A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a club owner about adding some dates for the spring and we were discussing possible schemes to bring in more people. She informed me that her employees loved the band, and she had great respect for our musicianship, but one of her regulars complained, “Nancy does too many slow sad songs.” Aside from the fact that this isn’t true, (we do fast sad songs too,) I can’t understand not liking sad songs. Does hearing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” make you stop worrying and be happy? I actually become more worried and very unhappy every time I hear that song.
Sad songs make me happy. Here is a list of some of my favorites. All these songs are slow, and therefore not the best choice for bar gigs, although you might be able to get away with one per set. Especially if the song is a waltz or “belt buckle polisher” as slow dances are referred to on the VFW circuit.
1. Ruby’s Arms – Tom Waits
A great sad song has a beautiful melody that can almost stand alone. Tom Waits is the voice of heartache in this one. The final line of the last verse kills me, “I’ll never kiss your lips again/or break your heart/as I say goodbye, I’ll say goodbye/say goodbye to Ruby’s arms.” Writing “I’ll never kiss your lips again” followed by “or break you heart” is terribly poignant; we know the singer’s heart is also breaking although he never actually says so.
2. Eleanor Rigby – Lennon and McCartney
This is one of the saddest of all The Beatles songs. Sad, tragic, but never maudlin. “She’s Leaving Home” is another and also Paul McCartney’s “For No One.”
3. Fairytale of New York – Shane MacGowan
You know a song that starts with “It was Christmas Eve babe, in the drunk tank” is going to be sad. But the refrain, “The boys from the NYPD choir were singing ‘Galway Bay,’ and the bells were ringing out for Christmas day” is genius. MacGowan takes us from the first Christmas of a young immigrant couple, through their self-destructive battles, and finally, the bitter end with the singer in the drunk tank, while throughout the narrative, the NYPD choir continues to sing a beloved song of their homeland.
4. Sam Stone – John Prine
“There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes, and Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose.” These lines speak for themselves. If you don’t know this song, give it a listen, and have your hankie ready.
5. The Way it Goes – Gillian Welch This is a fine example of showing, not telling, just what your English teacher always told you to do and something we don’t get enough of in popular music.
6. I Think its Going to Rain Today – Randy Newman
This may be the most sarcastic sad song every written, a great combination of melody and irony.
7. Waltzing’s for Dreamers – Richard Thompson
Just putting a song in 3/4 time lends it poignancy, combine that with a beautiful melody and a loser in love and the melancholy tears start to flowing. Another sad and lovely Richard Thompson song is “Dimming of the Day.”
8. Sweet Old World – Lucinda Williams
Suicide is not an easy topic for a song, but Lucinda pulls it off, listing the things that make life worth living and asking “didn’t you think anyone loved you?”
9. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry – Hank Williams
If your going to write about sad songs, you’ve got to yank a Hank. This song is a standard, a beautiful combination of melody and lyrics. There’s no pretention here: “I’ve never seen a night so long/when time goes crawling by/the moon just went behind the clouds/to hide his face and cry.”
So, I’ve come to my tenth song and I have a page of titles left that I’ve jotted down, and many more I’m sure to think of tomorrow. So I’ll end here with a song from my repertoire and save my ever expanding list of favorite sad songs for future posts. Please feel free to post your own favorites in the comments.
10. My Old Friend the Blues – Steve Earl
This seems a fitting song to end on. Embrace the sorrow; it’s one thing you can always count on in this sweet old world.