Thursday, June 04, 2015

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 4: A Song That Makes You Sad

I have a certifiably unhealthy obsession with sad songs.  I think they're the most beautiful things that human beings create, and I think you can learn far more truth about the complex, convoluted tragicomedy that is human life and community from sad songs than from all the rest of our creations combined.  Among the reasons my musical tastes tend so strongly toward "roots" genres (country, blues, gospel) is not only because rootsy genres are chock-full of sad songs, but also because their simple, straightforward, minimally adorned packaging provides the kind of formal structure that lends itself to foregrounding, and thus amplifying, the sadness in sad songs. There are a variety of more or less effective ways to reach, to connect with and to move the stubborn talking-apes with whom we share planet, many ways to persuade (or manipulate) them, many ways to bring them to their knees.  You can do it with holy books and prophets.  You can do it with armies, weapons and machines.  You can do it with the wondrous and frightening technologies of Science, You can do it, as I most frequently attempt to do, with the conceptual intricacies of philosophical argument.  But none of those would be my first choice to touch the hearts and minds of the beings who create and destroy worlds.

Just give me three chords and a sad story.

My pick for today comes from an artist whose particular rode-hard-and-hung-up-wet vocal timbre makes almost everything he sings sadder,  Combine with that his preternatural ability for storytelling, and there's just no denying that, in the sonic pantheon, Willie Nelson is the veritable God of Melancholy.  There are almost too many to choose from in Nelson's vault, but today I've chosen his 1982 "Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning," a loping, longing, disconsolate dirge, soaked in regret, drowning in pathos and utterly, devastatingly heartbreaking.  Grab a hanky, here it is:



There's no good time for bad things to happen, least of all for your love to walk out on you, but the first thing this morning has to be among the worst.  Perhaps one of my favorite thing about this song, and what makes it so soul-crushingly sad in my estimation, is exactly that straw-that-broke-the-camel's-back element.  When life throws a suckerpunch, we get knocked down, maybe we get hurt, but we manage.  However, when life throws a sucker-combination, and then continues to wail away like some rabid MMA fighter who refuses to let you tap out, what is there left to do? You curl up in a ball, you cover your head for protection, and you reduce your interaction with the cold, cruel world to nothing more than pleas for mercy. Excuse me for looking like my whole world fell apart.  Excuse me for livin' and being forgiven.  Those lines are about the purest form of existential apology in song.

I am aware that this song belongs to a group of "I lost my dog/house/truck/job and then she left me, too" country songs that many people find insufferably formulaic and corny.  But there's a reason this formula has withstood the test of time.  It taps into a deep, universal refusal to accept that the Universe can be so damn unfair, that it can single a person out and stomp a boot down on his or her neck without provocation or justification, that it sometimes continues to punish long past the point when the lesson has been learned.  Sometimes the Universe hands you the last thing you needed, first thing in the morning, and that just produces a very special kind of sadness.  The sort that searches for song.

Runners-up:  Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind"; Maria McKee "If Love Is A Red Dress"; Solomon Burke "Don't Give Up On Me"; The Avett Brothers "I And Love And You"

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