Music is our friend. Once upon a time, when you heard a song, you had a pretty good idea what was going on in the composer’s mind when they wrote it. Today, not so much. For me, one of the exceptions is what I would call a sad song, a “tear jerker,” and they are very popular.
There are many reasons why we like sad songs, some scientific, and some just emotional. For example, science says that melancholy music is linked to the hormone, prolactin, which controls our grief. If you are preparing yourself for a tragic or traumatic event that doesn’t happen, the surge of relief and pleasure you feel is coming from prolactin. When listening to a sad song, you may be experiencing the same hormone. Sad songs also release dopamine, the feel-good hormone.
Sad songs are popular because they acknowledge the negative emotions we have, in a society that often trivializes them. Music is empowering, and many sad songs have a message that all will ultimately be ok. There’s also something called the “downward social comparison” which is the concept of feeling better about us if we know that someone else has it worse. More positively, if you hear someone one else out there singing about their struggles, we realize that we are not alone, and it helps us to cope.
According to some surveys, the saddest song ever written was “Tears in Heaven” (1991), by Eric Clapton, after his four-year-old son, Connor, fell to his death from the 53rd floor of a New York City building. My personal favorite on the list is George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (1980). The “Possum,” as he was known to his fans, thought it was too “sappy” but recorded it anyway and it shot to the top of the country charts. It’s about a man whose friend holds on to a lost love until the day he dies. (He said, “I’ll love you till I die.” She told him, “You’ll forget in time.” As the years went slowly by, she still preyed upon his mind.) The woman attended his funeral (“We all wondered if she would”), and, poetically, Alan Jackson sang the song at Jones’ funeral, no doubt recalling Jones’ lifelong obsession with Mississippi’s own Tammy Wynette. While I was overseas, my wife, a country music fan, attended a George Jones concert at the Forrest County Multipurpose Center when she first started teaching at William Carey, and she was a little embarrassed about being there. However, when Jones sang “He Stopped Loving Her Today” at the end of the show, everyone stood up and she recognized several of her friends from the university. It’s not on the list, but “If I Could Only Fly” (1995) by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard also makes my hit parade.
Songs reflect the tenor of the times: the optimism of the 50s and the beginnings of rock and roll (“Rock Around the Clock,” 1954 and “The Great Pretender,” 1955), the flower power of the 60s (“White Rabbit,” 1967 and “Hey Jude,” 1968), the ennui and protest of the early 1970s (“American Pie,” 1971 and “Free Bird,” 1973). I could go on, but perhaps a better example is the pathos, longing, and incipient sadness of songs from the early and mid 1940s - the war years. Songs like “I’ll Be with You at Apple Blossom Time,” and “We’ll Meet Again” reflect the uncertainty of countless tearful farewells and goodbyes.
Even earlier, sad songs reflected political events. I’ve already written here about the origin of the unofficial national anthem of Hawaii, “Aloha Oe” (Farewell to Thee), written around 1878 by Princess and later Queen Liliuokalani, the last queen of an independent Hawaii. Adopted as an anthem by the currently popular nationalism movement in Hawaii, the mythology, which is untrue, says she wrote the song while imprisoned by the Yankee sugarcane magnates in her pink castle overlooking Waikiki. Back in the 1970s, I watched a “march for sovereignty” parading through downtown Honolulu, led by no less than the Right Reverend Jesse Jackson, another drum major for justice. In any event, the lines of the chorus, “Farewell to thee, one fond embrace, ‘ere I depart, until we meet again,” brought tears to thousands of travelers departing the Aloha Tower pier in the heyday of steamship travel.
If you ever find yourself in Paris on Bastille Day, their 4th of July, standing cheek to cheek with the crowds on the Champs de Elysée, pay close attention and look for the marching band of the French Foreign Legion. You won’t miss them because the crowd will go nuts. They will stand out because of their white kepis (hats), snare drums at their knees, and 88-step-per-minute marching speed, in comparison to the 120-step-per-minute speed of the other French army units. Their first rank will also be carrying axes (sappers). Not only can you count on them playing the “Marseillaise” (1792), the French national anthem, but they often play “Lili Marlene” (1937), the song of the French Resistance to the German occupation, first made famous by Marlene Dietrich, herself a German exile. The song has the requisite sad origin: it was written in 1916 by a French soldier to express the anguish of his separation from his love, a grocer’s daughter named “Lili.” On sentry duty at night, he would often receive a friendly wave from a nurse going off duty; her name was “Marlene.”
After World War II ended, thousands of American servicemen, and some women, brought their war brides and grooms to this country. According to research compiled by Collin Makamson, Assistant Director of Education for Curriculum at the World War II Museum in New Orleans, after the “War Brides Act” was passed on December 28, 1945, which was designed to “expedite the admission to the United States of alien spouses and alien minor children of citizen members of the United States armed forces,” the first large group of war brides to arrive in the United States came from England. Makamson, who has an MA in History from USM, has written that “452 British women,173 children, and one bridegroom left Southampton onboard the SS Argentina, an ocean liner converted to a troop ship, on January 26, 1946, and arrived in the States nine days later.” The War Brides Act expired in 1948 and normal immigration rules and quotas began to apply. Unfortunately, no one knows how many romances were left unfulfilled on foreign shores, and this led to the popularity of such songs as “Filipino Baby” for veterans who spent time in the Philippine Islands, and “Fraulein” for those who left a loved one behind in Germany.
As a kid, I can remember my daddy, who had spent some time with the famous war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, a few minutes before the writer was killed by a sniper on Okinawa (1945), and who couldn’t stand to stay in one place long after the war – becoming an over-the-road truck driver just to keep moving - walking around the house singing Ernest Tubb’s song “Filipino Baby” (1938):
When the warship left Manila sailing proudly o’er the sea
All the sailors’ hearts were filled with fond regret
Looking backward to this island where they spent such happy hours
Remembering every pretty girl they met
Up stepped a little sailor with his pride eyes all aglow
Saying take a look at my girl’s photograph
Then the sailors gathered round him just to look upon her face
And he said I love my Filipino baby
She’s my Filipino baby she’s my treasure she’s my pet
Her teeth are bright and pearly and her hair is black as jet
Oh her lips are sweet as honey and her heart is true I know
She’s my darling my little Filipino
It strikes me that few women today would put up with being called a “pet.” I once had a photograph my daddy took of Pyle’s grave, but I lost it in my travels. To be honest, I often wondered if Daddy had a Filipino baby over in the PI somewhere, but I didn’t figure it was any of my business. I can remember him singing several “sketchy” songs, but by today’s standards, he would most certainly been diagnosed with PTSD which probably led to his ultimate suicide.
Over the years, I spent a lot of time in the Philippines, and a common problem I had to deal with was sailors wanting to marry Filipina girls they had only known for a few weeks, even a few days. Sometimes it was true love, but often it was a case of the young lady wanting a ticket back to the States by marrying a U.S. citizen. I tried to be as helpful as possible, while looking out for the welfare of the sailor, who was often a young, lovelorn farm boy who had never received attention from a woman before. Fortunately, the U.S. Consulate threw up so many paperwork obstacles that the romance had often cooled before things were straightened out. More than once, the kid then came to me after the ship had left port, desperate to get married over shortwave radio, which sounds romantic on television but is a non-starter in the Navy.
For some abstract reason, the song, “Fraulein” (1957) by Bobby Helms, always struck me as a sad song. I was in high school when it came out, and it stayed on the country music charts for a record 50 weeks. The “Queen of Country Music,” Kitty Wells, even recorded a response later that year, “I’ll Always be Your Fraulein.” What single veteran, or world traveler for that matter, could not relate to these poignant words:
Far across the blue waters
Lived an old German’s daughter
On the banks of the old river Rhine.
Where I loved her and left her
But I can’t forget her
I miss my pretty fraulein.
By the same stars above you
I swear that I love you
You are my pretty fraulein.
It’s a funny thing – just about every song I heard in Vietnam struck me as sad. The music they were playing over Armed Forces Radio seemed insipid and out of touch with the world we were in. In all fairness, it reflected the protest and angst-filled music that apparently ruled the airways during that period, but I honestly can’t say it was a morale builder. I did manage to catch a couple USO shows, including one headlined by Bob Hope, but his lead singing talent was Tony Bennett and, no offense, he always puts me to sleep. It may surprise some, but I don’t think there ever was a USO show like the one depicted in the anti-war movie, “Apocalypse Now” (1979). I’ve seen a lot of them, and they were all sedate affairs.
A final sad song I’d like to mention is “On the Shores of Malabar” by the Chieftains, the famous traditional Irish band. Written by Ry Cooder and released in 1995, it tells of an English colonial soldier leaving his Indian love in the late 19th century Indian province of Malabar:
Far away across the ocean
Underneath an Indian star
Dwells a dark eyed Indian maiden
On the coast of Malabar
Oh fare thee well my little dark eyed queen
Fare thee well my Indian star
In my heart you’ll live forever
On the coast of Malabar.
Not long after I retired from the Navy, I was privileged to hear the Chieftains perform that song in person in Jackson’s Thalia Mara Hall. Wrapping up, when I went to sea in my later years, I always carried a bag of books and cassette tapes. Before that, it was only books because vinyl records wouldn’t fit in my sea bag, the single piece of baggage permitted for deck seamen. Only officers had record players, anyway. Consequently, the lack of music was one of the biggest banes of going to sea. Armed Forces Radio sent recorded music to the larger ships who had in-house radio stations, but those of us on the small ships had to play our favorite songs in our heads. Looking back, I guess I had sad songs on an endless loop.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.