Sad songs say so much
There's something cathartic about listening to sad music -- why listening to songs of loneliness and despair helps us feel better.
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Nashville music critic Bill Friskics-Warren is the author of the book "I'll Take You There," which examines the elements of transcendence in popular music.
In this interview on "To the Best of Our Knowledge," Friskics-Warren goes down his list of the most potent songs about loneliness and solitude, and talks about why these songs help us transcend our own feelings of sorrow:
First on the list is the Stanley Brothers' "Rank Strangers," which Friskics-Warren calls "chilling." The song, sung by Carter Stanley, is about a man who returns to his home in the mountains to find that everything has changed, and everyone he knew has gone.
"It almost has an apocalyptic feel," said Friskics-Warren. "It can be heard as a song on a purely existensial level, but being something that was recorded during the Cold War, you have the sense of what it could be like in the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. Or, with all of the strip mining that took place in Appalachia, it could be something about the total devastation of a once beautiful landscape.
"I think that it is emblematic, or classic, that a person finds themselves to be an utter stranger in a place that used to be home."
The song was written by Alfred Brumley, who was known for writing Southern Gospel classics like "I'll Fly Away."
"He often wrote of the allure of the heaven that people of a certain faith hope for," said Friskics-Warren. "This one is like waking up in hell, but on Earth."
The music of bluesman Blind Willie Johnson's tune, "Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground," sounds like it inhabits the lonliest place in the world.
"The groaning in his voice, those coarse timbres are just so other-worldly," said Friskics-Warren. "That eerie bottleneck guitar work -- he is scratching out those clusters of notes out with a knife of some sort. It's just harrowing.
"He worked as a street singer, and I am guessing he knew what it was like to sleep in alley ways or even out in the fields. The sense of abandonment you get from the music is almost cosmic, not unlike some of Robert Johnson's really great recordings, but I think this is even more chilling."
It's no coincidence that the saddest songs are often found in country, blues and soul music. Friskics-Warren says it's because it's music for grown-ups.
"As we mature and go through life, we start to cast off the illusions we had as youth. You also just pile up more losses. Relationships die. You lose jobs. Friends die. Family members die. And again, illusions die, so I think there is a lot of lonliness on a lot of levels that we confront as adults that maybe we don't when we were younger, singing about rocking around the clock or fast cars."
But that's not to say that pop music doesn't also have its share of grown-up themes. Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely" is a prime example. Friskics-Warren described the song as "a perfect expression of loneliness in pop music."
"I think the subtitle is key ... it's 'Only the Lonely Know the Way I Feel.' As much as Orbison is giving voice to how lonely he's feeling, the song also is an expression of solidarity directed towards everyone who knows what he's going through."
So what is it that makes these songs of loneliness and despair so appealing to so many of us?
Friskics-Warren believes it's partly due to our masochistic love for the outpourings of loneliness and suffering from the songs, and partly our need to feel that, if others can get through the suffering, we can too.
A less romantic, more defiant -- perhaps more feminist -- tune is a reworking of Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" by Betty Lavett.
"Lavett sings it a cappella, in a style that suggests an old field holler. But hers isn't a blues lament; it isn't really a cry of pain. It's really a monument to self-sufficiency and self-possession ... the performance reminds me of that line from Billie Holiday: 'God bless the child that's got its own.'
"Lavett's delivery here is so imperious, she's so self-assured that you don't doubt for a minute when she says she has what she needs to get across the desert."
"To the Best of Our Knowledge" is an audio magazine of ideas - two hours of smart, entertaining radio for people with curious minds.