On Sad Songs

I was realizing the other day, as I listened to Ryan Adams’ country tune, “The End,” that I like great sad songs. I’m sure part of this is in the blood. Being half-Irish and half-German, I joke sometimes that my worldview is evenly balanced: half the time, I’m an extroverted pessimist, and the other half I’m an introverted one.

The extroverted side has its charms. I love Irish songs, and it does seem like the best ones are all about death. One of my favorites contains the repeated line, “Isn’t it grand, boys, to be bloody well dead.” And then comes the exhortation: “Let’s not have a whimper; let’s have a bloody good cry. For always remember the longer you live, the sooner you bloody well die.” It’s pure gallows humor, refined in the fires of persecution and self-pity.

Another classic, of course, is “Danny Boy.” After years of being forced (willingly, I admit – this is the extroverted pessimist’s moment to shine) to sing this song at every family gathering, there are moments in the second verse —approximately when the narrator is pictured lying in his coffin and saying “all my grave will warmer, sweeter be” — when I think to myself, “Wow, this is extreme sentimental melodrama.” But the thought passes quickly, because I’m usually struggling to hold back tears.

For the Great Gaels of Ireland

Are the men that God made mad,

For all their wars are merry

And all their songs are sad.

— G.K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse

Of course, the introverted pessimist will have his say as well. It struck me as I re-read the Lord of the Rings trilogy this winter, that I noticed more than ever before the deep underlying sadness of J.R.R. Tolkien’s story. When I was young, the famous battle of Pelennor fields was only a victory. When I read it this winter, I saw all the more clearly how everyone who fought on the side of the “good guys” went into that battle fully conscious that they had almost no hope of winning. They did not run away from that knowledge, but they embraced it. “Death!” yell the riders of Rohan, as they go streaming across the open battle plain. As he describes in his literary criticism, Tolkien thinks that any story that is real to human life is ultimately a story of failure and defeat. There may be, as there is in the end of LOTR, a moment of breakthrough to apparent victory, what Tolkien calls elsewhere the “eucatastrophe.” Yet even here, the victory will be bittersweet – not only are many lost in the battle, but even more, a necessary consequence of the defeat is the loss of many beautiful things in the world, and the ruin, even in victory, of some wonderful and important people. Tolkien, all through the story, continually alludes to a coming age when the only elves left in the world are mischievous pests – the standard elves of folk stories. He alludes to a coming age when much of the wonder of the world has gone away, swallowed by less noble men whose only concern is gain. The only triumph, in the face of all of this, is to continually proclaim that victory is worth all these losses. Tolkien, it seems to me, reflects the Germanic side that embraces death’s tragedy with a passion that is more introverted, perhaps, than the Irish, but still ardent.

Tolkien makes the point, however, that the only true story that actually has a happy ending is the Resurrection. All the sad songs, all the sad stories are ultimately about the desire for something only God can give.

There is a crucial gap in our lives between wanting God and wanting to be God. This is not only a Christian notion: Plato articulated it in his concept of the metaxy, the “middle” state in which we humans find ourselves. We desire wisdom, but we are not wisdom. We desire the good, but we are not goodness itself. If we think we are these things, then we turn into disgusting, deformed tyrants. If we stop wanting these things, we become mere animals with no aspiration for the infinite. So here we are in the middle. Of course, Plato, tragic in his own way, thought that God really didn’t care about us, and the best we humans could do was to keep looking for, seeking, desiring the good. The Christian mystery is that we believe that God does care, and that God has taken the bold step of coming to fix our sad human state.

So it might be a Lenten exercise to listen to some sad songs. We do so, not as “the rest, who have no hope,” (1 Thess 4:13) but convinced again that we are not God, that we need God desperately to fix all the parts of our lives, our societies, and our world that appear irreparable. In doing so, we wait with anticipation for the moment to recall again Jesus, crucified and risen for us. We can rejoice a little more in his glory, having listened to a few sad songs first.

Magree’s Great Sad Songs EP:

5. “Balderrama” by Mercedes Sosa. It’s even more beautiful if you understand the words, but it is heart-rending regardless.

4. “The End” by Ryan Adams. There are lots of his songs we could add to the list. This is my current favorite.

3. “I Still Sing the Old Songs” by David Allen Coe. He’s most famous for his song, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” which ridicules sad country songs, but he could still write a tear-jerker. Please ignore the fact that the song seems nostalgic for the confederacy…

2. “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. If you want a more up-beat version (of a song about your girlfriend being killed by English oppressors), you can get the version by Solas, which is fantastic in its own way. Please ignore the fact that the song seems to advocate vengeance and guerilla warfare…

1. “Danny Boy” by Bing Crosby. It’s maudlin, dripping with sentiment, but it has the greatest melody, and words that still touch me. Plus, my dead Irish father would come back as a ghost to haunt me if I didn’t make this number 1.

P.S. Apologies for my hiatus from the blog. The press of work was heavy these last months. I’m happy to be back!


4 Responses to On Sad Songs

  1. Great germaine reflections, Mike, on the power of
    music on the Soul! I share your experience, but
    eclectically…. But your ruminations raise many,
    many issues!

    I assume you’re aware that Tolkien and Lewis were
    coffee buddies? (Both sandpapered each other’s
    thought!) For example, Tolkien’s core in the ring
    trology, is Christ! Hidden in there, but evident!

    As for the Irish, as a Lithuanian, may I tease you
    at this juncture of my ending life, to discover
    the gold mine depth behind the tip of the iceberg
    in the reference noun “Irish?!” Too much to discuss
    but may I pass on some structural points in passing:
    1- Sr. Deignan is doing a 2ndary scholarly pass on
    your roots: huge discoveries! You at core are Celtic.
    The Celts are now definitively the founders of
    Europe before anybody else set foot on it, while
    we are the oldest living language: neither of us
    knows our roots! She’ll be issuing a book when done:
    you want it yesterday!
    2- Your pagan religious roots permeate your Xtianity
    on a par to that by Lithuanians: who sandpapered
    whom on their pagan religions only future scholarship
    may determine, but to hear about the similarities
    is interesting to say the least!
    3- Like yours, ALL our folk songs are about death
    and dying! Because our history is nothing but
    constant invasions and attacks on us. However, all
    our focus is positive: because most were developed by
    the female gender therefore pruning away the male
    ego content of most international national folk
    lore songs. (Our women’s influence traces itself back
    to the Age of Chevron, when females ruled: not men!)
    4- Celtic “tenacity” parallels Lithuanian “commitment!” After crushing the Crusaders
    the 3rd time, our King decided to let them Baptise
    us: he didn’t want another useless battle! But was
    “once” enough? No! They had to baptize our nation
    3 times, before it stuck: we reverted back to our
    commitment to our pagan religion! BUT, today,
    whereas Europe has abandoned Xtianity, and we were
    the last European nation to become Xtian, we remain
    a Xtian nation, in spite and despite what the others
    are doing!

    So, there’s more there to your own history than
    recent folk lore addresses!

    And, a last note on the salutary effect of music
    on the soul, despite a key OT reference to King
    David, is what Jung discovered: good music taps
    into our Shadow function! So we can ignore the
    mere assumption of sentimentaliy and begin to
    recognize healing aspects to such!!!
    Easter Peace, always! And all year!

  2. Jeff Johnson SJ says:

    B.B. King says that the blues are “like a good lineament; they’re good for whatever ails you.”

  3. “Silence is better than speech,
    but SONG is better than Silence!”

    – Amnon Shiloah (Jewish Musical Traditions)

  4. Henry says:

    Great post – welcome back!



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