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.