Is there any music that is guaranteed to turn on the waterworks, as far as you’re concerned? I’m afraid there are a number of pieces that I can only listen to with a box of tissues nearby, and I am obviously far too easily moved to tears. Mr Verity will not let me forget one particularly shameful episode, when, replete with leftover Christmas pudding (q.v. ‘Hands Off My Christmas Rituals’), I fell asleep in front of the telly, woke up for the last five minutes of La Traviata, and instantly dissolved into sobbing, snotty mess. All of this got me to wondering how it is that music exerts this effect – though I can’t claim to have come up with an answer.
It was Noel Coward who said that it was ‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.’ But in this context, what is cheap music? I’d define it as piece written to be deliberately tear jerking. I love cheap music when it comes to bubble gum pop and novelty songs (Leapy Lea’s ‘Little Arrows’ is a particular favourite), but I’m impervious to the mawkishness that oozes out of every bar of Bobby Goldsboro’s ‘Honey’: ‘One day while I was not at home/While she was there and all alone/The angels came . . . ‘ – I ask you!
There are more subtle ways to generate emotion, and the curious phenomenon of DESH is a sure-fire winner. DESH stands for diatonic enhancement of static harmonies, and no, I don’t know what that means either, but as far as I can gather it’s the recipe for a sequence of descending chords that conjures up a mood of exquisite melancholy. You can hear it in pieces as varied as Pachelbel’s Canon, Bach’s Air on a G String, the Moody Blues’s ‘Go Now’, and ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’.
But in deciding on my Desert Island weepies, I realised that all my choices were songs rather than instrumentals, meaning that there are concrete images and powerful concepts acting with the musical manipulation. (My only rule was that carols were automatically excluded as too obvious. Inviting people to their offspring’s nativity play and then expecting them to sing when their eyes are swimming and their throats constricted is just plain cruel.)
So here’s my list – from childhood to maturity – but with no guarantees that some other song won’t hijack me at some point, with a danger of flooding. (Click on the titles to listen to the songs.)
1. Puff the Magic Dragon, Peter, Paul and Mary
Uncle Mac used to play this regularly on the radio, and once I noticed the words – ‘One grey night it happened/Jackie Paper came no more/And Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar’ – there was no stopping me. My sister often came out in sympathy, leaving my mother with two wailing wusses to contend with.
2. Donna, Joan Baez
A song about a calf (with a mournful eye) on the way to slaughter: need I say more?
3. Needle of Death, Bert Jansch
When I first heard this back in the day, I must admit there was probably some ghastly heroin chic at work, but its impact now comes through the verse ‘Your mother stands a’cryin’/While to the earth your body’s slowly cast/Your father stands in silence/Caressing every young dream of the past.’
4. Mandolin Wind, Rod Stewart
More cattle: this time ‘buffalo died in the frozen fields’. No humans died, but the bleakness of the landscape, the raw urgency of Rod Stewart’s voice, with the plangent sound of the mandolin …
5. We’re Off to Button Moon, Peter Davison and Sandra Dickinson
We had a cassette of stories from this children’s television programme about space-travelling kitchen utensils that we would sometimes leave playing. The lyrics of the theme song were nothing, but the wistful melody, combined with the vulnerability of sleeping infants, and the knowledge of the transience of this moment, was nearly unbearable.
6. Thousands Are Sailing, Planxty
When I first really listened to the lyrics of this song, rather than just having it playing in the background, it did for me – much to the consternation of everyone else in the car with me at the time. Liam O’Flynn’s light voice in individualises the stories of the thousands forced to leave Ireland in search of a better life in the US: ‘Oh I pity the mother who rears up the child/And likewise the father who labors and toils/To try to support them, he will work night and day/And when they are reared up they will go away.’
7. ‘His Yoke is Easy’, Messiah
No muscular Christianity here, just a promise as warm and comfortable as a feather bed, and transcendent harmonies.
8. When I Grow Up, Tim Minchin
The latest addition to the roll-call: in a sudden break from all the riotous anarchy of Matilda, the children sing a song expressing hopes that we, as adults, know will be dashed: ‘When I grow up,/I will be brave enough/To fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed/Each night to be a grown up.’
So: what are the tracks of your tears?