1. The quality or power in an actual life experience or in literature, music, speech, or other forms of expression, of evoking a feeling of pity, or of sympathetic and kindly sorrow or compassion.
Aristotle believed that pathos was an essential ingredient in tragedy, and I’m not going to argue with Aristotle. So let’s start with a proper tragic heroine, from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. Abandoned by her lover, Dido, Queen of Carthage, kills herself, but not before singing her famous lament, When I Am Laid In Earth. Purcell is a master of suspension: hanging notes that create a yearning discord before the harmony is resolved. Alison Moyet sings the simple, beautiful words simply and beautifully: “Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.”
Lillian, Emmylou Harris’s Red Dirt Girl, also meets a tragic fate. She has big dreams, but can never escape her small town in Alabama, and ends up dead at 27. As nominator suzi says, “Emmylou could sing the proverbial telephone directory and it would still sound wonderful”; here, every line swells with tender pity.
That’s our last suicide – but I’m afraid this playlist doesn’t get much cheerier. Gil Scott-Heron sees his father go to pieces after being laid off from work. His grandma sweeps up the “scattered jigsaw pieces” of a torn-up letter with her old straw broom, but really she’s sweeping up Pieces Of A Man.
In The Bed Song, Amanda Palmer recounts the life of a couple sharing a bed but moving ever further apart. It’s only when they’re lying side by side but alone in their graves that she finally asks what the matter was.
Nothing tragic happens in Janis Joplin’s Little Girl Blue: just an unhappy girl, sitting by a window watching the raindrops and counting on her fingers. But Janis’s delivery is steeped in pathos, as she tells the girl (her younger self?) that those fingers are all she’ll ever be able to count on.
There are songwriters who’ve made a career peddling pathos (including a number of my favourites who didn’t get a mention among the hundreds of posts this week – Sun Kil Moon, Okkervil River, Sufjan Stephens, Cowboy Junkies…). Tom Waits could have filled the playlist on his own. It’s not just the twist at the end of his Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis that makes us feel pity for the narrator, but the little details of her fantasies: the trombone-playing boyfriend, driving a different used car every day.
Waits understands that pathos is never too far away from comedy – people laugh when he performs the song live. Loudon Wainwright III gets that too: there’s a humour and playfulness to White Winos that only accentuates the sadness at the heart of it: Mother liked her white wine / She'd have a glass or four / Each empty bottle a dead soldier /The marriage was the war.
All For Me Grog is usually performed as a jolly drinking song, but in Thirty Pounds Of Bone’s stripped bare version it’s the lament of a helpless drunkard who’s literally lost the shirt of his back. He’s pathetic – in both senses of the word.
Bobby Clarke, a ferry operator from Manitoba, believed he’d caught Bigfoot on video, and was roundly ridiculed for it. The Weakerthans let him tell his side of the story.
Many artists aim for pathos but overshoot and end up in melodrama or sentimentality. The Winner Takes It All skirts dangerously close to both, but of course Abba pull it off. Pity poor Agnetha, singing a song about a divorce written by her recently ex-husband, and even playing the part in the video.
Paul Thomas Anderson based his film Magnolia around songs by Aimee Mann. At the centre of the film, each of the sad, suffering but ultimately sympathetic characters mouths along to Wise Up. It’s five minutes that define pathos better than any dictionary.
Alison Moyet – When I Am Laid In Earth (Dido’s Lament)
Emmylou Harris – Red Dirt Girl
Gil Scott-Heron - Pieces Of A Man
Amanda Palmer – The Bed Song
Janis Joplin- Little Girl Blue
Tom Waits – Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis
Loudon Wainwright III – White Winos
Thirty Pounds of Bone – All For Me Grog
The Weakerthans - Bigfoot
Abba - The Winner Takes It All
Aimee Mann – Wise Up
The Smiths – Reel Around The Fountain (I Know It’s Over would have been the one for me)
Etta James – If I Had Any Pride Left At All
Tom Petty – It’ll All Work Out
John Wesley Ryles – Kay
Kenny Rogers – Lucille (… but I want to hear Lucille’s side of the story)
Nick Cave – The Kindness of Strangers
Dory Previn – A Stone For Bessie Smith (I'm a bit disappointed that nobody nominated Her Mother’s Daughter)
The Pogues – The Old Main Drag
Ralph McTell – Streets of London
Frightened Rabbit – State Hospital
Frank Sinatra – Angel Eyes
Guru's wildcard pick:
Tom Hickox - The Pretty Pride of Russia
Sung in the character of a girl from rural Russia. She's going to move to London and become a famous singer, just as soon as she can find the money to pay her "friend's kind friend", who's going to set her up in a house with some other girls... There's a terrible pathos in her innocence.
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: Share: songs that inspire pathos. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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