Author: Daniel, Bert

Tear Jerkers

There's a certain type of song that you hear in Bluegrass music more than in any other type of music, I think. Sad songs are common to many musical genres, but Bluegrass features a specific type of sad song that is distinctive and special. Picture a stage with Bluegrass musicians. After a brief introduction, Carter Stanley starts to tell a story:

A little tot was playing, one night upon the floor. Her mother sat and idly watched the little girl of four.

(So much for the setup. Now Pee Wee Lambert might put in some tremolo on the mandolin while Carter continues):

All at once she dropped her toys, and the tears began to shed. She looked into her mother's eyes and this is what she said. "Tell me why my daddy don't come home. I know that I am much too big to cry. Why don't he come and play with me again? Tell me, why did Daddy ever say goodbye?"

That's the kind of song I'm talking about. If you've never heard such a song, you haven't listened to very much Bluegrass. And Bluegrass handles this type of sad song differently than other styles. A good Bluegrass song can take an emotion and exaggerate the pathos to the point where the whole thing seems a little over the top. My friend Mark Hogan often nods knowingly after someone sings a particularly sad song and offers "Oh, that one will sure bring a tear to a glass eye."

Maybe some of the tragic mindset of Bluegrass goes back to the popularity of disaster songs. Floods, train wrecks, hurricanes. any disaster in which innocent people end up dead and their families are left to mourn and wonder why. From the great Lisbon earthquake long ago to the recent tsunami in Japan, people struggle with how to understand these calamities and that, quite naturally, is reflected in their music.

In the case of Bluegrass, the focus for many of these sad events is on how they affect the most precious members of our society, children. Perhaps that's what makes them particularly sad:

These little school children have gone on to glory, No lessons to study. No worries nor cares. They're now rejoicing and walking with Jesus. They won't have to ride on a school bus up there.

I ask you: In what other type of music would you find a song about death from an overturned school bus? And what about a little girl bitten to death by a snake or a little boy who knows he's dying and is worried about his dog? What human being can not be heartbroken to know that the sweet little girl with the much cherished shoes is dying?

I actually have difficulty singing some of these tunes on occasion because they can literally bring a grown man to tears. I think it takes a lot of skill on a singer's part to really put feeling into such a song without breaking down completely. Just one of those little things that makes Bluegrass such a challenge to do right and such a joy to listen to. What's your favorite tear jerker?

Posted:  5/29/2011

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