In the High Middle Ages (1100-1350) troubadours sang lyrical poetry and travelled around the royal courts of Europe. Narratives dealt with the themes of chivalry and courtly love (usually unrequited). The lyrics were often rhetorical, musical, and poetical fiction with most humorous or vulgar satires. Troubadours were the forefathers of the popular singer and developed many genres including the sad song. These were usually a cross between the Desdansa which was a dance designed for sad occasions; and the Planh or lament on the death of someone important. Traditionally sad songs were performed whilst dancing. The Romantic sad song or ballad were impersonal stories with vivid dialogue and became extremely popular by the 15th century. A usual formula was to recount a dramatic story with brief reference to things that had gone before and little attention devoted to depth of character, setting, or moral commentary. Sentimental ballads were called “drawing-room ballads" and enjoyed popularity among the middle classes. They reached their zenith in the late nineteenth century during the early era of ‘Tin Pan Alley.’ These songs generally had sentimental narratives told in strophic form. Stephen Foster is considered the "father of American music," wrote "Gentle Annie" which is a lament by a young man for his departed sweetheart. His better known “Beautiful dreamer” finds the singer begging his departed lover (beautiful dreamer) to awake because 'Then wills all clouds of sorrow depart'.
As new genres of music took hold in the early 20th century the sad song fell from favour only to return once again after the Second World War. The introduction of the crooner saw a return of the sad song ballad which by now was usually built from a single, introductory verse; around 16 bars in length, and ending on the dominant; the chorus or refrain, usually it is 16 or 32 bars long, and in AABA form (though other forms such as ABAC are not uncommon). In AABA forms the B section is usually referred to as the bridge; often a brief coda, sometimes based on material from the bridge added. The introduction of the record player and a vibrant teenage market soon saw songs about teenage death and tragedy. The genre became very popular in the late 50s and continued into the seventies and beyond. The teenage tragedy song (also known as a splatter platter) was a style of ballad sung either from the viewpoint of the dead person's sweetheart, or sometimes from the viewpoint of the dead (or dying) person. The first major commercial success came from one time mortician’s assistant, Jody Reynolds with "Endless Sleep" The rockabilly ballad which tells of a girl drowning in the water that is saved at the last minute by her brave boyfriend was a hit in 1958. In the original written version, she actually drowns. At the insistence of the record company the ending was changed. The song was covered in the UK by Marty Wilde.
In 1960 a series of tragic song enjoyed high positions on the hot parade starting with Tell Laura I love her, by Ray Peterson. The song told the tragic story of a teenage boy named Tommy who is desperately in love with a girl named Laura. They want to marry so he enters a racing car championship, planning to use the prize money to buy Laura a wedding ring. As the second verse progresses we discover the boy's car has overturned after being t-boned at a roundabout and bursts into flames. The final verse we hear Tommy’s last words "Tell Laura I love her...my love for her will never die".
Another major hit in the same year was Running Bear by Johnny Preston. Written by J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper). It is "Romeo and Juliet" set in a North American Indian context. Waring tribal families prevent their children from seeing each other. Young Indian brave, Running Bear and his sweetheart Little White Dove dive into the raging river to unite. After sharing a passionate kiss, they are pulled down by the swift current and drown.
Mark Dinning also scored high on the charts with Teen Angel. The song was about a girl who is out on a ride with her boyfriend. Their car is stalled on a railroad track when he pulls her to safety. But when she runs back, she gets hit by a train. When they find her body, the narrator's high school class ring is in her hand, apparently the reason that she ran back. This song encapsulates the whole car crash subgenre and teenage fascination with cars and courting. Mark also had a second teen tragedy hit in 1962 with "The Pickup," a lurid tale of a man lamenting not being able to love the girl of easy virtue. As a consequence she kills herself.
In 1961, The Everly Brother scored with Ebony Eyes written by John D Loudermilk. The lyrics tell a young man losing his fiancée in an airplane crash.
In 1962, Dickey Lee had a hit with Patches. The song tells in waltz-time of teenage lovers from different social classes whose parents forbid their love. The girl drowns herself in the "dirty old river." The singer concludes: "It may not be right, but I'll join you tonight/ Patches I'm coming to you." Because of the teen suicide theme, the song was banned by a number of radio stations. Despite this it reached #6 in the US charts. Later in 1965, he was again in the charts with another teen tragedy called "Laurie (Strange Things Happen)."
"Moody River " by Pat Boone was a number-one hit in 1961. Written and originally performed by country rockabilly singer Chase Webster it was the smooth crooner’s cover version that stole the public interest. The song tells the story of a man who goes to meet his love at the river, by the old oak tree, and finds that she has committed suicide. A note on the riverbank explains that she has cheated on him and that "No longer can I live with this hurt and this sin. I just couldn't tell you that guy was just a friend." He then looks into the river and sees his own reflection on the river looking back, ever hauntingly, at him. He is the "lonely, lonely face just lookin' back at me". So with "Tears in his eyes, and a prayer on his lips, and the glove of his lost love, at his fingertips".
A UK hit in 1961 was Johnny Remember me by John Leyton. It was produced by Joe Meek and recounted the haunting of a young man by his dead lover. It is distinguished by its eerie, echoing sound (a hallmark of the Joe Meek production style) and by the ghostly, foreboding female wails that form its backing vocal (by Lissa Gray).
In 1962, Wayne Cochran and the CC Riders recorded Last Kiss which was a song about a terrible car crash and based on actual events in Georgia where teenagers died. The song became more famous when J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers released their version in 1964.
The Beachboys recorded "A Young Man Has Gone" in 1963 and it told the story of a lost surfer.
Perhaps the best known death record of the 60s was “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las which was a massive worldwide hit despite being banned from many radio stations. The subject matter was young love, parental disapproval and death by motorbike.
In the UK, Twinkle recorded “Terry” another sad song about the death of a young man (Terry), killed in a motorcycle accident. It reached number 4 in the UK Singles Chart in 1964.
Jan and Dean's hit "Dead Man's Curve” also was released in 1964 and told the story of an ill fated drag race combining speed, necrophilia and the shadow of James Dean.
Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe" was a giant hit in 1967 and dealt with suicide.
A year later, Bobby Goldsborough’s "Honey", also known as "Honey (I Miss You)" was a massive international hit.
In spite of the violence of the late sixties and early seventies there was remarkably few sad songs recorded with direct reference to the Vietnam War or Race Riots in the US. Perhaps the grief was too much to bare or it was not commercially or politically viable to wallow in pity. There were of course a few notable exceptions such as “In the ghetto” by Elvis Presley (1969) and the Ballad of the Green Berets by Sgt Barry Sadler (1966).
Instead a spate of protest songs gained immense popularity at this time but by the seventies death records had taken on more sinister overtones with murder most fowl, not beyond the lyrists’. Murder ballads were not new and are a sub-genre of the traditional ballad form. These flourished in the past within non-literate groups and usually told of the antics of local heroes who were summarily dealt with by authorities. The broadsheet murder ballad typically recounted the details of a mythic or true crime. The lyrics would deal with who the victim was, why the murderer decided to kill them, how the victim was lured to the murder site and the act itself. This was usually followed by the escape and/or capture of the murderer. Often the ballad ended with the murderer in jail or on their way to the gallows, occasionally with a plea for the listener not to copy the evils. Tom Dooley was perhaps the most famous murder ballad on the 50s and was a massive hit in 1958 for the Kingston Trio.
The traditional Frankie and Johnnie was another death record covered by many artists including Lonnie Donegan in 1956.
In 1971, the rock band Bloodrock had a minor hit with “D.O.A.” The song is extremely grisly and gives a first person account of the aftermath of a plane or car crash. The vocalist describes the bloody sheets he lies in with a missing arm and a dead girl lying next to him, as the ambulance attendant looks over him with little hope. This narrative is backed by a rather eerie and grave organ riff & background sounds of ambulance sirens, creating a decidedly bleak and unsettling atmosphere. The song ends with the ambulance siren being shut off, indicating that the patient has died and is Dead on Arrival.
The punk genre were quick to use murder as a theme and the punk band The Buoys had a US Top Twenty hit in 1971with “Timothy.” The song about cannibalism was written specifically to get banned from the airwave. Then this was a marketing rouse to attract buyer’s attention and very much a punk wheeze. The song tells the story of three men trapped in a collapsed mine. When they are finally rescued only two men are found. The narrator is unable to recall what happened other then they were very hungry. The original song was written by a young Rupert Holmes [Escape (The piña colada song)].
In 1972 Vicki Lawrence had a #1 hit US hit with “The Night the lights went out in Georgia“ which was written by her then husband Bobby Russell. The song writer could not find anyone to record this most macabre of songs and so his wife did the honours. The lyrics are narrated by a young woman telling the story of her older brother who returns home after a two-week trip and meets his best friend at Web's bar. He is told his wife has been cheating on him and that his best friend too has been to bed with her. With revenge on his mind he gets a gun to kill his friend. When he arrives at his friend’s house he discovers that someone has already killed him. He fires his gun in the air to summon a passing sheriff, but when he is found standing over the dead body with a smoking gun, he is arrested for murder. Convicted in a kangaroo court they hang him at midnight. The final verse reveals the singer killed the brother’s friend and her promiscuous sister-in-law.
Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods had a #1 US hit in 1974 with "Billy, Don't Be A Hero,” and the cover version by Paper Lace was a number one hit in the UK. Billy who wants to fight in the war (American Civil War) but his young fiancé forewarns he may die. When this comes to pass she throws the death notice away.
The song which succeeded “Billy” at the top of the charts was another death record, "Seasons In The Sun," by Terry Jacks. The song was a loose translation of a Jacques Brel song called, “Le Moribond.” It is a dying black sheep’s farewell to relatives and friends.
A year later "Run Joey Run," by David Geddes reach #4 in the US charts. The song tells of Joey who gets his girlfriend pregnant and decides to do the right thing and marry her. Her father has other ideas and tries to shoot him. Tragically the daughter jumps in front of Joey at the last minute.
Hot Chocolate had a disco hit with “Emma” in 1974. The song detailed childhood sweethearts (the singer and Emmaline) from the age of five through to seventeen when they get married and eventually to her suicide. Emma is depressed after not being able to succeed as a "movie queen" and eventually kills herself with the line "I just can't keep on living on dreams no more."
The Killing of Georgie (Part 1 & 2) by Rod Stewart was a hit in 1976/77 and told the true-life story of a gay acquaintance of Rod Stewart called Georgie, who was killed in New York City by a New Jersey gang. The song peaked at #2 in the UK singles chart in September 1976, and at #30 in the US in July 1977.
Worth a listen
Frankie and Johnnie (1956)
Tom Dooley (1958)
Endless Sleep (1958)
Tell Laura I love her (1960)
Running Bear (1960)
Teen Angel (1960)
Ebony Eyes (1961)
Moody river (1961)
Johnny Remember me (1961)
Beautiful dreamer (1963)
Laurie (Strange Things Happen) (1965)
J Frank Wilson
Last Kiss (1964)
Leader of the Pack (1964)
Jan and Dean
Dead Man’s Curve (1964)
Sgt Barry Sadler
Ballad of the Green Berets (1966)
Ode to Bobby Joe (1967)
In the ghetto (1969)
Billy don’t be a hero (1974)
Seasons in the son (1974)
Run Joey Run (1974)
The Killing of Georgie (Part 1 & 2) (1976/77)