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My love-hate relationship with songs about death and misery

I’ve always loved sad songs and murder ballads. There’s something about them that is intriguing. The extreme stories of murder ballads seem so unrealistic that I’ve mostly just laughed at them and enjoyed singing them because of the exaggerated drama and, in many cases, built-up tension in the story (a good example of that is “Matty Groves”). But having said that – most murder ballads are based on, or at least inspired by, real events in the past.

Most of my favorite songs are sad songs. Perhaps because they tell interesting stories? Happy songs are often simpler love songs with a simpler narrative. There are exceptions though – there’s a lovely Irish song, “Ye lovers all”, that goes from sad to dramatic to happy. This must be unique and I love it! Another one that is dramatic but ends well is the old ballad “Jackaroe”, in which a girl dresses up as a man to go as a soldier to the war to look for her partner. She later finds him severely injured but takes him to a doctor who helps him heal, and later they get married. I love stories like this and I’d like to see more of them in songs.

Why sad songs are not as appealing to me anymore

I used to sing lots of sad songs about death and other difficult events, simply because they are such good songs with good storytelling. My favourite song used to be “Mary Hamilton” (also known as “The Four Marys”), and “Geordie”. But when the pandemic came and the threat of death and loss came very close to everyone, also in privileged countries, I lost interest in those songs. I was sick of the misery brought upon us in real life, how could I also sing about it?

I definitely couldn’t handle singing the typical bluegrass songs about home and family anymore, especially not those that are about coming back home after parents are dead and gone, such as “On my way back to the old home”. I couldn’t sing those songs, while I still didn’t know if my own parents would come safely out of the pandemic and still be around when I go back to see them. However, while writing this post, I found that “I’m on my way back to the old home”, which is melodically very similar to the other one I mentioned, is actually a very positive and happy song of home. Good news for me, because I really love songs of home, because they represent bluegrass music in its essence.

Now I’m always on the hunt for songs with a positive – or at least not too miserable – message. There is of course “Keep on the sunny side”, and I’ve found some very good ones in the Doc Watson goldmine of songs. I’m working on some of them, and I have some Gillian Welch songs on my to-do list. I’m also rediscovering some classic bluegrass songs through the bluegrass singing workshop at ArtistWorks.

Songs about disasters

But there are some sad songs that I still enjoy singing – and that’s the songs that tell stories about disasters. These songs may be about terrible events, but in my opinion, they are a type of documentation of historical events, and they also commemorate the victims. A few examples of these in the bluegrass genre, are “Wreck of the old ’97” and “Cyclone of Rye Cove”. In addition, there’s a song about the 1958 Springhill mining disaster, written by Peggy Seeger and Ewan McColl. The song is, at least for me, most known performed by the Dubliners. And let’s not forget the numerous songs about the Titanic disaster.

“Dream of a miner’s child” is an old song mainly made famous by the Carter Family, and in some versions, it tells the story of a mining disaster. For now, I haven’t been able to find any information to verify that it’s about a real event. But there is a variation of this song, “Explosion in the Fairmount mines”, that tells of a real mining disaster that happened in 1907 in West Virginia, and the two songs are so similar that they probably tell the same story.

“Cyclone of Rye Cove” is a beautiful but very sad song written by A.P Carter of the Carter family. This song definitely tells about a true event, that happened on the 2nd May 1929. A tornado hit the Rye Cove school in Scott County, Virginia, and killed 12 students and a teacher while injuring 54 other people. A.P Carter himself lived in the area and volunteered in the rescue work after the disaster. The Carter Family recorded the song later that year. I can’t remember when I first heard it, but it soon became a favourite song of mine.

However, after hearing about some more recent events (the Moore tornado in Oklahoma that hit a school, and an earthquake in Puglia, Italy, that caused an elementary school to collapse), I wasn’t able to sing it for a while – the story became to “close” to me especially after I learned about the earthquake in Puglia. Some of you know that Italy is very close to my heart, it’s like a second home. Some of the places we used to go to were severely damaged in the earthquake of 2016, and singing the song after hearing about the Puglia tragedy was just too much.

So how do I move on if I can’t sing sad songs? The main themes of bluegrass and folk are, after all, songs of sorrow, murder, homesickness, heartaches, and similar. And they are some good songs too! There are many of these songs I still enjoy singing because the stories are less relatable to me. And bluegrass is generally about people and life – sad or not. There are loads of songs I haven’t discovered yet, so it’s about time I start exploring more and find more songs to sing.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite disaster songs, here performed in the version I like best, by my greatest guitar inspiration, Norman Blake (and his wife Nancy).

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2 Comments

  • Anne
    4th September 2021 at 5:32 pm

    This is fascinating – I knew (very generally) that bluegrass music often told stories, but did not realize that so many were related to tragedies. It makes sense, though – the emotions associated with those tragedies really lend themselves to the bluegrass sound. I was thinking, though, how different music emerging from more recent tragedies / events (e.g., 9/11) is from that in the not-too-distant past. I’m thinking of some country song that was, hm, how do I put it? An anthem for those who love war and retribution? I suspect you know what I am talking about. I’d be curious whether any modern bluegrass artists have commemorated more recent events in ways consistent with the bluegrass tradition, though. I’m on a tangent – as usual, sorry! – but thank you for, again, making me think about something new and different and really, really interesting. 🙂
    Take care, as always, and please, keep making music. 🙂

    Reply
    • Susanne
      4th September 2021 at 8:53 pm

      It’s interesting, isn’t it? I know there are some country songs that sort of celebrate war, but I can’t think of a title right now. I know some country people made statements after 9/11. The good news is that some other country are against that attitude.
      Actually there are some bluegrass songs about (quite) recent events. Norman Blake wrote a song that can’t be aboutvanything else but hurricane Katrina – look for Norman Blake and ”Banks of Lake Pontchartrain”. (Note that there’s another song with a similar title, that’s a different one) And there’s a song by (or at least performed by) Don Rigsby about a severe flooding somewhere in West Virginia around 2000. I can’t find the more exact info right and the song is quite hard to find online. If you search, you’ll find a song called Muddy waters, and it’s not the same song… if I manage to learn it, I promise to post it somewhere. I’m working on the Norman Blake song, and it’s going ok. With the bluegrass vocal workshop, I will probably be able to do more songs than I thought!

      Reply

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