Five sad songs that make me happy

By Kendal Butler

Sad or melancholy songs have always been able to lift my spirits.

German researchers found in 2014[1] that sad music can often evoke positive emotions like peacefulness and tenderness.

The study concluded that “nostalgia rather than sadness is the most frequent emotion evoked by sad music.” I get that. This list of self-identified sad music selections mostly have a memory or recollection attached.

Sometimes the memory is raw and easily identifiable like a break up or an emotional wallop. Other times it may be as simple as how a tune transports me to a place, time or feeling that I thought I’d lost.

1. “Ghost” Indigo Girls

“I would launch a thousand ships to bring your heart back to my island.”

The beautiful harmonies of Amy Ray and Emily Sailers are undeniable in this 1992 non-hit about lost love. I envision two sorority girls from my wonderful college days in Alabama when I hear this. I can smell and feel the crunch of the fall leaves in the driveway of my good friend’s driveway a few miles from campus.

No one was wronged in these relationships or their ends. One was very fleeting at best. But this song perfectly captures the finality of these affairs in the sweetest, bitter way.

2. “Sorry To a Friend” Edwin McCain

“We had wonderful times, but terrible timing”

This 1995 gem from underrated South Carolina song man Edwin McCain is pure poetry. This time, I’m the bad guy in the memories connected to this one.

I had what you might call a whirlwind rebound romance in 1993 then a wedding in 1994. I hurt someone in that process. I may have hurt her a few times over the years. There were many “times that I blew it” with her in the early nineties.

I see beautiful faces from my past when I hear this song. I remember sitting in a taupe Camry late at night in an apartment complex parking lot in Kentucky as that 1994 marriage quickly and messily disintegrated. I was regretting my past transgressions and contemplating my scary future.

“Like a stone in a stream, life smooths all our edges ’til we barely make a ripple anymore”

3. “Be Careful” Patty Griffin

“Careful how you end me – be careful with me”

Almost all of Patty’s songs could make this list. This one hits me in a particular weak spot. A sad or hurting female is something I can barely handle. Be it in a novel, film or in real life, tales of a left-out girl or a silent-sufferer quickly devastate me.

This 2002 ballad is a folksy recitation of twenty types of girls. The list should cover just about every circumstance and tug at every listener’s heart strings when Patty mentions the one girl they may know.

I often see a songwriter, equestrian friend of mine in my head when I hear this song. We traveled to Louisville, Kentucky together to see Patty perform live around 2004. I’ll never forget the tears that ran down her face as the songstress sang “Top Of The World.” This lady is no victim, but I could imagine how she could be.

This song makes me ache to protect the brokenhearted or maligned “girl” each time. It also makes me want a beer.

4. “Same Old Same Old” The Civil Wars

“I’m gonna name names, I’m gonna call us out – I’m gonna say it if you won’t”

Joy Williams and John Paul White wrote and performed some of the best break up songs ever. It was inevitable that their musical relationship would end like one of their tunes.

Their voices and stark arrangement in this 2013 track perfectly portray the honest range of emotions couples experience in the end or in a serious rough patch. It describes that cut-to-the-chase moment in a relationship we all avoid.

I’ve personally felt this way numerous times. We all have, I suppose. I envision a stretch of highway between Nashville and Lebanon, Tennessee on a cold winter’s afternoon when I play this one. There were gray skies with potential loneliness ahead.

“Do I love you? Oh, I do - and I’m going to ‘til I’m gone.”

5. “Just Like Him” Brandy Clark

“A fight would start, he’d be breaking hearts and dishes”

This full circle country song is from Brandy’s Grammy-nominated 2013 release “12 Stories.” I have never heard a better broken home description set to music.

You can feel the sorrow from a child’s perspective and then the hopelessness of an adult realizing they are following the same, sad script as their parents. It’s the storytelling country music needs in bulk these days.

I am fortunately not a child of divorce. But we all see it too often. My husband still hurts from his parent’s break up over 35 years ago. I can see the string of farmhouses we’ve traveled past that he would nonchalantly add “we lived there for a while” in those post-divorce, lean years when I hear this song.

What are some of your favorite sad songs?

[1] “The Paradox of Music-Evoked Sadness: An Online Survey” Liila Taruffi & Stefan Koelsch

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