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30 Days of Songs: Day 4

May 26, 2011

day 04 – a song that makes you sad: The Avett Brothers: “I and Love and You”

The piece of music that used to make me saddest was Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings, and not for any associations with any war movies. When I was in high school, I played in a string ensemble subset of my youth orchestra. Over Christmas break, our violist was driving home one night when a drunk driver crossed the median and hit her car. I went to visit her in the hospital afterwards with some other orchestra friends. She didn’t look as bad as we had expected and we were telling her stories of our orchestra rehearsal and joking around with her. But something happened and a few days later, she was dead. She was, I think, 16 years old. Hers was the first funeral I remember attending. Our string ensemble played the Barber between eulogies. And it’s lucky we had it memorized, because most of us were sobbing. But since then, so much time has passed and the song has been so overplayed, that it has lost some of its power over me. And it’s not, strictly speaking, a song anyway, except in the retrofitted “Agnus Dei” version.

Interestingly, a piece that was in contention for yesterday’s happy song but was ruled out because of the song qualification was another one by Samuel Barber: Summer Music for wind quintet, which I wrote a little about here (the title of the post, “Slow and Indolent,” is taken from performance directions in the score).

But we’re not talking today about happy. We’re talking about sad. I mentioned yesterday that because I tend to ignore lyrics, at least at first, in favor of the sound of a song, I sometimes find that the songs that make me happy are really tragic. Sufjan Stevens’ Casimir Pulaski Day, for example, despite its friendly and upbeat tone, is about someone dying way too young of bone cancer. But I seized on the sound of the song before the lyrics so it is a song that makes me happy not sad. Although I do feel a little creepy when I’m singing along to this one in my car.

And yet the saddest song I can think of is sad to me because of its lyrics. Maybe it’s because its setting is so spare that there’s nowhere else for my ears to wander. But “I and Love and You” by the Avett Brothers has seemed particularly heartbreaking to me, ever since I first heard it on WFUV a couple of years ago.


“I and Love and You” tells the story, in a somewhat elliptical manner, of the death of a relationship. But it’s not the story as a whole that I find so sad. It’s the phrase that comes up in two of the verses, the one that gives the song its title: “Three words that became hard to say: I and love and you.” There’s something about the separation of the words of “I love you” that I find unspeakably sad and final. They’ve been rendered meaningless in their fission, as if the narrator can no longer bear to speak them. This is not a relationship that came to a screeching tragic halt. It’s the most mundane end, where two people just found they were no longer in love. There’s no one to blame. And somehow that little tragedy is sadder to me than more dramatic ones, like the one in the Sufjan Stevens song. It seems more personal.

“I and Love and You” is not a song I want to listen to when I’m actually sad, but it’s a good song when you’re looking for catharsis. It’s one of the first things I learned to play on the guitar – and it’s still one of the easiest things to play. Most of the song consists of just two chords (D and G) with the occasional A chord thrown in. D, G, and A are three of the easiest chords to get your hands around. I played this one a lot for a while, because it was the only song I could handle well enough that I could sing along. And the chorus, “Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in” – well, any song that lets me sing about Brooklyn is okay by me. I’m constantly homesick for Brooklyn, so maybe that contributes to its sadness for me too.

While writing this, I started thinking about why music makes me sad. It’s actually one of the questions that made me think about getting into music in the first place. What about music causes emotional reaction? First I tried getting at the issues as a music theorist, by analyzing the building blocks of music to see if I could figure out what elicited a response. Why, for example, is that passage in Ravel’s “Pour le Piano” so perfect and heart-wrenching? What is the chord progression/melodic structure/etc. that makes that happen? But eventually, after encountering more ways of looking at music in graduate school, I came to the conclusion that the question I wanted to answer was better addressed not through the music itself but through its cultural association, the history and context behind those musical structures. So I found myself in ethnomusicology, which approaches music as an anthropologist. I like the head-space ethnomusicology gets me in better. The academic traditions of theoretical analysis tend toward the mathematical, which sometimes takes the joy out of it for me. It obliterates my interest in the questions as often as it answers them. Whereas I find myself infinitely fascinated by cultural context. But the really interesting questions are at the junction. Why, for example, do most people in the U.S. seem to regard music in minor keys as sad – is this cultural experience? Probably – it’s not true in all other parts of the world. Is part of it acoustical/theoretical? Maybe. If so, what does it say about our musical values? These are big questions that I won’t be answering anytime soon. But I was thinking about them while planning this post, because I listen to a lot of minor key rock songs. A disproportionate number, as those of you who’ve ever received a mix CD from me may have figured out. But this song, the one that makes me the saddest right now, is in a major key. So maybe I don’t actually have those modal associations. In fact, the songs that have the greatest emotional pull on me often have a peculiar tendency to switch back and forth between major and minor in short bursts. But to define sad for me, I think a song has to have personal associations with something sad, whether because the song itself is associated with something or because the story its lyrics tell reminds me of something personal.

What songs make you sad and why?

And in an unrelated coda, you know what doesn’t make me sad? The fact that I just got scheduled for a phone interview for next week. I’m petrified. I’ve never done a real phone interview (like with multiple people) before. I am now accepting any and all advice. Also, I need to do some research pronto. Just as soon as I stop freaking out.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2011 10:06 am

    My best sadness-inducing song is possibly one of the most banal choices one can make, but it undoubtedly works: Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.”

    Telephone interviews: quiet room, paper and pen for taking notes (I tend to blank on questions, especially multi-part questions), smiling during your greeting (because they’ll hear it in your voice and it sets a warm, collegial tone), and don’t be afraid to ask people to repeat themselves – speakerphones are the very devil.

    Oh – and have a glass of water on hand.

  2. May 26, 2011 10:07 am

    …and you’ll do just great. Relax!

    Oh – I’ve also found that sometimes getting up and walking around helps me think and gives me more energy for telephonic interviews. I’ve even been known to do a standing forward bend while talking to someone. On the phone, nobody knows you’re doing uttanasana.

  3. freshhell permalink
    May 26, 2011 10:10 am

    1. Whoo! Good luck with the interview. I think I’d be intimidated by that too and since phones freak me out, my only advice is perhaps an Irish coffee beforehand? 🙂

    2. The saddest album (the whole thing) is the Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach collaboration, Painted from Memory. The whole album makes me want to sob and then throw myself off a tall building. And yet, when I’m feeling sorry for myself, I listen to it because it allows me to wallow in suffering. I never listen to it when I am happy or want to be because it is a bit of a kill joy.

  4. May 26, 2011 11:20 am

    When I saw the title of this one, I immediately thought of Barber’s Adagio. And I don’t even have any particular associations with it; it just sounds sad to me. Maybe melancholy is a better word. It sounds like ending.

    I’ve always thought that “The American Dream” song from Miss Saigon is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. The one Jonathan Pryce sings while a convertible is lowered onto the stage.

  5. May 26, 2011 2:15 pm

    Blue is a great sad song. I probably should have thought of Joni Mitchell. I’m sure she’ll work her way into my list somewhere. That’s all excellent advice. I’m also advising myself to dress as if I’m going to an actual interview, but a little more comfy. I’m putting together some cheat sheets too. Preparation usually calms me down more than anything.

  6. May 26, 2011 7:21 pm

    I know that it’s heretical, but I do like the William Orbit remix of the Adagio.

  7. lemming permalink
    May 27, 2011 9:37 am

    This is a gorgeous story, and sets the bar pretty high for me. 🙂 Years ago I sang at the funeral for a fellow choir member, also killed by a drunk driver, and her brother played a piece on cello between the eulogies. I wish I knew what it was.

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