, 2007 6:02 PM

Garland's rendition of The Man That Got Away -- and I'm not gay!

Posted by: ricpic on April 26, 2007 6:06 PM

Fast Car I guess.

Posted by: adrian on April 26, 2007 6:19 PM

What is it y'all wanna hear?


Posted by: Ronnie on April 26, 2007 6:21 PM

I'm a huge old time country music fan, so I naturally love sad music.

Any fans of Ray Charles' "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music"? A sensational cover of "You are My Sunshine" -- Michael P should definitely check that out. He somehow mixes the sadness of a lot of great country songs with this soaring exuberance, and at the same time they remain sad. "I Can't Stop Loving You" is amazing. That album raises sorrow to an ecstatic pitch.

A few other great sad songs:

"What Becomes of the Broken Hearted"
"Am I Too Blue For You" (Lucinda Williams)
Lucinda also did the incredibly bittersweet, "Look What You Lost When You Left This World"
"Only the Lonely" (Roy Orbison)
so many good ones from Roy...

Too many from Billie Holiday to even count...hard to pick her saddest, isn't it?

"Good Night Irene" is one of the great sad songs if you listen to the lyrics and get the meaning.

Posted by: MQ on April 26, 2007 6:38 PM

Frank Sinatra's "Mood Indigo".

As for good sad songs these days...I don't know.

Posted by: Luke on April 26, 2007 6:59 PM

Ah, yes, now I remember. The Avett Brothers. Check out "Smoke in Our Lights", "Pretty Girl from Annapolis (live)", "My Losing Bet", "Famous Flower from Manhattan", and "Distraction #74".

Posted by: Luke on April 26, 2007 7:04 PM

Richard Thompson pops immediately to mind:

Oh, I Swear and 1952 Black Vincent Lightning.

Posted by: raymond pert on April 26, 2007 10:04 PM

Your problem, Friedrich, may be due to the fact that today's saddest songs are usually delightfully poppy.

(Hipsters define sadness as "graduating from nursery school".)

Beck still does them straight, though, and his Sea Change record was good and sad beginning to end.

Most folk and indie tunes are sad or saddish, and always have been.

Posted by: Brian on April 26, 2007 10:55 PM

"It's a Mean Old World" (Sam Cooke)
"Stardust" (Nat)
"Good Morning Heartache" (Billie)
"I Wish It Would Rain" (Temps)
"Saint James Infirmary" (Louis)

Posted by: Flutist on April 26, 2007 11:04 PM

I wouldn't quibble with any of the above. Just to throw another couple in:

Gordon Lightfoot's "If You COuld Read My Mind", as covered by Johnny Cash.
Elvis Costello's "A Good Year For The Roses" (too weepy to meet the criteria, I assume?)

For Brian's observation that "today's saddest songs are usually delightfully poppy" I nominate Kirsty McColl's wonderful cover of Billy Bragg's lament for the passing of yoth, "A New England" (assuming 25 years ago still = "today"?)

Posted by: Alan Little on April 27, 2007 1:53 AM

The writer of "I wish it would rain" committed suicide like a week or two after he wrote it. It was about his wife cheating on him.

I didn't read the original post very well; it asked for unsentimental sad songs, which I agree are the greatest kind. (Also, the post mentioned "Goodnight Irene" already, which I didn't see). You almost need to go back to pre-1960s music for that profoundly unsentimental sadness; I love that quality in older country music.

It was also a sharp thing to say that the current energy in pop music is motivated by repressed anxiety. It's as though deep sadness is too threatening to express. We're supposed to be shiny, happy, and successful these days.

Posted by: MQ on April 27, 2007 3:54 AM

I've cried regularly to Ricki Lee Jones' version of Tom Waits (OK, schmaltzy) Rainbow Sleeves. Argued with an old lover about whether she saves him or whether he loses his grip on those sleeves.

And I've cried regularly to Eva Cassidy's version of Over the Rainbow, I suppose because her death in real life adds a jolt to the listening.

Note that I did not cry to these while in the office. I am a professional!

Posted by: Fenster Moop on April 27, 2007 4:24 AM

Willie Nelson, "The Last Thing I Needed"
John Prine, "Sam Stone"
John Prine, "Hello in There"

And a bunch of other stuff by Willie Nelson and John Prine.

Posted by: Waterfall on April 27, 2007 7:13 AM

Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger wrote Thanks for the Memories (thislinked version is Sinatra's take on the song), which different singers co-opted into their own versions. My preference is a live recording in Copenhagen of Sarah Vaughn that's available, unfortunately, only on vinyl. The Sassy One goes throught the gamut of feelings and actions from sadness and regret to salaciousness, sarcasm and spite, finishing up with a laugh. No tears are shed. Just a fascinating 7 minute grand tour of life's sorrows and joys.

Posted by: DarkoV on April 27, 2007 8:37 AM

"Johnson's Love" by Dwight Yoakam
"Coming Up Close" by Aimee Mann (back when she was with Til Tuesday)
"Rainy Season" by Aztec Camera
"The Driver" by Terry Reid
"You and I" by Jason Mraz
"I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying" by Sting
"Most of the Time" by Bob Dylan
"Breathe" by Michelle Branch
"The Way It Is" by Bruce Hornsby
"Nothing in the World to Do with Me" by Charlie Rich
"Nobody Knows Me" by Lyle Lovett
"Walk On" by U2

And, of course, all of "Blood on the Tracks" by Bob Dylan, perhaps the most lucid document of pain ever laid down. There are few things that a six pack and a spin of this disc can't fix.

Posted by: yahmdallah on April 27, 2007 10:24 AM

"One More for the Road"

Gotta agree about "The Man that Got Away" ("the night grows colder, and suddenly you're older...")

"Goodby to Love" (the Carpenters, I know, but it is a said song---"I'll say goodbye to love, no one ever cared if I should live or die...")

Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You"

Genesis' "You Know I Love You" ("You know I love you, but I'm playing for keeps...") and Phil Collins' "I Can't Stop Loving You"

And "Bridge Over Troubled Water"

God---now I must go find something to laugh at!

Posted by: annette on April 27, 2007 10:49 AM

Agree about the Willie songs. Aside from those, "Old Shep" (esp. sung by Elvis) and "Daddy's Little Girl" (at weddings) will get to me every time.

Posted by: susan on April 27, 2007 10:53 AM

"This Old Porch" sung by Lyle Lovett.
For some reason, the live version of Bob Seger's "Main Street."

Posted by: beloml on April 27, 2007 11:01 AM

Certainly unsentimental, though more depressing than sad: anything from Pink Floyd's "The Wall".

Posted by: PA on April 27, 2007 11:17 AM

Bobbie Cryner, sadly almost forgotten now as a performer (though she still writes songs for other singers), did some peerlessly sad songs on her album of a decade ago "Girl of Your Dreams," including the title track, which always breaks me up. Her singing is beautifully straightforward and unsentimental, and her songs are always about complex, adult situations and emotions.

Posted by: Steve on April 27, 2007 11:21 AM

yahmdallah: And, of course, all of "Blood on the Tracks" by Bob Dylan, perhaps the most lucid document of pain ever laid down. There are few things that a six pack and a spin of this disc can't fix."

Bob's recent tune Nettie Moore is a masterpiece of sadness. Sheetmusic for the song he based it on is here.

Posted by: Brian on April 27, 2007 11:40 AM

(Hipsters define sadness as "graduating from nursery school".)

Nice one. I was reminded of the eternal maudlin adolescent about a year ago, when I purchased Death Cab For Cutie's "Plans" and heard this:

"Love of mine, someday you will die,
but I'll be right behind,
and follow you into the dark."

Too much like an SNL parody.

But contrast this with Sufjan Stevens' "Casimir Pulaski Day" (does he count as "hipster" music? -- Illinois was certainly acclaimed by young music snobs). That one really packs a punch.

Posted by: J. Goard on April 27, 2007 2:55 PM

Long Black Veil Johnny Cash

Posted by: Matt on April 27, 2007 4:38 PM

From the first wave of Boomers:

For No One (Lennon & McCartney)
How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (Al Green)
I Had A King, River, Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell)
Once I Was (Tim Buckley)
Lonely Women (Laura Nyro)

Cult figure Robin Holcomb's "When I Stop Crying"

The Daughter Unit mentioned Amiee Mann's "Humpty Dumpty"
she couldn't remember song title4s, but said her Soooo Sad ipod mix includes Tori Amos & Sarah McLachlin

So many sad songs, so little time.

Posted by: Chris White on April 27, 2007 4:53 PM

"Pancho and Lefty".

Townes van Zandt's own version, and the version by Emmylou Harris.

"Broke" and "Worthless" by Lisa Marr.

"Faded Love" by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

Posted by: Lexington Green on April 27, 2007 5:09 PM

Weekend in New England (Barry Manilow)
Crowd of Drifters (The Magnetic Fields)

No weepers, huh? I guess that rules out the songs my dad used to sing to us girls, just to make us cry: "The Picture Turned Toward the Wall" and especially "The Baggage Coach Ahead."

Posted by: Romy on April 27, 2007 5:24 PM

PA: big + from me.

Posted by: Tatyana on April 29, 2007 10:00 AM

Blue Moon with Heartache by Roseanne Cash

and the Frank Sinatra classic One for my Baby.

seven year ache by Roseanne is good too, but maybe not quite a sad song.

Posted by: Pat on April 29, 2007 8:06 PM

You should really have one category for Hank songs and another for everything else. Others just can't compete.

In the non-Hank category, I would nominate Dylan's "I threw is all away." Ramblin' Jack Elliot's interpretation is especially, and beautifully, sad. (I'm sorry, but other interpreters of Dylan don't cut in in my book, not even Joan Baez, as good as she can be. But Ramblin' Jack always captures the rawness a Dylan song demands.)

"Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" is damned good, too -- or is that a weeper?

Posted by: Max Goss on April 29, 2007 8:21 PM

"caroline says 2" by lou reed

Posted by: t. j. on April 30, 2007 12:03 AM

Bill Monroe, "Nobody Loves Me"
the second line is the dagger: 'nobody cares'

Posted by: joel on April 30, 2007 2:31 AM

Simply Red: "Holding back the Years"
Billy Joel: "Captain Jack"

Posted by: PA on April 30, 2007 7:29 AM

Good topic.

Not much of a Hank fan myself - while his songwriting abilities were remarkable, I just never cared for the voice. My dad knew some guys who played with him semi-regularly not long before his demise, and I know some great third-hand stories. . .

Most of the 'sad songs' that move me are based more on my life's circumstances surrounding them than the songs themselves. . .loves lost, lives altered forever, good times that you knew were ending and would never pass your way again - that sort of thing.

A few exceptions:

"Losing You" - Elvis Costello, found on the "Taking Liberties" collection. Saw him open a show in Atlanta's Fox Theatre in '81 with this tune, a rather courageous choice considering the audience, but it worked.

"When She Loved Me" - Sarah McLachlan, from the "Toy Story 2" soundtrack. Further proof that Randy Newman is a genius. Try watching the part of the movie where this song is featured and NOT feel that pain of childhood innocence lost forever, made all the more painful if you're watching it with a young daughter or two.

Finally, a little suprised no one has mentioned Stephen Merritt and his many incarnations - notably the hauntingly beautiful "Busby Berkeley Dreams" (which has a greater impact if you know who Busby Berkeley was), and the bittersweet "All My Little Words", which may be one of the saddest songs in the English language.

Posted by: Brent Lane on April 30, 2007 11:54 PM

Thanks to all of your for sharing your recommendations. I've checked out several already and hope to work my way through the rest over time.

Despite the obvious proof of many fine contemporary sad songs, there still seems to me to be a shift in consciousness that has occurred over the past half-century or so. It's kind of hard to describe, but let me at least note my own reaction when I found myself humming "Sixteen Tons" a couple of months ago and googled the lyrics, because I couldn't remember them. I found them slightly shocking in their pungency. The first verse and refrain go:

Some folks say a man's made out of mud
A poor man's made out of muscle and blood
Muscle and blood, skin and bones
A mind that's weak and a back that's strong

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Don't you call me Saint Peter 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store

My reaction: a song like this simply would not become a major hit in today's America, unlike the America of 1950. And not just because of the proletarian sentiments, but also because the imagery is too vividly physical: e.g., "muscle and blood."

Something's changed--life has gotten awfully conceptual, compared to 1950. How odd to notice this in a song lyric!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 2, 2007 12:24 AM

"Sad Memory" by Buffalo Springfield
"For Le Ann" by Tony Joe White
"The Last Thing She Said" Ed Bruce
Vern Gosden songs

Posted by: gary cooper on May 3, 2007 1:02 AM

Harry Chapin - Cats in the Cradle
eric Clapton - Tears in Heaven

Posted by: BigD1980 on May 3, 2007 7:01 PM

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