Nancy McCallion

Songs for Sinners

Category: songs, songwriters and songwriting

A discussion about songs and songwriting

Ten Great Sad Songs

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.

Magic of a Melancholy Tear

Tell me is it the crack of the pool balls, neon buzzin’?
Telephone’s ringin’, it’s your second cousin
Is it the barmaid that’s smilin’ from the corner of her eye?
Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye
Tom Waits

I’ve always been able to relate to Victor Hugo’s definition of melancholy as “the pleasure of being sad.” Tom Waits is the master of melancholy and captures it achingly in “Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night” from his 1974 record of the same title. The mournful melody combined with the image of this guy combing his hair, gassing up his car, “trying to wipe out every trace of all the other days in the week” imparts a nostalgia for youthful optimism that makes me tear up every time. But it isn’t just nostalgia, it’s the sense that the singer isn’t really going to find the “heart of Saturday night” that invokes the melancholy, because who hasn’t felt that hope, that sense that something is going to happen, and how many of us are still waiting?

So what makes this pleasurable? The guy is going to dress up, comb his hair, search for the heart of Saturday night, and find himself hung over the next day and back at work the day after that.

My fourteen year old daughter suggests that seeking “pleasurable sadness” is a form of defiance against the pressure to be happy; we are told that we’re supposed to be happy when, in fact, frequently we’re not. And of course, there’s the element of catharsis, the purging of our fear and pity at the expense of some poor sot who stumbles into a temporary respite from the working week.

But it’s more than that, I think. Aside from defiance against happy, happy life affirming drivel and the cleansing purge of our emotions, there’s the sympathy, the connection we feel towards the character. I know this guy. I love this guy. He’s me at 19, paying my cover charge and strutting into a bar in my new black boots that cost me half a paycheck. He’s me and my best bud Catherine back when she was Cathy, cruising Speedway, bar hopping, looking for live bands and gigs, throwing down money from our tip jar and dreaming of fame and fortune. Just the thought of it brings a melancholy tear to my eye.

Catherine and me, 1982

Catherine and me, 1982

Moon Over the Interstate

White trash in a wagon on a Texas four lane

A Suitcase and a past my only load

Cover art by Gary Mackender

Oh take me, take me, take me you fool road

I wrote those lyrics, or part of them, on an interstate highway somewhere between Tucson, Arizona and the East Coast in the summer of 1998.  That was a year of constant travel for my band, The Mollys. The US Interstate system was our home. A beat up Rand McNally Atlas that automatically opened to the state of Texas was our guide, its pages folded on the states and cities where we frequently performed; the occasional stain of taco sauce from a Taco Bell burrito, purchased at a drive-in-window, and consumed, minus the drippings, by the “navigator” decorated its pages.

In time, the interstate system became etched in our minds.  In the same way that a person from New Jersey says “Which exit?” when they meet a fellow Garden Stater, referring to where you would get off I-95 to find their hometown,  I might find myself saying to someone from Zanesville, Ohio, “Isn’t that on I-70 between Columbus and I-77?”

I have seen the United States Interstate System from the window of a rolling Ford Econoline van in winter, summer, spring and fall, by night, by day, and in every mood imaginable. I remember driving along I-70 watching an ominous line of clouds in the distance and listening to the radio for tornado warnings.  If I were a cartographer like Olaus Magnus, whose Carta Marina, or Map of the Sea, shows the North Atlantic filled with pictures of sea monsters, I would map I-70 from Missouri through the plains of Kansas with drawings of tornadoes, farm houses and cows.

One winter we drove across Texas on Interstate 10 and into Arkansas during a record breaking ice and snow storm.  We had to drive under twenty miles an hour, because, as we learned, there is a shortage of snowplows in the South.  Our view from the window was one of snow and sleet, and the occasional eighteen wheeler, jack-knifed and overturned in a ditch.  We lost so much time on that trip that we had to drive with only short stops for gas and restroom breaks.  We didn’t even have the luxury of a sit down meal in a diner; all the while we were watching the clock and mentally calculating the time it would take to get to our gig.  I haven’t been able to stomach a Whopper Jr. since.  We did make it to our show on time, but with less than an hour to spare.  After three days in a van and no shower, we performed two fifty-five minute sets to a sit down crowd in a performing arts center in upstate New York.  There’s the romantic life of a touring musician for you.

We didn’t always take the interstate highways by choice.  It was a necessity.  We had somewhere to go, and we needed to get there quickly.  Extra time was extra money, and we wanted to save our precious dollars to take home.  As time passed, we got to know which routes were the quickest.  If our task, as it frequently was, was to get to the East Coast in record time, we started on I-10 to El Paso, switched to I-20 near Toyah, Texas, continued until we hit I-30 in Dallas, and then it was on to I-40 in Little Rock, Arkansas and east to Greensboro, North Carolina, where we’d catch the I-85 to the I-95 to the DC Beltway and, eventually, our first night’s sleep in a bed in a wonderful old farmhouse near Gaithersburg, Maryland, free lodging with our friend, Randy, the brother-in-law of our bass player.  We usually drove the whole route nonstop, taking turns driving, sleeping and navigating.  Any money spent on hotels would come out of our meager pay. If we couldn’t get a promoter to spring for our rooms, we slept in the van – which was almost always rolling.

Joni Seager tells us that a map “reflects the priorities, sensibilities, fears, and the state of knowledge of the mapmaker and his or her cultural context.” Aside from lines of interstate netting the country, the tornadoes and the cows, what else might I add to my map to reflect my sensibilities during my time as a traveling musician: the oil refineries in Odessa (how might one map a smell?), the Admiral Benbow, a hotel in Memphis  where I spent one of the most frightening nights of my life and wrote, “I’m Not as Willing,” the now abandoned Blue Moon, a roadhouse in Kasota, Minnesota where Joyce always requested “the yellow dress song“?

The interstate system is only a bunch of lines on a map, a series of numbers without character, like the identical travel plazas at the end of the off ramps, offering the same knock off tee-shirts, fast food and tire gauges as the store fifty miles back; but layered on top of these highways is a chunk of my life.  The roadside attractions are the funky bars and the characters like Joyce.  Waiting at the end of a long drive were small town nightclubs where the Saturday night dance was the only game in town.  To our fans, we were the kids who ran away to join the circus, rolling into town in our late model Ford van to put on a show.  Our audience saw us at our best, sweating out our frustrations and spilling our guts on stage.  Under their surveillance we lived a carefree existence, unburdened by the nine to five.  But like the character in my song, “Moon Over the Interstate,” we carried our own baggage, the baggage of our pasts, our desires and our fears, as we struggled to find intimacy and fulfillment in our vagabond existence.

I remember driving with my family from my mother’s home town, Muenster, Texas to Tucson to “settle down” after my father’s retirement from twenty years in the air force.  I was nine years old.  My parents had never been to Tucson, but my mother had romantic notions of the West and they were both fans of the television series, High Chaparral which was filmed in Tucson.   As we drove west along I-10 at night, I remember how many of the towns seemed to be nestled in valleys.  When we reached the crest of a hill, we were able to see the lights of the towns scattered below us.  Each town seemed to hold some sort of promise of a new life.  I always had that feeling when I was on the road.  Something new and better was always waiting, in the next town, at the next off ramp.

photo by Gary Mackender

The Mollys 1998, photo by Gary Mackender

For every brand new town there are a thousand brand new lights
a thousand hopes and dreams that lie and wait for you tonight
There ain’t no call to shed a tear or linger on what’s past
The cure ain’t in a bottle, it’s a foot upon the gas… *

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