· MUSIC

Mikal Gilmore

I first compiled this series on torch songs in 1988 as a holiday gift set—a box of cassette tapes—for a handful of friends. This year—with an even better understanding of these songs, for a lifetime of reasons—I resurrected and revised it as a holiday gift set again, for those here who might be interested or who have a place for this sort of music in their 3 a.m. hour.

Things have been at times worrying for my wife Elaine and our family in recent months, and we realize that many of you have also been facing difficult, even painful, seasons in this period of pandemic, social and political uncertainty and personal trials. You help us all the time by granting us heart and humor, and we love you.

Happy holidays to all. May they not be as blue as this music.

This playlist is heavy with selections from country's alliance with rock style—a problematic association that has nevertheless managed to yield an uncommonly large number of fine female vocalists. Among the most gifted of these singers is Tracy Nelson.

The former leader of a late 1960s San Francisco band, Mother Earth, Nelson later moved near Nashville where she sometimes recorded blues and R&B-inflected material. The three tracks of hers that I’ve included here are taken from one of her finest works, the late 1960s Mother Earth Presents Tracy Nelson, Country.

Next to Patsy Cline's music, Tracy's is some of the most resourceful soul singing you'll find on these later tapes. (Nelson is also the composer of one of Linda Ronstadt's finest vehicles, "Down So Low.”)

A couple of tracks later, Texas-spawned singer Janis Joplin delivers an unorthodox reading of Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers's "Little Girl Blue."

Joplin's voice is clearly not a country voice in any formal sense; she was much more closely identified as a blues and rock & roll singer. As an exemplary modern blues stylist, she sometimes proved overexcited and unfocused—something of a rock equivalent to Judy Garland. And yet, like Garland, Joplin could wring genuine greatness out of both her limitations and excesses, and in this performance all the yearnings and frailties meet and marry in what may well be the most resourcefully heartfelt recording of her all-too-short career. Even the fact that she doesn't seem able to handle the song's tricky structure only underscores the idea that singing the song meant everything to her, whether she could do it full justice or not (and she could). Though it's a tune ostensibly sung to a third person about that third person, Joplin's rendition leaves little doubt that, in truth, the song for her was a prayer of relief she prayed to herself, and that maybe it took every talent she could command just to utter it. In doing so, Joplin realized what just may be the most affecting version of one of Hart and Rodgers' greatest songs.

Dolly Parton is like Ella Fitzgerald: She is simply too spirited to have a consistent way with torch songs, though her performance of "If I Lose My Mind" is, far and away, one of the scariest selections of this series.

For my tastes, Emmylou Harris has always foremost been a harmony singer, which explains why I picked two of her duets here with Gram Parsons: In the company of other singers, Harris's voice is like an empathetic echo, a receptive background, reverberating loss and desire. (On its own, that same voice could seem a bit thin and soulless to my ears.) Her harmony on “Sleepless Nights” both raises and deepens a lovely song, and it's included here in part as a reminder that Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were among country music's most skillful and affecting writers; also as a way of letting Emmylou say goodbye to Gram just one more time.

Linda Ronstadt—who now, in 2021, no longer sings—was among the finest interpreters of the post-Dylan era and, as her work here demonstrates, she was never better than when belting torch numbers.

Fairport Convention's Sandy Denny was a singer who sometimes seemed to care more about the covers she sang than the originals. Here, in a duet with a fellow Fairporter of sorts, Linda Thompson, she renders a sublime Everly Brothers song; on her own, one of Bob Dylan's most symmetrically-written ballads; and finally a Tin Pan Alley standard—all with the right blend of heart and tone that made the choices more than simple exercises in taste.

Julie Christensen—a terrific singer who had recently backed Leonard Cohen when I made these tapes years ago—is, like Kay Starr or Ella Mae Morse, somebody who can sing any genre or style with astonishing equilibrium. "Almost Persuaded" came from a time when she sang a bit of country music. She was incredibly good at it, though I don’t any longer have access to a recording of this track that I can link. Instead, I’ve furnished versions by Tammy Wynette and Etta James (Nancy Wilson also recorded a quite good account in 1968, which can be found on YouTube).

There was originally a recording here of the Everly Brothers’ “So Sad,” sung by two Los Angeles rock vocalists as the Everly Sisters, but I can no longer find any trace of it (not even in my original tapes, since they no longer survive in any form). I’ve kept the listing here simply as a place-marker.

The Cowboy Junkies’ 1988 album The Trinity Sessions was another of the key works that inspired me to finally dive into the vaults and tackle this collection. For my tastes what they were doing wasn't rock or (post)punk or folk or country: it was closer to a chamber music that was both pain-filled and painkilling, rarefied as a cold day in hell, and I wouldn't have had it any other way. I was tempted to stick a few of their tracks in this collection but settled for one: their version of "Blue Moon"—in part because Hart and Rodgers were clearly among TORCH's favorite writers and deserved some kind of closing voice in this affair. But I also selected it because, like Billie Holiday’s version of the song, it was doleful enough to undo the song's text of dreamy devotion. Elvis Presley's spectral version from his first RCA album is even more desolate, and invoked the feminine in a way he never would again—and that’s the version the Cowboy Junkies invoke here. I like the way they—both Elvis and the Junkies—took "Blue Moon"’s themes of beneficence and fidelity and recontextualized them, until the song itself was simply a ghost, a memory that could only awaken to a bad dream that, in itself, was no dream at all but the real thing. That might be something less than genuine irony or subversion, but it's also the kind of imaginative act that only one other song on TORCH could match: "Gloomy Sunday," made famous and eternal by Billie Holiday (whose version moved from nightmare to a false sense of redemption) but stayed true to its original unflinchingly fatal intent when sung by Claudia Thompson, whose version moved from nightmare to nightmare before the singer herself disappeared like a specter from the real world.

Paula Jean Brown was a former member of the latter-day Go-Go's; an author of some of Belinda Carlisle's best solo moments (including "Mad about You"); the bassist in Giant Sand with her former husband Howe Gelb; and an artist who sang on her own. Her "He's Not You" wasn’t country, but it was a torch song, and it originally closed out this collection on theme. Like a handful of other recordings, it can no longer be found (not by me, anyway), which is a shame, because “He's Not You" was as much an exchange between the singer and listener as between the singer and her absent love.

Moving on: I was sixteen, learning to play guitar, when one night I came across Hank Williams’ “Alone and Forsaken” in a songbook. I hadn’t heard it—it was entirely unfamiliar to me, and it would be a while until I heard Williams’ spare, starkly haunting recording—but between reading the notes and following the chords, I got the song’s melody and feel. Since that night it has been my favorite Williams song. He recorded a raw folk music demo of it in 1948 but it wasn’t released until 1955, over two years after his death. Maybe I can understand the delay: It’s convincing in its desolation—convincing enough to make a listener take that desolation inside. “Alone and Forsaken” isn’t really a torch song but rather a song about extinguishing a flame:

Oh, where has she gone to, oh, where can she be?

She may have forsaken some other like me

She promised to honor, to love and obey

Each vow was a plaything that she threw away

 

The darkness is falling, the sky has turned gray

A hound in the distance is starting to bay

I wonder, I wonder what she's thinking of

Forsaken, forgotten, without any love

 

Alone and forsaken by fate and by man

Oh Lord, if You hear me, please hold to my hand

Oh, please understand

Oh, please understand

Oh, please understand

The song has rarely been sung by a female voice, and to find a suitable version I had to reach to a 2001 recording by Emmylou Harris with accompaniment by guitarist Mark Knopfler. I think “Alone and Forsaken” fares best with just guitar alone, as Williams originally sang it, but maybe vocalists just don’t want to be alone with the words.

I’ve now chosen to finish my Torch playlists with songs sung by Rosanne Cash: “September When It Comes” and “This Is the Way We Make a Broken Heart.” These are songs of a different kind of mourning, different ways of letting go. In “September” which Rosanne sang with her father, Johnny Cash, near the end of his life, Cash sang about letting go—of everything:

I plan to crawl outside these walls

Close my eyes and see

And fall into the heart and arms

Of those who wait for me

 

I cannot move a mountain now

I can no longer run

I cannot be who I was then

In a way I never was

 

I watch the clouds go sailing

I watch the clock and sun

Oh, I watch myself depending on

September when it comes

 

I watch myself depending on

September when it comes

 

When the shadows link them

And burn away the clouds

They will fly me like an angel

To a place where I can rest

When this begins I'll let you in

September when it comes.

“This Is the Way We Make a Broken Heart,” written by John Hiatt, is the rarest sort of torch song, and the only such example among the over hundreds of tracks I assembled for this project: A song that doesn’t mourn its own hurt and loss but rather the hurt and loss it causes another once-trusting heart:

Now we've laid a trail of tears

For her to follow

And we've thought of every line

That she might swallow

And with lesson four

There'll be no more

For her to bear

 

And on some dark night

We'll dim the lights

On this affair

 

Then she'll find somebody new

And he’ll likely hurt her too

'Cause there must be millions just like you and me

Practiced in the art

 

This is the way we make a broken heart

Oh, this is the way we make a broken heart

This is the way we make a broken heart.

All these years later I realize that these are the right lines to put paid to the meditation I’ve been conducting on Torch songs. Romantic love—especially its loss—may be a construct in our music and literature, and in modern myth (and psychology’s myths) as much as it is a lingering wraith in our hearts, for which it can prove a blessing or curse or both. Every year the Hallmark Channel shows a season of Christmas romance tales—warm, well-made, affecting depictions of people seemingly at cross-purposes who, despite strains and miscommunication and hurts, finally find what they’ve always been missing and can’t go forward without: each other.

It’s a comforting fantasia, but I’ve sometimes thought of the reality of love as a different sort of Christmas gift: The dream you can’t wait to receive come the holiday’s morning but when you reach to hold it, it instead punches and twists your heart. I’ve seen Christmases like that, even if in September was when they came.

The truth is, one of the greatest mistakes you can make in life is to mourn the loss of love. That was love that likely wasn’t worthy of you, that didn’t love you truly enough—with a faithful end-vision. Lamenting it is like grieving nullity.

For me, the female voice in popular music has taken hold of that truth, both as narrative and experience, better than any other form of expression did. Thirty-three years after compiling these song lists, I feel no differently about the matter. There is still nothing in which I find more meaning or cold comfort—nothing that reminds me better that I don’t know who I am without the palpable memory of what I’ve lost and the heartbreak that replaced it—come 3 a.m.

Sometimes you have to live in the hours that turn you inside out. If you fade in those hours, you might want to hold the memory of a face you loved. That is a way of leaving with love still in your heart, even if you can’t reach the hands that are no longer there.

Mikal Gilmore is the author of four books, including the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning memoir Shot in the Heart, and the 1960s cultural history Stories Done. He is a longtime writer for Rolling Stone.

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Mikal Gilmore's complete Spotify playlist can be found here. Or see videos below.

Mikal's Playlist (More or Less)

Liner Notes:

Tracy Nelson

“Sad Situation"

(C. Pitts)

Source album: Mother Earth Presents Tracy Nelson,

Country (Mercury).

Tracy Nelson

“I Fall to Pieces"

(Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard)

Source album: Mother Earth Presents Tracy Nelson,

Country (Mercury).

Tracy Nelson

“I Can't Go On Loving You"

(H. Mills)

Source album: Mother Earth Presents Tracy Nelson,

Country (Mercury).

Tracy Nelson

“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry"

(Hank Williams)

Source album: Mother Earth Presents Tracy Nelson,

Country (Mercury). Release date for all tracks: 1969.

Linda Ronstadt

“I Still Miss Someone”

(Johnny Cash, Roy Cash)

Recorded: 1971 (Hollywood). Notable musicians: Bernie

Leadon, Herb Pedersen, guitars. Source album: Linda

Ronstadt (Capitol).

Linda Ronstadt

"Long, Long Time"

(Gary White)

Recording date: January 1970 (Nashville). Arrangers:

Norbert Putnam and Elliot F. Mazer. Notable

musicians: Norbert Putnam, harpsichord and bass;

Buddy Spicher, fiddle; Weldon Myrick, steel; Pete

Wade, guitar. Source album: Silk Purse (Capitol).

Janis Joplin

“Little Girl Blue"

(Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers)

Arranger: Gabriel Mekler. Notable musicians: Sam

Andrew, guitar, Richard Kermode, Gabriel Mekler,

organ; Brad Campbell, bass; Maury Baker, Lonnie

Castille, drums; Cornelius Snooky Flowers, baritone

saxophone: Terry Clements, tenor saxophone;

Luis Gasca, trumpet. Source album: Cosmic Blues

(Columbia).

Bonnie Raitt

"Guilty"

(Randy Newman)

Recording date: 1973 (Hollywood). Notable musicians:

Freebo, bass; Lowell George, guitar, Paul

Barrere, guitar; Earl Palmer, drums; Anthony Terran,

Glenn Ferris, Joel Peskin, Martin Krystall, horns; Bill

Payne, piano. Source album: Takin' My Time

(Warner Bros.).

Dolly Parton

“If I Lose My Mind"

(Porter Wagoner)

Recording date: 1971 (Nashville). Source album:

Coat of Many Colors (RCA).

Emmylou Harris, backing Gram Parsons

“Love Hurts"

(Boudleaux Bryant)

Recording date: 1974. Notable musicians: Glen D.

Hardin, piano; Emory Gordy, bass; Ronnie Tutt,

drums; Herb Pederson, guitar, James Burton, guitar;

Al Perkins, steel. Source album: Grievous Angel

(Warner Bros.).

Emmylou Harris

“Sleepless Nights"

(Boudleaux Bryant, Felix Bryant)

Recording date: 1975. Notable musicians: Rick

Cunha, guitar; Bernie Leadon, guitar and bass;

Ronnie Tut, drums; Glen D. Hardin, piano; Ben

Keith, steel; James Burton, guitar.

Source album: Pieces of the Sky (Warner Bros.).

Dolly Parton

“Living on Memories of You"

(Dolly Parton)

Recording date: 1974 (Nashville). Source album:

Jolene (RCA).

Linda Ronstadt

“Love Has No Pride"

(Eric Kaz, Libby Titus)

Recording date: 1973. Arranger: Jimmy Haskell.

Conductor: Sid Sharp. Notable musicians: Andy

Johnson, Richard Bowden, guitar; Sneaky Pete

Kleinow, steel; Mike Bowden, bass; Mickey McGee,

drums; John Boylan, piano; Ginger and Mary

Holliday, backing vocals. Source album: Don't Cry

Now (Asylum).

Linda Ronstadt

“Faithless Love"

(John David Souther)

Recording date: June 1974 (Los Angeles). Notable

musicians: J.D. Souther, guitar; Herb Pederson,

banjo; Andrew Gold, drums, piano, percussion; Chis

Ethridge, bass. Source album: Heart Like a Wheel

(Capitol).

Linda Ronstadt

"Down so Low'"

(Tracy Nelson)

Recording date: March 1976 (Los Angeles). Source

album: Hasten Down the Wind (Elektra-Asylum).

Side B:

Sandy Denny, with Linda Thompson

“When Will I be Loved?"

(Phil and Don Everly)

Recording date: 1971 (Oxfordshire). Notable

musicians: Richard Thompson, guitar; Trevor Lucas,

guitar; Pat Donaldson, bas; Gerry Conway, drums.

Source album: Who Knows Where the Time Goes

(Carthage).

Sandy Denny

“Tomorrow is a Long Time"

(Bob Dylan)

Recording date: 1972 (London). Notable musicians:

Richard Thompson, guitar, Trevor Lucas, guitar,

Sneaky Pete Kleinow, steel; John Rabbit Bundrick,

piano; Pat Donaldson, bass; Timi Donald, drums.

Source album: Who Knows Where the Time Goes

(Carthage).

Sandy Denny

"(It Will Have to Do) Until the Real Thing Comes

Along"

(Mann Holiner, Alberta Nichols, Sammy Cahn,

Saul Chaplin and L.E. Freeman). Source album:

Like an Old Fashioned Waltz (Island import).

Crystal Gayle

“Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue"

(R. Leigh)

Recording date: 1977 (Nashville). Source album:

We Must Believe in Magic (United Artists).

Terri Gibbs

“I Wanna Be Around"

(Johnny Mercer, Sadie Vimmerstedt)

Recording date: 1981 (Nashville). Notable

musicians: Hargus Pig Robbins, piano; Bob Moore,

bass; others. Source album: I'm a Lady (MCA).

Reba McEntire

"How Blue?"

(John Morfat)

Recording date: 1984. Source album: My Kind of

Country (MCA).

The Judds

"Had a Dream"

(Dennis Linde)

Recording date: 1984 (Nashville). Source album:

The Judds: Wynonna and Naomi (RCA).

Donna and Phyllis Everly

“So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)"

(Don Everly)

Julie Christensen

"Almost Persuaded"

(Billy Sherrill, Glenn Sutton)

Source album: Don't Shoot! (Edsel import)

Nancy Wilson version: (https://youtu.be/SwhNHhL7FjU)

Tammy Wynette

"Almost Persuaded"

(Billy Sherrill, Glenn Sutton)

Recording date: January 1967 (Nashville). Source

album: Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad (Epic).

Etta James

"Almost Persuaded"

(Billy Sherrill, Glenn Sutton)

Recording date: December 1967 (Muscle Shoals).

Notable musicians: David Hood, bass; Roger

Hawkins, drums. Source album: Tell Mama (Cadet).

Rosanne Cash

"Second to No One"

Recording date: 1985. Source album: Rhythm and

Romance (Columbia).

Margo Timmins, with Cowboy Junkies

“Blue Moon"

(Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers)

Recording date: 11/27/87 (Toronto). Notable

musicians: Michael Timmins, guitar; Peter Timmins,

drums; Alan Anton, bass; John Timmins, guitar; Kim

Deschamps, steel, dobro, bottleneck; Jaro

Czerwinec. Source album: The Trinity Sessions

(RCA CD).

Lucinda Williams

“Am I Too Blue?"

(Lucinda Williams)

Recording date: 1988 (Venice, CA). Notable

musicians: Lucinda Williams, guitar; Gurf Morlix,

vocals, guitars, mandolin, dobro, steel, bass; Doctor

John Ciamboti, bass; Donald Lindley, drums.

Source album: Lucinda Williams (Rough Trade).

Leslie Phillips

"River of Love'"

(T-Bone Burnett)

Recording date: 1987. Notable musicians: T-Bone

Bumett, guitar. Source album: The Turning (A&M).

[Paula Jean Brown]

“He's Not You"

(Paula Jean Brown)

Notable musicians: Eric Westfall, piano. Source

album: (from an unreleased demo tape; apparently

the recording is not presently available).

Rosanne Cash

“September When It Comes”

(Rosanne Cash, John Leventhal)

Recording date: 2003. Source album: Rules of Travel (Capitol).

Rosanne Cash

“The Way We Make a Broken Heart”

(John Hiatt)

Notable musicians: Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Steve Winwood,

Bobby King, Patty Smyth, backing vocals; Belmont Tench,

keyboards; Barry Beckett, keyboards; Barry Beckett, acoustic

guitar; Michael Rhodes, bass; Vince Santoro, drums. Source

album: King’s Record Shop

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