©2017 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.
¶The genesis for the essay below dates way back to May 2003, when I had a brief email dialogue with a disc jockey in Dallas. At that time, I didn’t have Internet access on my computer at home here in West Texas; I was using one of the computers at Sul Ross State University to write emails and posts for a previous blog. Since I didn’t have my own Internet service available for music appreciation, I was limited to my small collection of LP’s and the local radio station. All that was played on the radio was country & western and golden oldies. I like classical C&W but not the modern stuff, and I also like many of the old pop hits; but I would have preferred for the broadcasts to be dominated by classical music. Fat chance!
¶The radio station piped in its music (and national/state news) from Dallas. (By the way, the Dallas station has long since replaced its music format with right wing news and talk shows.) After several months of listening, I noticed that there was a lot of repetition; the same songs were played almost every day. I knew more old records were available, particularly at a shop on Garland Road called “Collectors Records”. I decided the Dallas station could use a little coaching from Bob Litton, so I emailed the disc jockey, Bud Buschardt.
¶In my first email, I mentioned “Collectors Records” to him and suggested he shop a little there. He replied that he knew of the store and in fact had helped the owner establish his inventory.
¶I also suggested about half a dozen titles to him, emphasizing the Carpenters’ “I Know I Need To Be In Love”, probably my most favorite of all, which I conceded might not be played much because it is a slight “downer”. Bud replied that he could not recall ever hearing Karen Carpenter’s song, that all the station’s music has to be tested in “focus groups”, and that “if it’s a “downer’, we wouldn’t play it because we have to keep all our music upbeat.”
¶I began to mull over the “downer” question and felt I had to write something about it, if for no other reason than my own amusement…and possibly Bud’s. I don’t know if it amused him or not, since he didn’t reply to my final email, repeated below with some slight editing in the interest of clarity and fullness.
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¶A phrase in our recent email dialogue — “”probably a little bit too much of a downer” — settled in my brain, germinated into a theme, and now demands hatching. Two qualities in my character predetermined such an event: a lifelong tendency to melancholia, and a compulsion to analyze everything to death. I will write it, and you have the choice of reading it or not.
¶Actually, I fib slightly when implying that the subject of the psychology of popular music only recently occurred to me; I have considered the matter almost every time I have heard a popular song, and even some classical pieces, over the past quarter-century. Perhaps I should go back even further, and I might if we eliminate the philosophical plane. For, in my early teens I know I reacted very negatively to songs I considered silly, such as Eddie Fisher’s “O Mein Papa” and Frankie Laine’s “Cry of the Wild Goose”. On the other hand, during the high school years, I would put my ear to the radio and turn up the volume to listen to Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and Bill Doggett’s “Honkytonk”. However, these were all hormonal reactions, not discriminating ones. I never questioned whether any of the songs should have been recorded or aired.
¶Perhaps it was while I was at the university that I was first alerted to individuals’ clashing emotional responses to music. I was sitting in the student center at SMU listening to a song I had played on the jukebox — Henry Mancini’s “Dreamsville” (from the TV show “Peter Gunn”) — when a couple of coeds in a booth across the room reacted, one of them complaining, “Why did anybody play that depressing song?” I was surprised but didn’t say anything. I had never considered “Dreamsville” depressing — slow certainly, as most piano bar jazz songs are, but not depressing.
¶Also during my university years, I learned about Plato’s — and the Spartans’ notion that all music other than marches should be forbidden. I never liked marches, excepting the “Entry of the Guests” from Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser and his “Prelude to Act II of Die Meistersinger. The idea that anyone would want to ban love songs and other non-martial music was worrisome.
¶I am much older now, and my blood has cooled quite a bit, so, when I hear young people driving with their car windows open and their radios blaring incomprehensible songs, I have to remind myself of the days when my sap was running strong and I had my head up against the radio. Also, I listen more attentively to the lyrics now (if I can understand them), and many of them strike me as not only silly but downright harmful.
¶As examples, I will cite the lines “Anyway you want me, that’s how I will be” (Elvis Presley) and “I would sell my very soul and not regret it” (Perry Como). I have met a few people over the years who were willing to submit themselves to their lovers’ designs, and I felt sorry for them. As for the Como bit, I can’t enjoy any of his songs anymore after hearing “It’s Impossible”. One day, I was sitting at the bar in a small Dallas pub when a woman (one of the regulars) at the other end of the bar happened to mention that she liked “It’s Impossible” very much.
¶“How can you say that, Nancy?” I exclaimed. “This guy’s saying he would sell his soul and not regret it, all for some love interest. Your soul is your personhood.”
¶Another regular (man) sitting near me said, “It’s just a song, Bob.”
¶Since then, I’ve noted the effect a song has on me as I listen to it, and I have come up with some interesting insights in the process. (At least I consider them insights.)
¶The most pertinent insight here is that the words alone do not necessarily make a song depressing. Sometimes, in fact, what on the surface might seem like a “downer” can be belied to a degree by the music. I think such is the case with George Jones’ “The Race Is On” and, to a lesser extent, with Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (naturally)”, where the tempo is fast—mimicking a horse race— in the first instance and lilting in the second. Moreover, parts of each song are rendered amusing — to my temperament even comical — by the lyrics:
“And here comes pride up the backstretch/Heartaches are goin’ to the inside/My tears are holdin’ back/They’re tryin’ not to fall.”
and, from “Alone Again”:
“Left standing in the lurch at a church/ where folks were saying, ‘My god, that’s tough/ she stood him up/ no point in us remaining.”
Another song where the humor of the lyrics counteracts the supposedly melancholy theme of the song is Kris Kristopherson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down (from a hangover)”:
“ I woke up Sunday morning/With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt/And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad/So I had one more for dessert/Then I fumbled in my closet through my clothes/And found my cleanest dirty shirt.”
The old C&W songwriters were really good at sensuously humorous lyrics.
¶Before I depart from C&W, I want to say a little about a couple of my favorites, which in their narratives are “sad” songs yet arouse only admiration in me: ” Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” and Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil”. Both of these are true poems! Being a Texan, I have lived through enough summers, with the heat waves rising off the railroad tracks, to pick up on the sensual evocation of a southern country June in “Ode”. I love its detailed, sensual imagery. Of course, it’s the story of two lovers with a dark secret (presumably an abortion) which leads to the suicide of one and the anticipated suicide of the other, but their secret is perhaps too secret to involve me; and, after all, it is a ballad — a ballad in the tradition of “Edward” and “Barbara Allen”. They’re always tragic but tragic at a safe distance.
¶‟Long Black Veil” is balladic, too, in a different manner: it’s slower, deeper, more masculine, if you will. The words are very simple, almost all of one or two syllables; and the lines follow one another inevitably, rather like the better poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt. Of course, the story is supposed to be tragic; but I don’t get involved with it in that way because, had I been the defendant, I would have told the judge that “I had been in the arms of my best friend’s wife”. No hanging for love for me.
¶There are a few songs I would consider as genuinely touching the depressive nerve but which don’t go all the way because the protagonists are aware of a broader picture. One of these is Frank Sinatra’s “Cycles”. The singer acknowledges that he has been through more rough times than he would have liked “…but so have many others”. He recognizes that life is made up of cycles (“first there’s laughter then there’s tears”). He knows he’ll be able to sing a happy song again…sometime…‟just don’t ask me now”. So we know this guy’s in a bad spot, but he’s not knocked unconscious by it. It’s a moody song, a philosophical song, but not a particularly depressing one.
¶A song roughly similar to Sinatra’s is “You Gave Me A Mountain” by Elvis. Man! Everything happens to this poor chap! The whole closet of woes has been dumped on him. But that’s just it. So many bad things happen to him throughout his life — from his mother dying while giving him birth to his wife running away with his only child — that I am too overwhelmed with his long list of troubles to really empathize. It’s just too preposterous.
¶Now we come to my favorite pop song of all time: The Carpenters’ “I Know I Need To Be In Love”. (It was reportedly Karen Carpenter’s favorite, too.) Here again the singer-subject knows her down mood is not an untraversable chasm. She knows that the means of crossing over it lies within herself.
“I know I need to be in love;
I know I’ve wasted too much time;
I know I ask perfection of a quite imperfect world
a fool enough to think that’s what I’ll find.”
Nevertheless, the danger is there and it’s real:
“Wide awake at four AM without a friend in sight,
hanging on a hope that I’m all right.”
She’s in a dark moment emotionally, and there’s no one available to talk her out of it…except herself. She has sufficient self-awareness to pull herself together. The tension lies in the question of whether she will do it. I have been in that condition many times myself, so the lyrics ring very true to my ears. It is because they so well articulate my own self-criticisms that, instead of depressing me, they hearten me.
¶Well, Bud, that’s the end of my little essay on “downer” music. I hope you read it and get something out of it. As for me, the little egg that’s been pestering me has finally hatched.