Mournful Bluegrass Songs

This weekend, we watched High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music. Many of the songs made wifey-poo a bit teary-eyed (she’s a Kentucky girl, and gets sentimental about these things), especially Bill Monroe’s rendition of “Body and Soul.” What other bluegrass songs are haunting and mournful?

Off the top of my hea:

Bill Monroe: Sittin’ Alone in the Moonlight, All the Good Times Are Past and Gone, In the Pines
Stanley Brothers: Angel Band, The Fields Have Turned Brown, I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow, Visions of Mother

…and about a million others. These are slow ones, about half the fast tunes are mournful as well.

I can see why your wife would get upset by bluegrass songs, given the number of them that feature the death or killing of a woman.

There’s an old saying “if she’s alive at the end of the song, it ain’t bluegrass”

August West, banjo picker

Knoxville Girl. I recommend the Stanley Bros. version. But the girl dies(warning).

Another by them is "Mother’s not Dead, she’s only a-sleepin’

White Dove by the Stanley’s.

If you buy a CD or tape of their recordings from the late 40’s-early 50’s, half the stuff will pull your guts out.

I could go on in this vein. Bribe me.

I was thinking of suggesting this one (though I know the version as recently sung by Ricky Skaggs).

Quite a few songs off Tim O’Brien The Crossing (namely “Into the West,” “Down in the Willow Garden,” and most especially “Lost Little Children.”) You could argue this is more Irish music than bluegrass, and you’d probably be right.

Ricky’s duet w/ Dolly Parton “Cry Cry Darlin’” absolutely kills me. Her voice in its current maturity can do that.

I don’t know if you’d classify it as bluegrass or country, but when I saw the word “mournful,” my first thought was Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Do you accept PayPal? :wink: Let’s hear it!

Try the Louvin Brothers’ version of “In the Pines.”

Also Roscoe Holcomb’s take on “House of the Rising Sun.” Chilling.

Ralph Stanley’s version of “O Death.”

Any number of Carter Family songs.

Pick up a copy of Will The Circle Be Unbroken.
One of my all-time favorites.
That album is 30 years old, but obviously some of the songs were written at the turn of the last century. Doc Watson and Merle Travis meet for the first time.
Mother Maybelle Carter sings.
Dark As A Dungeon, Wabash Cannonball, Will the Circle Be Unbroken give you chills.

“You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”, by Patty Loveless.

Second Ralph Stanley’s “O Death”

Third Ralph Stanley’s “O Death.”
“Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Bill Monroe.
“Colleen Malone” by Hot Rize
“Sweet Sunny South”

If you watch the interviews on the recent Alison Krauss & Union Station Live DVD, she talks about finding one of the songs they did (“Maybe” or “Ghost in this House”) and says (paraphrased): “When I first heard it, I thought, ‘That’s just so sad and depressing. We’ve got to do it!’”

The one that gets me is “Tiny Broken Heart,” because it’s a straightforward, happy little song with a miserable story about a little boy whose only friend moves away because her family is too poor to keep working. It ends with:
“Let us buy the farm so they can stay,
And give them all the toys that dear Santa gave,
And give them all my pennies in my little piggy bank,
Pennies that my darlin’ helped me save.”

Indeed, this song kicks ass. While driving cross-country, I picked up a Stanley Bros. tape at a gas station which had a version of “O Death”–not the solo a capella version that has become popular recently, but one with instrumentation and harmony. Sweet Jesus, what a song. The tape also has “Man of Constant Sorrow”–not the crappy “O Brother Where Art Thou” version which was inexplicably transposed into a major key, thereby rendering it upbeat and happy (perfectly appropriate for a song with that title and subject matter :rolleyes: ), but a very mournful version. To top it off, it has a version of “Little Maggie” that gives me goosebumps. Best $3.99 I every spent.

These are outstanding suggestions. I even have some of them already! I have never heard the RH version of HotRS, but I do have a Doc Watson version which is amazing. I have some Carter family–“Will the Roses Bloom in Heaven,” “I Never Will Marry,” “Church in the Wildwood,” etc. Not really bluegrass, but some beautiful old folk music. I certainly want to expand my collection, though–of folk and bluegrass. My problem is that I am, for some reason, constitutionally incapable of appreciating music that is written in a major key–I simply cannot enjoy it. Weird. So the sadder, the better!

Very few of the tunes that crop up in bluegrass (whether they’re old folk tunes, country standards, written as bluegrass tunes, or what have you) are in a minor key. Of all the songs just discussed here I think only “O Death” is in a minor key. (I’ve heard “Little Maggie” both ways.) I’ve never heard a version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” in a minor key. The Stanley Brothers’ version is certainly slower than than the one from O Brother but it’s still in a major key. Hank Williams is plenty mournful but not many of his songs are in minor keys either. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is in E major. In short, major keys can be plenty sad.

Ichbin, mandolin & guitar (wonder if we can get a whole band together before this thread is done)

Well, we live and we learn. I know that in classical music, I only appreciate minor-key pieces; I assumed this preference carried over to bluegrass, where the key is not noted in the song title. Ignorance has been fought and defeated!

I’ll also note that the majority of blues songs are in major keys as well.

I just poked around Google for a bit, trying to find an answer to the question of why, even in sad songs, the minor key is relatively uncommon in American folk music (and, as a result, country music and bluegrass and to some extend rock music), even though minors are always thought of as the “sad” keys. (Yes, with D minor the saddest of all.) It seems to me that by comparison there are a lot of Irish-Scottish-British tunes in minor keys. I couldn’t really find anything on the Web, though. Maybe an ethnomusicologist (as oppose to a hacker from Jersey) will step up to the plate.

Anyway, you should check out klezmer, they love them some minor keys.

I got lots of helpful replies to a similar request for dark old-timey songs.

I know that old timey isn’t exactly bluegrass and that “dark” and “mournful” aren’t precisely the same thing either but there is enough overlap for it to be worth your while to trawl through that thread. I’ve learned about a lot of wonderful music through that one.

I’ve never heard Loveless’s version; the first time I heard this song when Brad Paisley covered it on his second album, and it just sent chills down my spine- the lyrics and the melody are just haunting. When I finally saw “Harlan County U.S.A” in my film class, the song took on an even deeper shading.