The Saddest Music, Part 2

Joni Mitchell, The Communards, Patsy Cline, Billie Holliday, Kermit the Frog
6. Joni Mitchell, “River” (1971)

Prime among Joni Mitchell’s masterpieces of minor chordery is the A that lets you know what “River,” the eighth track on 1971’s Blue, is really about. Joni’s punchy “Jingle Bells”–inflected piano triplets open the song, before giving way to a slower rhythm and the chorus lines, “It’s comin’ on Christmas / They’re cuttin’ down the trees / They’re puttin’ up reindeer / Singin’ songs of joy and peace.” Then enter the A-minor and, “Oh I wish I had a river / I could skate away on.” With that transition to pure solipsistic misery, the happy act of chopping down a Christmas tree takes on the cast of arbicide. What could prompt such a devastating reaction to the most wonderful time of the year? Joni left the answer in your stocking, tucked away beneath the coal. It’s a note that reads, “Even if you’re lucky enough to find true love in this life, you’ll probably mess it up.” Jeremy Keehn

7. The Communards, “For A Friend” (1987)

Put anything in a minor chord and it’ll make me misty, but in the hierarchy of sad songs, death has to trump heartbreak, and death endured in silence in a world that doesn’t recognize your widowhood as anything more than the loss of a friend trumps pretty much everything else. Bert Archer

8. Patsy Cline, “She’s Got You” (1962)

“I’ve got your picture / She’s got you”

An instant number-one single on the Billboard country chart in 1962, “She’s Got You” followed a string of other hits that established Patsy Cline as the queen of heartbreak. In this song, penned for her by ace songwriter Hank Cochran, Cline picks over the remnants of a relationship with a man who’s left her for another woman. Cochran’s upbeat melody is the perfect mask for a lyric of barely restrained bitterness. “She’s Got You” could make even decades-old breakups start to hurt anew. Paul Isaacs

9. Billie Holiday, “I Get Along Without You Very Well” (1958)

The whole Lady In Satin album is almost too painful to listen to. Recorded shortly before Billie Holiday’s death, it presents the ruins of her voice amid a lush jungle of 1950s orchestration. But this track, a second-rank song with a lyric of deluded optimism, is a heartbreaker. Listening to the first line, and that horrible waver as Billie tries to emphasize “very well”, should be enough on its own to make someone invent a time machine, beam back to the 1940s, and rescue her from what she was going to become. Doesn’t seem to have happened, yet, though. PR

10. “It’s Not Easy Being Green” (from Sesame Street, 1970)

“People tend to pass you over, cause you’re not standing out / Like flashy sparkles in the water, or stars in the sky.”

Despite its melancholy opening, “It’s not Easy Being Green” is meant to be redemptive. “Green can be big like an ocean, or important like a mountain,” Kermit sings at the song’s close, “and I think it’s what I want to be.”

He’s kidding himself. PI

Next: Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, Do sad songs make you better in bed?

1 comment(s)

z.April 18, 2008 09:32 EST

Re: River
You summed it up! Even in All I Want, we think that Joni is finally about to just give herself over to love, but no they both end up blue.

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