Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sad Songs (Still) Say So Much

[If you got here through a Google search for "sad songs", you should read this first.]

A while back on this blog, there was a great discussion about sad songs in response to one of my posts entitled "Sad Songs Say So Much." I've been thinking about that again recently for a couple of reasons. First, I'm about to resume broadcasting my show "Americana the Beautiful" on Rhodes Radio (after taking about a 2 month hiatus) and I'm planning an "All Sad Songs" themed show for my return. Second, I've been playing a lot of music myself recently-- it seems like I can't do anything these days without running into another guitar player (such is Memphis)-- and with all that extra playing, I've discovered several more truly great sad songs.

And, of course, I just really, really love sad songs... so this topic never gets old for me.

As you may remember from the last discussion, I lauded Professor Grady for his erudition in choosing Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" as the saddest song EVER. There are a lot of songs that you should know how to play if you play guitar-- and I don't include "Free Bird" or "Stairway to Heaven" among them-- but I think that every guitar player should feel a moral obligation to learn "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." It's a classic. Here, just listen for yourself:

As I said in the earlier discussion, part of the reason that "Don't Think Twice" is so, so very sad is that it tries so, so very hard NOT to be sad. But that's only one kind of sad song. There are, of course, other kinds. For example, there are sad songs that are sad despite their lyrical content-- that is, the song can be "happy" or "hopeful" in terms of the story it tells and yet still sound very sad because, say, it's in a minor key... or it's sung by Nina Simone. I may be alone in this estimation, but I've always thought Nina Simone's recording of "Here Comes the Sun" (written by George Harrison, and originally from the Beatles album Abbey Road) counted as a sad song, despite the fact that the song continually repeats the refrain "it's all right" and, well, it's telling us "here comes the sun." Judge for yourself, though:

Anyway, today I want to recommend a sad song that cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered subtle. Unlike Dylan's "Don't Think Twice," this song doesn't try to mask it's sadness; and unlike Nina Simone's "Here Comes the Sun," no counter-intuitive moves are necessary to recognize it as a sad song. This song is about "being sad," about the utter wretchedness of being sad, and about the inadequacy of our primary biological response to being sad, that is, crying. Julie Miller's "I Can't Cry Hard Enough" isn't about nuanced sadness or reflective sadness or mediated sadness. The composition is simple and spare, her voice is vulnerable and pure, the lyrics are straightfoward and blunt, the narrative voice is utterly alone. It's one of those songs that desparately, and unsuccessfully, reaches for something transcendent, relaying the simple and sad truth of how, even if it were at all possible to be more sad, one could only encounter that possibility as an impossibility. It's just damn sad, plain and simple.

So, I'm putting "I Can't Cry Hard Enough" on my list of top-ten saddest songs EVER, because sometimes, you know, subtlety is overrated.

NOTE TO READERS: I hope that you are able to access all of these songs, but you may need to "allow pop-ups" to do so.

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