In a week when Leonard Cohen died, when we remembered those slaughtered in war, and when, perhaps, we all needed a little reminder of our common humanity, elegies, laments and tributes to the dead were the order of the day.
Ravel claimed the title of Pavane pour une Infante Defunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess) had nothing to do with the composition: “I simply liked the sound of those words and I put them there, c'est tout.” Elsewhere, he said he meant to evoke a stately dance that a princess might have danced in the court of Spain centuries before. But who’s he kidding? Played exquisitely here by Shura Cherkassky, it’s “devastatingly beautiful and deeply melancholic”.
… which is how Song Bar regular untergunther describes Himinninn er að hrynja, en stjörnurnar fara þér vel by Ólafur Arnalds. (Even though the skies are falling, the stars are still beautiful). Against falling string chords and bleeps like a hospital monitor, an alienating computer-generated voice recounts what sounds like it could be the saddest conversation ever between Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin:
“Do you remember when we were little?
We were playing in the park.
And you asked me what happens when you die.
I said you forget everything… everything.
Even you? you asked.
Yes, even me.
You did not want to die. Never forget.
The remains of what we used to have were taken away with the softest squeeze.
How did I forget? How…”
“We’re all gonna die,” confirms Sufjan Stevens. Fourth Of July is a highlight from last year’s Carrie and Lowell album, a complex and, well, devastatingly beautiful and deeply melancholic memorial to his late mother. This one is almost unbearably tender, in both senses of the word.
Mark Kozelek could have filled this playlist on his own: his albums over the last few years feature more deaths than a Game of Thrones series finale. Song For Richard Collopy is written for the guy who used to fix his guitar. It’s simple and unsentimental, painfully pretty.
Among the musical giants lost this year, spare a tear for Guy Clark. In The Randall Knife, he can’t find a way to cry for his father until he finds, in the bottom drawer, a knife that stands for a life.
There’s a similar breaking point for Tim Rogers in Paragon Café, about a road trip to the funeral of a friend who lived fast and died young:
Guinness at eleven, with some kind of Schnapps confection,
Stories so fuckin' funny from every direction,
All until there was a silence and someone choked,
And like dominoes everyone broke.
Lou Reed and John Cale wrote a whole album, Songs for Drella, to say goodbye to their mentor Andy Warhol. Hello It's Me is all the more powerful for its refusal to deify the dead:
They really hated you, now all that's changed
But I have some resentments that can never be unmade
You hit me where it hurt, I didn't laugh
Your Diaries are not a worthy epitaph.
The Diaries may not be but, as nominator megadom says, this is.
Who knew that Ray Davies wrote See My Friends for his older sister Rene, who died from a hole in the heart when he was 13? “I'd always assumed that the 'friends across the river' were in South London,” says SidecarShiv (so had I). “They're not. They're on the far side of the River Styx.” I’d also lazily assumed that they were copying the Beatles with the Indian-infused drones. Not so: this predates Norwegian Wood by several months.
Lamentations transcend boundaries of time, language and culture. British-Indian singer Sheila Chandra transposes the 18th-century Scots Lament of McCrimmon into a keening raga, to startling effect. (Just in case you’re not feeling sad enough yet: Chandra now suffers from burning mouth syndrome, which makes it impossibly painful for her to sing.)
There were many, many tributes to dead musicians nominated – friends, idols and bandmates. I’ve chosen just one, from the latter category: Hollie Cook’s for Ari Up of The Slits. “The beat of your heart lives on,” she sings, and the song soars like a soul.
Over Remembrance Day there were many war songs too, but none move me more than Virginia Astley’s setting of Wilfrid Owen’s Futility. She weaves together selected lines from the poem with strings, cor anglais and her own fragile voice. I’ve worn a groove in the YouTube audio over the years – the sound quality is terrible, but it’s no less devastatingly beautiful for that. (The earlier Peel Session version with The Ravishing Beauties is even better.)
From the farmhands killed on the western front to their wives and sweethearts waiting back home… In the early 60s, Austin John Marshall wrote the words of Dancing at Whitsun, a poignant tribute to the war widows who kept the memories of their loved ones alive through the country dancing tradition. But it’s an elegy too for a vanishing England; those ladies are dead now, and Jean Redpath’s recording belongs to a distant era.
The A-list playlist:
Maurice Ravel/ Shura Cherkassky - Pavane pour une Infante Defunte
Ólafur Arnalds - Himinninn er að hrynja, en stjörnurnar fara þér vel
Sufjan Stevens - Fourth Of July
Sun Kil Moon - Song For Richard Collopy
Guy Clark - The Randall Knife
Tim Rogers - Paragon Café
Lou Reed and John Cale - Hello It's Me
The Kinks - See My Friends
Sheila Chandra - Lament of McCrimmon
Hollie Cook - Ari Up
Virginia Astley - Futility
Jean Redpath - Dancing at Whitsun
Ibeyi - Think of You
Mark Hollis - A life (1895-1915)
Shearwater - La Dame et La Unicorne
Trashcan Sinatras - Oranges and Apples
Southpaw Jones - Fatty Arbuckle
The Cure - Cut Here
Prince - Sometimes It Snows In April
Bruce Springsteen - Terry's Song
Tom Paxton - Ramblin' Boy
Mayte Martin - A Miguel Hernández
Emmylou Harris - Bang the drum slowly
Jesu / Sun Kil Moon - Exodus
Guru’s wild card pick:
A crowd-sourced elegy to a friend killed in a kayaking accident. Peter Broderick writes:
Searching for some kind of relief, I wrote some words on a piece of paper with the plan of creating a piece of music in dedication to this amazing man. I posted the words online and invited anyone and everyone to send in recordings of the words being recited. I collected recordings from all around the globe, as if this great loss could be felt by everyone, everywhere.
Read more here.
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic At the cemetery gates: elegies and other songs of remembrance. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.