There’s not always time in busy lives to read that novel or watch that series, but there is always time for a quick fix, for sad songs with a narrative essence. You can satisfy that craving for a story in a short 3 to 8 minutes.
Ballads – in the traditional sense – are musical narratives, stories as songs. The tales they’ve told for centuries are typically sentimental, full of love and loss and longing and cruel, cruel fate. Novels condensed into stanzas, ballads often pack a heavy emotional punch. Lyric heavy, you need to listen and listen carefully to these sad songs.
Here are a dozen ballads with compelling narratives. Since we all need a good cry every now and again, I’ve opted for a selection of sad songs, musical tales to tug at the heartstrings. There are rogues and dead boyfriends and forbidden loves. Ghosts and departures and reunions. There are bittersweet memories and unjust imprisonment and time’s inevitable passing. And there is love, lots of love – young love, old love, fateful love, fickle love, enduring love, motherly love, fatherly love, obsessive love, yes, lots and lots of love.
So, sit back, have the tissues handy, and listen to a smattering of these stories. Be ready for these sad songs to draw you in!
Sad Songs Say So Much – 12 Musical Tales to Tug at the Heartstrings
(In No Particular Order)
#1 Leader of the Pack
Written by George Morton, Jeff Barry, and Ellie Greenwich
Performed by The Shangri-Las
He sort of smiled and kissed me good bye
The tears were beginning to show
As he drove away on that rainy night,
I begged him to go slow, whether he heard,
I’ll never know
From the late 50s to mid-60s, teenage tragedy songs or “splatter platters” were extremely popular. This 1964 hit about the tragic and sudden death of a young woman’s boyfriend in a motorcycle accident typifies the genre.
The song topped the US Billboard charts. The BBC initially refused to play because of its dour and deathly content. The revving of the motorcycle and the screeching of the tires is the cherry on the top of this melodramatic darling. Look out, look out, look out – you’ll be sniffling and blubbering right along with the song.
#2 The River
Written and Performed by Bruce Springsteen
Then I got Mary pregnant and man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse and the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle, no flowers, no wedding dress
A mournful harmonica begins Bruce Springsteen’s moving ballad about a young, working-class couple, struggling to make it work. The song is full of yearning, dreams squashed by familial responsibilities and everyday realities and practicalities, innocence long lost and love bogged down in day-to-day drudgeries. The imagery Springsteen’s words invoke is achingly beautiful.
And the ache is palpable.
#3 Sonny’s Dream
Written by Ron Hynes
Performed by Mary Black, Emmylou Harris, and Dolores Keane
Sonny, don’t go away, I am here all alone,
And your daddy’s a sailor who never comes home
Ron Hynes’ haunting ballad is full of loneliness and longing, telling the tug-o-war story of a son wanting to go and his mother wanting him to stay. The song and its story seem so timelessly familiar that, for years, many other artists sang and recorded Hynes’ song without ever giving him credit or royalties.
Hearing this song of yearning performed in 1991 by three gifted female singers – Mary Black, Dolores Keane and Emmylou Harris – is truly exquisite.
Written and Performed by Peggy Seeger
We seek you by day, by night we call your name
It doesn’t get any more powerfully poignant than Peggy Seegers’ forceful and raw lament. Drawing upon personal narratives of survivors of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s reign of terror, Seeger echoes a mother’s cries for her missing daughter.
Over two thousand Chileans “disappeared” during Pinochet’s junta government from 1973-1988, killed and erased from all official records. Searching mothers were often told that they were mistaken, that they’d never had a child. Seegers’ increasing desperation, agony and anger cuts like a knife into the soul.
#5 The Highwayman
Written by Alfred Noyes
Composed and Performed by Loreena McKennitt
“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
Watch for me by moonlight,
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”
Alfred Noyes’ poem from 1906 is a modern-day, melodramatic classic, a gothic romance of two ill-fated lovers, the highwayman and the innkeeper’s daughter. It lends itself incredibly well to oration (Remember, oh, remember Anne Shirley’s dramatic recitation and Gilbert’s proud applause from the 80s TV series?!).
It has been set to music many, many times. Loreena McKennitt’s hauntingly ethereal rendition from 1997 is dramatically beautiful.