What Is It About Sad Songs That Say So Much?

Yes, I am an Elton John fan. And no, I am not the type of ‘fan’ who mangles Benny and the Jets lyrics with her friends after a night of drinking neon colored cocktails. I am a  ‘I learned to play The Last Song on the piano when I was nine’ type of fan who can usually be found rolling eyes when overhearing someone squealing “This is my song” when Tiny Dancer begins to play. But enough about Sir Elton John – I only used his song, Sad Songs Say So Much, as inspiration for the title of this post because I am going to write about (you guessed it) sad songs.

As a teenager, High Fidelity changed the way I approached music. I’d like to say that it was the book but for the sake of honesty, I admit that I saw the movie first – I blame my slight John Cusack (pre-2002) movie obsession. Lloyd Dobler forever. But in my defense, I have since devoured many other books by Nick Hornby, so that must count for something, right? I could write pages upon pages on why High Fidelity is amazing but I am just using the movie as a platform on which to introduce the idea of compiling songs into lists. Throughout the movie, the characters spend time discussing Top 5s in a variety of categories. My husband and I play this game on long road trips – much to the chagrin of our three-year-old who is trying to watch Max and Ruby in peace. In fact, one of the very first conversations we had was about High Fidelity so I knew he was worthy of marriage early on in the relationship. I know, I know. I was lucky.

Over the weekend, I was driving on I-95 when one of the songs on the below list came on. And I started to cry. And before the song came on, I wasn’t the slightest bit sad. But 30 seconds in, I was wiping away tears and smearing my mascara into Christina Aguilera territory. It was scary folks. But the downpour made me think about what would be on the list of the Top 5 Songs That Make Me Cry. I realize that this list is extremely subjective and many of the songs are on the list because of the memories they invoke. But nonetheless, I thought I would share. Scroll down for details and embedded videos of the song…

Top 5 Songs That Make Me Cry (in no particular order)

  1. Hurt by Johnny Cash
  2. This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush
  3. Leave Me Here by Hem
  4. Mr. Tanner by Harry Chapin
  5. Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole

Hurt by Johnny Cash. No surprise here – Hurt is a given on any sad song list. While I really like Trent Renzor’s original version, there is something about Johnny Cash and his leathery and weathered voice that elevates this song into classic territory. And the video has been known to reduce traditionally stoic men to tears. “What have I become? My sweetest friend. Everyone I know, goes away in the end.

This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush. Are you familiar with the scene from the 1989 movie, She’s Having a Baby that features this song? Back in high school, I caught the movie on TBS and I was first exposed to this beautifully haunted song. When I lost the baby back in June, I lost count of how many times I listened to the song. And when I think back to the moments that my husband and I shared when I woke up from the surgery, this song is often on repeat in my head.  “I know you have a little life in you yet. I know you have a lot of strength left.”

Leave Me Here by Hem. This song defined my experience during my husband’s first deployment to Afghanistan. After each notification phone call, each incident briefing in the chapel, and each memorial service during those 16 months, I would listen to Hem. Leave Me Here instantly puts a pit in my stomach and I am transported to that dark place that hasn’t been lived in since 2006/2007. “I should wake up this town, my heart’s on fire, main road and no one’s around, as the flames climb higher.

Mr. Tanner by Harry Chapin. My parents listened to a lot of Harry Chapin during my childhood so as a result, my siblings and I are quite familiar with his songbook. My youngest sister even danced to Tangled Up Puppet with my dad at her recent wedding. One of my favorite Harry Chapin songs is Mr. Tanner. He tells the story of a midwestern cleaner with a gift for singing. The baritone used his savings to travel to New York City and perform a show. Unfortunately, the show was panned by critics. He returns to Dayton, Ohio and never sings again, except for when he is sorting laundry at night. The events that unfold during this song is the worst nightmare for anybody who has ever taken a big risk. “Music was his life, it was not his livelihood, and it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good. And he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul. And he did not know how well he sang; It just made him whole.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Our son was born in 2009, shortly before my husband deployed to Afghanistan for another year. Toward the end of my pregnancy, he told me how he listened to this version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow on his drive home from work and it hit him just how much he would be missing during the first year of our son’s life. Ever since that admission, this song represents that lost year. “Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue. And the dreams that you dare to dream, really do come true.

What about you?

What songs make you cry?

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15 thoughts on “What Is It About Sad Songs That Say So Much?

  1. Jackie November 4, 2012 / 6:24 pm

    Eden’s Gate by Pat Green always makes me cry. Aaron listened to it a lot during the first deployment when he was missing me. Every time I hear it, I cry. I think it ‘s the song and the memories that bring me back to that place and time.

    • Karen November 7, 2012 / 3:42 pm

      I think the songs our significant others listened to while deployed (while thinking of us) are an automatic inclusion on such lists.

  2. Alexandra November 4, 2012 / 6:29 pm

    According to my mom, I have been crying whenever I heard “You are my sunshine” since I was a little baby. I remember sobbing at sleepover camp when I heard that song, it made me so homesick for my mom. Last month on a visit home my mom and I sang it to Delilah and I was quickly reduced to tears.

    When DH was deployed, I would cry to “Here Without You” by 3 Doors Down as I drove to my internship every morning. I found this embarrassing because 3 Doors Down rate only slightly lower than Nickelback on my lameness scale. But the good cathartic cry every morning kept me seeking out the song.

    • Karen November 7, 2012 / 3:43 pm

      If you would have listed a Nickleback song, I would have…well, I don’t know what I would have thought of you. I am glad you didn’t! 🙂

  3. Ko November 5, 2012 / 7:01 am

    Oh you’ve got be crying instead of getting the boys ready for school! Ha! Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole hits my heart like a ton of bricks……

    • Karen November 7, 2012 / 3:45 pm

      Me too. Me too.

  4. Emilie November 5, 2012 / 6:15 pm

    I will follow you into the dark – death cab…..instant SOBBING because it’s the way I feel about Jud.

    Comfortable – John Mayer….a past boyfriend broke little heart into 5 billion pieces with this song

    • Karen November 7, 2012 / 3:43 pm

      No Green Day? 🙂

  5. aunt Deb November 6, 2012 / 8:56 am

    not sure I could make a list. One evening, I listened to a CD of Barry Manilow (I’m a sap) hits, and cried my way through it. It’s the memories that get us, and usually they are of a different time and place in our lives.

    • Karen November 7, 2012 / 3:44 pm

      Exactly. Who knows what my list will be in 5 years. “Oh Mandy…” Haha.

  6. jen November 6, 2012 / 12:44 pm

    Stevie Wonder – I Just Called to Say I Love You (reminds me of my Nana)
    Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah

    I wouldn’t say they both make me instantly cry, but invoke deep emotion…which leads to tears.

    • Karen November 7, 2012 / 3:44 pm

      Hallelujah certainly is a tear jerker, isn’t it?

  7. Minerva November 7, 2012 / 10:55 pm

    Have to agree with Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole! Every time. Another is Maxwell’s Pretty Wings and Al Green’s How Do You Mend a Broken heart.

  8. mollypg November 12, 2012 / 7:52 pm

    3 things.
    1. This Woman’s Work is haunting and beautiful and so, so sad. Totally agree.
    2. The final pas in The Nutcracker brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it. It’s a complicated reaction to (what I believe is) some of the most beautiful music ever composed. Or – I’m a big dork.
    3. I saw the record shop where the exteriors for High Fidelity were shot on a tour a few months ago. I geeked out a little bit.

  9. Harry November 12, 2012 / 8:38 pm

    Late to the party, I know. The Avett Brothers’ “Murder in the City” gets me every time…especially this live version where the last stanza is changed to “make sure my daughter knows I loved her…” I challenge you to make it through this with a dry eye.

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