Thursday, December 09, 2004

Sad Songs

Speaking of the 101st has got me thinking of sad songs (hang with me, you'll see the connection in a second). I love to sing, though I'm not very good at it. I love to sing in the shower. I love to sing along with the radio. I love to make up songs to sing to the Butcher in order to annoy him with my creativity. I've even got the greatest remake of "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" about the dog, which I taught to my mom so that we could sing it together at Thanksgiving. But there are just some songs that are so sad that I find them unsingable. When I was little, it was "Puff, The Magic Dragon," which I still find incredibly sad. I hope it really is about marijuana, because a kid deciding he doesn't want to get high any more is a lot easier to take than Jackie growing out of his friendship with Puff. Either way, I can't sing that song without crying. The absolutely worst sad song, I think, is "Seven Spanish Angels," which Ray Charles and Willie Nelson sang as a duet. I don't know who Troy Seals and Eddie Setser are, but goddamn, their words rip my heart out. I'm tearing up right now just trying to find the lyrics for you. From the first line--"He looked down into her blue eyes and said 'Say a prayer for me.'"--to when he tells her that they can take him back to Texas, but they won't take him back alive--to when she picks up his smoking gun and aims it at the riders so that they kill her, too... it just does me in. Then, there's the traditional impossible-to-sing song, "Amazing Grace," which gets sung at every funeral and quite a few of the weddings on my dad's side of the family. I never can get through that one. There are also the stealth sad songs. The most famous one is probably "You are my Sunshine" which, when I was little, we used to go around and sing to old people at the nursing home. Egad! How unwittingly heartless of us! What if someone comes around to my nursing home when I'm 95 and sings "Seven Spanish Angels"? I hope they're ready for some out and out bawling. Strangely enough, all the old people always clapped and sang along--clearly because it's so upbeat. It's got to be upbeat or it'd be unbearable. Here's this singer, so in love with someone who doesn't get the depths of his feelings for her, nor her affect on him, telling her that she's the center of his universe (or at least his solar system) but finding his confessions mean nothing. The first verse is almost perfect in it's depressing plainness: "The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamed I held you in my arms. When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken and I hung my head and I cried." Ouch. However, upon moving to Tennessee, I've discovered that one of the most seemingly innocuous songs on the oldies station, is actually one of its most terribly depressing--"Last Train to Clarksville." When I was little, I wondered why he didn't know if he'd ever be coming home, and I think every time we drove by Clarksville on our way to another vacation in fabulous Lebanon, Tennessee, I'd make my parents play that song and ask them about it. I thought maybe he was going to college and didn't know if he'd get back as often as he'd like. My dad's explanation was that Clarksville is a very violent city and was once the murder capitol of the USA and the singer was afraid of street crime. Clearly, my dad is full of shit, because even in terms of violent places in Tennessee, you're in more danger in Memphis or, say, walking your dog along the Natchez Trace, than you are in Clarksville, but also, this goes to show that it's not just me, but my whole family who are idiots. Any armchair musicologist ought to ask a few obvious questions about that song--all of which every smart-ass in my family failed to do--Why, of all the rinky-dink towns in America is this song set in Clarksville? What's the significance of that? Under what circumstances might a young man find himself in a "noisy railroad station all alone" unsure if he's ever coming home? Especially in 1966? Yes, my dear friends, even though we drove by Clarksville, Tennessee at least once a year, even though we saw all the signs for Fort Campbell, Kentucky, right there adjacent to Clarksville, home of the 101st Airborne, it never once occurred to us that the singer might be lonely and uncertain and wanting to see his sweetie one more time because he was going off to war. Now, my coworker and I have just had a heated discussion about whether that's the correct interpretation of the song. I, being an English major, of course, don't believe in "correct" interpretations, just likely and unlikely interpretations. She, being a business person, believes it's highly unlikely that this song is anything other than a boy leaving home for the first time. But I'm tainted by the war interpretation. It's gone from being an ordinary light-hearted song to being a song I can't sing. The uncertainty is what does it. If he was uncertain about ever coming home because he was off to start his adult life, I could sing it happily. But I suspect he's desperately afraid he might die, and that makes it impossible for me to get through. It's like reaching into the dishwater to open the drain and cutting yourself on the knife you forgot was under the bubbles, trying to sing this song that ought to be a bit of fluffy nothing by a pre-fab make-believe band, but that has at it's heart the most ancient objection to war--the potential death of well-loved young people.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interestingly, Puff the Magic Dragon came up in conversation around here recently and I thought I was the only person who found it exceptionally depressing. I actually can't listen to it unless I'm looking to cry really hard, which most of the time, I am not.

I used to know an old man in Missouri who could not listen to Amazing was just too much for him...because of his personal associations with it. Which makes me think of another hymn, I think it was originally Swedish, Children of the Heavenly Father, that I really like but in certain moods it is just too much. Though, in grade school, when we sang it in church, it was hilarious because it had the word bosom in the first line. You can't beat that kind of comedy, folks. Bosom. I'm snickering now.

And, oddly, some of the memories I have associated with Abba's Dancing Queen make me want to cry. It isn't just the high quality lyrics. I might renounce Abba...but if I do I will be sure to let you and the Professor know when the ceremony will be.

-The SuperGenius

12/09/2004 10:20:00 AM  
Blogger the Professor said...

First, if you are going to renounce ABBA, I will NOT be in the audience. Well, if you decide to play some good songs (like Dancing Queen) before the renunciation, I will get all dressed up, listen & dance, and then leave before I hear any blaspheming about ABBA.
Second, I want to point out that I never thought about the military interpretation of The Last Train to Clarksville, probably because the Monkees' tune is so happy and upbeat. Now, Leaving on a Jetplane (by John Dever but more famously recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary around the same time they recorded Puff the Magic Dragon), that's a sad song that my father told me was about someone going off to war. It always makes me sad. Oddly, I heard twice in one day just two weeks ago - that and Puff the Magic Dragon. Damn those Starbucks wackos and their strange compilation albums they try to sell while we wait so long for our foofy $4 coffees to be prepared.

12/09/2004 09:00:00 PM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

Oh, I knew the Professor was not going to stand for any ABBA bashing! When the Professor had her big drunken night of Twister (known around these parts as the night before someone peed on my old couch), I had quite a time singing "When you're all alone, and your pretty birds have flown, honey, I'm still free, take a chance on me." I hate the verses to that song, but I love the chorus.

I'd have to have confirmation from the Shill and Miss J., but I don't believe there's ever been a time in my adult life when I did not bop around my living quarters singing that chorus.

"Leaving on a Jet Plane" is indeed a sad song, but I always thought it was about a rock star who toured a lot, but was about to give it up. Not nearly as sad as "Puff, the Magic Dragon," but sad in its own way.

Hmm. Perhaps someone should look into getting Peter, Paul, and Mary some therapy.

12/10/2004 08:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, maybe I'm not entirely opposed to Abba. It is just that Dancing Queen makes me think of certain events where every other girl is the dancing queen and you are cast as the side kick friend who isn't considered pretty, fun, or sexy...just smart and witty and you are just there to provide commentary on everyone else's action while you don't get any. Smart and witty are very important, but never a whole person. But I think I've gotten past that, so maybe Abba is OK, just not that song.

Leaving on a jet plane makes me think of my parents because my mom always tells us how when my dad had to go far away for his job for a while when they were engaged she heard it on the radio after she said good-bye to him. But, to me it is kind of a happy sad song since they have had many years since then to live in the same place even though it probably seemed like forever when they were apart then. So, since that one isn't too sad for me my favorite you're not here and I wish you were song is One Moment More...Mindy Smith sings it. That song totally works me over. I think it is actually about a dying relative, but you wouldn't want to listen to it excessviely when the object of your affections is out of town.

Completely different - while purchasing a reindeer pez dispenser at the drug store today the little boy behind me in line said he knew a song about it and he'd sing it for me. He didn't know all the Rudolph words though, so when he forgot he just sang "reindeer, reindeer, reindeer."


12/10/2004 01:09:00 PM  
Anonymous pg said...

so, i got here trying to find out what "Seven Spanish Angels" is really all about. I have come to believe it is about the Guarani War of 1756 in which, amidst territory disputes, the indigenous South American people seeking refuge in 7 Jesuit missions there, were set upon by combo Spanish-Portuguese force and per usual wound up getting the short end of the stick, i.e. 1,511 Guarani dead and 3 European casualties! It bears noting that my mother is always telling me that i have some deep seeded desire to complicate and melodramatize everything, so maybe that is the case here. Anyway, it is a terribly sad song! Puff the Magic Dragon is a tearjerker as well, although as I was discussing the lyrics recently with my brother, who has 2 small children, he was so distracted by the revelation that "sealing wax" refers to the old-fashioned method of closing envelopes, rather than whatever wax one puts on the ceiling (?), any further attempt at explication would have been wholely half-hearted on his part! He holds a degree in Government from Harvard, I, on the other hand have only an overabundance of literature credits from community college, so we frequently experience a breakdown in communication. Anyway, i have no idea if anybody will wind up reading this since the original postings were from 2004. I dig the observations and ruminations.

4/04/2007 07:16:00 AM  

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