Really Sad Songs That Inspire Us

I remember holding on to you.
All them long and lonely nights I put you through.
Somewhere in there I'm sure I made you cry.
But I can't remember if we said goodbye.
 Steve Earle, Goodbye.
Steve Earle's Goodbye is a dark, anguished and almost apologetic ballad written for his (fifth) ex-wife Teresa. Their four-year marriage was marked by Earle's drug and alcohol abuse, and the song highlighted Earle's 1995 Train A Comin' album, his first release after the couple's divorce and his drug rehab stint and 4½-month forced respite in a Tennessee correctional institution.
 That same year, Emmylou Harris recorded Goodbye for her seminal Wrecking Ball album. In an interview with the Citizen nearly a decade later, Harris, whom Salon magazine once described as "the diva of loss," recalled it as the saddest and loneliest song she knew.
 "That song evokes so much longing and regret that it almost breaks my heart," she said. "Even now when I sing it, it just brings up so much in me. It's a transcendent song for all the missed opportunities that we've had, all the things we never said, all the regrets that we have."
 "There are a million stories inside that song," she continued. "It could relate to anyone. As someone who's drawn to the very, very deeply sad songs, there's something about the melody and the simplicity of the words that I find completely irresistible."
 So while many people will surely cosy up on Monday -- Valentine's Day -- to the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's Messiah or Sonny and Cher's I Got You Babe or, worse still, just about any of Stevie Wonder's insipidly jaunty tunes -- I Just Called To Say I Love You, for example, or You Are the Sunshine of My Life (the sonic equivalent of Hallmark cards for those with severe head trauma) -- others will just as surely pass their evening picking and poking at old ardour-induced scabs and wounds.
 Because face it; there's little that can move a soul the way a really sad song does. Take a tale of failed, forbidden or unrequited love, set it to a minor key, play it low and long and add some strings. And mean it. In his book The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, Mc-Gill University research scientist Daniel J. Levitin explains that sad songs are comfort music, letting us know that we're not alone, that our sorrows are not unique.
 Additionally, on a physiological level, our bodies release prolactin, a tranquilizing hormone, when we're sad. Musicologist David Huron, writes Levitin, notes that sad music tricks listeners' brains into releasing the hormone, thus improving their moods.


This 1980 hit by George Jones ( "A four-decade career had been salvaged by a three-minute song," Jones once said of the song) is about a man who tells his ex he'll love her until the day he dies. She replies that he'll eventually forget her, but no, he keeps her picture on the wall and old love letters by the bed, hoping she'll come back. Eventually he dies, and so can finally stop loving her.

He Stopped Loving Her Today
George Jones
MP3 Audio File 7.7 MB

GOODBYE - Steve Earle

In this spare ballad written for his fifth ex-wife, Teresa, Earle admits he recalls all the drunken and drugged-out nights spent in Mexico, but not whether he said goodbye when they split up. While swimming through Earle's catalogue, listeners might also want to try Valentine's Day. It's not about heartbreak or loss, but a sad story of someone who forgot the day, and couldn't afford a gift anyway: "I come to you with empty hands/ I guess I just forgot again/ I only got my love to send/ On Valentine's Day."

LAST KISS - Pearl Jam

Eddie Vedder's 1998 remake of Wayne Cochran's 1961 pop hit brings a welcome growling desperation to the tragic tale of a teen romance ended by a car accident. "Oh where, oh where, can my baby be?" sings Vedder. "The Lord took her away from me. She's gone to heaven, so I've got to be good, so I can see my baby when I leave this world."


O'Connor's cover version of Prince's Nothing Compares 2 U soars with sadness. "It's been seven hours and 15 days/ since you took your love away./ I go out every night and sleep all day/ since you took your love away./ Since you've been gone I can do whatever I want./ I can see whomever I choose./ I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant,/ but nothing, I said nothing can take away these blues./ 'Cause nothing compares, nothing compares to you."

Nothing Compares 2U
Sinead O'Connor
MP3 Audio File 4.7 MB

ARE YOU ALRIGHT? - Lucinda Williams

While each line of the song -- a plaintive letter to someone who has gone away -- is followed by a call of "Are you alright?" it is clearly Williams whose heart is pining. "Are you sleeping through the night?" she asks. "Do you have someone to hold you tight? Do you have someone to hang out with? Do you have someone to hug and kiss you, hug and kiss you, hug and kiss you? Are you alright?"


This breakup song isn't sad at all, and so doesn't naturally fit into this list. But whenever I hear Johnson sing the first three lines, I smile: "I made a promise to myself/ that I would sooner rot in hell/than spend another moment with you."

Long Wave Goodbye
Molly Johnson
MP3 Audio File 9.9 MB


The realization that someone you're with no longer loves you is one of the hardest to come to terms with, and Miles captures that most miserable moment perfectly. "You don't love me anymore," she sings. "And in your heart, you're out the door. It's getting harder to ignore, that you don't love me anymore. You don't love me anymore."


The hidden track on Coldplay's X&Y album, 'Til Kingdom Come was intended to be a duet with Chris Martin and Johnny Cash, but Cash died before it could be recorded. "For you I'd wait 'til kingdom come. Until my day, my day is done. And say you'll come and set me free. Just say you'll wait, you'll wait for me."


Almost every song on Dylan's Blood on the Tracks album — generally agreed by biographers to be about Dylan's breakup with his wife Sarafits the bill, including Tangled Up in Blue, Simple Twist of Fate and You're a Big Girl Now. "If you see her, say hello, she might be in Tangier. She left here last early spring, is living there, I hear. Say for me that I'm all right, though things get kind of slow She might think that I've forgotten her; don't tell her it isn't so."


Zevon knew he was dying from cancer when he wrote this song for his final album, The Wind, which was released two weeks before his death in September 2003. "Shadows are falling and I'mrunning out of breath. Keep me in your heart for a while. If I leave you it doesn't mean I love you any less. Keep me in your heart for a while."

Lynn Miles, who the New York Times said "makes being forlorn sound like a state of grace," says that for a song of failed love to reach classic status, it should be one "that deals with the age-old affliction but puts a new spin on it, or says it in a way that hasn't been said before, or takes a cliche and twists it to make it sound new."
 When asked to pick her favourite song of heartbreak, Miles decides on Jane Siberry's Love Is Everything -- "beautiful and heartbreaking," she notes -- but adds that there are simply too many to choose from.
 While every genre has its classics, country music seems remarkably well endowed when it comes to songs for the broken-hearted. Miles lists Hank Williams and the Louvin Brothers as especially rich sources, singling out Williams' Alone and Foresaken as a highlight:
 We met in the springtime when blossoms unfold.
 The pastures were green and the meadows were gold.
 Our love was in flower as summer grew on.
 Her love like the leaves now has withered and gone.
 Another gem from her list of despairing songs is Johnny Russell and Voni Morrison's Making Plans. She first heard it on the Trio album by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, and performs it with her Black Donnelly Sisters duo, with Rebecca Campbell.
 Lyrically, says Miles, the song is simple and sad, with a haunting melody.
"It's beautiful"
 You say tomorrow you're going.
 It's so hard for me to believe.
 I'm making plans for the heartaches.
 'Cause you're making plans to leave.
 Johnny Russell, Making Plans
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