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Sometimes Sickeningly Sentimental Songs the Key to Chart Success

Any Disaster Can Be Made Into Hit Song - FEMA News Photo
The craze for songs about death, crashes, murders, accidents and disasters was not confined to the 50s and 60s. Such music has always been lucrative.

According to folk history, “folk music entertains, tells or supports a story transmitted from generation to generation… music of the common person as well as the wealthy”. Much American folk originated in Europe, often in oral tradition.

It’s a long-lasting genre, that has influenced other arts. It has embraced life’s themes: death, love’s shades, religion, accidents, tragedies, murders, relationships, breakdowns, transport, suicide and war. Train crashes have been a staple. Deaths of train-riding hobos, brave engineers saving others, trains knocking people down. Yet all deaths in infinite variety have inspired further tragic songs in western culture.

Early Examples of Tragedy Set to Music

1954 saw The Drunken Driver released, which told of two children killed while walking. The Fatal Wreck of the Bus is from murder ballads and disaster songs in the 1913-1938 period. Drownings feature in songs such as Kiss Me Mamma, For I Am Going to Sleep; Asleep in the Briny Deep and The Flood Disaster of 1937. The 1912 loss of the Titanic inspired songs such as The Sinking of the Titanic and Just As the Ship Went Down.

Dream of the Miner’s Child, Bonnie James Campbell and Baltimore Fire covered demises in mines, horseback riding and inferno, respectively. Crushed in a construction accident is the lot of the lad in The Dying Boy’s Prayer. It’s commonly assumed that 1992’s Tears in Heaven, by Eric Clapton in memory of his son who fell to his death through a window six floors up (“would you know my name/if I saw you in Heaven”) is in the tragic-ballad genre.

Death Turns Pop

As 1950s pop music began, along came Teen Angel (1959), about a young couple’s car stalling on a railroad track. He pulls her to safety, but she goes back for the ring he gave her and is killed by the train. It was banned in Britain by the BBC and many US radio stations as too morbid, yet reached Number 1.

The following year saw Tell Laura I Love Her, a tale of teenage love, where Tommy’s car overturns and ignites during a stock car race to win $1000 to buy a ring for Laura. He spends his last breaths urging somebody to tell Laura he loves her. John D Loudermilk’s 1961 teen ballad, Ebony Eyes recorded by the Everly Brothers, tells of a young man’s loss of his fiancee in an airplane crash.

Crashes seem endlessly appealing to songwriters, singers and the record-buying public. Right up to date, there is mileage in last words and aftermaths. The Normal in the 1980s in Warm Leatherette, urged, “Quick, let’s make love before you die”. Motorcrash (1988) by The Sugarcubes, recorded: “I rushed to the center/saw the injured parents/cuts on the children”.

That arts feed off each other is borne out by Billy Gentry’s Ode to Billy Joe (1967), Porter Wagoner’s The Carroll County Accident (1969) and The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia (1973). These songs may or may not be variations on the same theme, place and tragedy. It’s debatable.

What’s not in dispute is the sheer number of mishap songs. Jan & Dean’s 1964 surfing Dead Man’s Curve about a teenage drag race that goes wrong, foreshadowed a near-fatal accident that Jan Berry would have two years later. Graham Parker wrote Crawling from the Wreckage (1979), also recorded by Status Quo and Dave Edmunds; Steal Your Keys and Crash Your Car came from punk band Flesh Vehicle in 2000. Tricky came out with Car Crash; Let This Be a Lesson to You (Drunk Driver) was 2004‘s message from Tommy Ellison and the Singing Stars. The Blood Brothers made Love Rhymes With Hideous Car Wreck in 2004.

In 1980, Bruce Springsteen wrote Wreck on the Highway about a man traumatised witnessing a hit-and-run on an isolated highway. He took it from the 1940s’ song of the same name, which was a cover version of the Dixon Brothers’, I Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray (1938). Covers or originals, disaster is commercially evergreen.

Way Out Front, the Leader

For some, girl group Shangri-Las 1964 hit, The Leader of the Pack, is the ultimate morbid ballad. Betty confirms she is dating leader of the motorcycle pack, Jimmy, despite her parents’ disapproval. They ask her to find someone new; he’s from the wrong side of town; she tells Jimmy goodbye. He roars off, skids, dies.

Again, it was both banned by some broadcasters as tasteless, and a hit. So was 16 year-old English Twinkle’s (Lynn Ripley) song about a fictional boyfriend, Terry, who perished in a motorcycle accident.

Perhaps 1968‘s Honey, or Honey (I Miss You), charted by Bobby Goldsboro, is the most maudlin song in the style. The male narrator bemoans how angels came for his beloved Honey, remembering her by a tree that was just a twig when they planted it in the garden. Strings and high sentimentality paid off: it topped both singles and country charts in the US, and reached Number 2 in Britain.

1961’s Big Bad John performed by Jimmy Dean added heroism to tragedy. A quiet, mysterious giant of a miner who killed a man over a Cajun woman in New Orleans is working when the mine roof gives way. Single-handedly, he props it allowing twenty miners to escape, before he is lost in the collapse.

They’re all heartwarming, sentimental stories of tragedies set to catchy tunes. That’s why they were popular.

First published on Suite 101, 4th July 2010.

Photo: Any Disaster Can Be Made Into Hit Song – FEMA News Photo

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