What is appeal of songs sung blue?

Published 12:00am Saturday, July 19, 2014

Carole, one of my best friends, was an avid hillbilly-country music fan during our high school years. Her daddy drove us to school every morning. He must have loved country music, too, because it blared from the car radio all the way to school. I got a daily dose of mournful lost love and broken heart melodies that swamped me with depression if I did not shut my ears to them.
I realize there are many people who love to play, sing, and listen to sad songs. Widely known North Carolina musician Wayne Erbsen wrote that country people especially love sad songs, including gory murder ballads.
When my husband and I attended a dulcimer festival one spring, we heard that people flocked to a country music hall near Tannehill Historic State Park on Saturday nights to hear a man sing and play “The Ballad of a Rebel Soldier.” Right away, my husband tried to locate the music so he could learn to play it on his dulcimer. It is truly a sad, sad ballad. It tells the story of a Confederate soldier on his deathbed in a dreary Yankee prison. A preacher stands by. The young soldier asks the preacher if his soul will pass through the southland when he dies.
I noticed that sometimes only the words for one or two verses appear in dulcimer songbooks. During dulcimer jams, each player chooses a song to play and lead the group in. One of the favorites often selected is “On the Banks of the Ohio.” The music is lovely. I thought that it was just a song about a couple in love taking a stroll on the scenic banks of the Ohio. Then one day, I found the song in a book with additional verses included. I was surprised to discover it was a murder ballad. It closed with the sheriff leading the murderer back to the Ohio River banks.
In Erbsen’s “Backpocket Bluegrass Song book,” I found a similar story in a song called “Knoxville Girl.” It also followed the theme of a sweetheart killed by her boyfriend. The setting for this one is the banks of the Tennessee River.
Another sad ballad dulcimer folks like to play is “Wildwood Flower.” It is the story of a young woman with a fickle lover. According to Erbsen, it was written as far back as 1860. The title then was “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets.” The title used the words of the first line of the song and referred to wild flowers the young woman entwined in her “raven black hair.” The Carter Family recorded it in 1928. According to Erbsen, it is known as “The Hillbilly National Anthem.”
It puzzles me somewhat that sad songs have such an appeal. Everybody gets down in the dumps at times, so maybe those sad songs serve to take one’s mind off his or her own troubles. My mother used to say that misery loves company. Maybe that’s the answer.

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