Birmingham magazine asked me to create a Valentine’s playlist for their February issue. I submitted ten love songs and, for good measure, a few musical tributes to romances lost. A few days ago I posted here an expanded and annotated version of that first list, the love songs; the bonus tracks, the breakup tracks, follow.
A quick distinction: there are plenty of angry and bitter breakup songs in the world, but those aren’t the ones I wanted for this list. At least a couple of these are love songs in their own right, even if the romance behind them is over. These aren’t wallowing songs or spite songs, or songs spat between bared teeth. There’s pain and loss in this list, but there’s also the peace of letting go, and there’s the love that still lingers after love. I’m a great fan of post-love songs like these. I think they are things of beauty.
1. Bob Dylan, “Sara”
“Sara” is a Valentine to a marriage that finally fell apart, and even if its subject is divorce it’s one of the greatest love songs I can think of. It’s so vividly specific and so remarkably personal, it feels like we’re watching home movie footage, or rummaging through a family’s box of old slides, holding each for a moment to the light. It’s also got one of my favorite details from a Bob Dylan song: “Staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel, writing ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you.”
I can’t post a link since there’s no Dylan on Youtube, but if you don’t already have the album Desire, you should go ahead and get it; or if you’ve got it and haven’t played this song in a while, why not put it on now?
2. Dolly Parton, “I Will Always Love You”
I’ve never much cared for Whitney Houston’s sprawling, over-the-top, smash-hit version of this song, the version most people think of first. But Dolly Parton’s original, written for her mentor and boss Porter Wagoner, just kills me every time. Dolly and Porter’s breakup was a professional and creative one: she’d gotten her start on his TV show and been his duet partner for seven years, but she was ready now to move on. Porter had made Dolly a star, and her rising success had helped bolster his own career. With this song, she told him goodbye.
With or without the back story, it’s a beautiful and inspiring song. What if all of us were this good at breaking up? What if all of us had so much grace?
P.S. The clip above comes from an episode of The Porter Wagoner Show in 1974. “You sing it just sort of like you mean it, too,” Porter says afterwards, a little awkwardly. “Well, I did mean it,” says Dolly.
3. Cat Power, “Empty Shell”
Outside of Neruda, I don’t know any post-relationship poetry better than the simple, honest, unexpected lyrics of this song.
I love you
And I miss you too
I really do love you
And I really miss you too
I don’t know you
And I don’t need you
And I don’t want you
There’s also a good country fiddle on this one.
4. John Prine, “All the Best”
John Prine’s ex-wife asked him to sing at her next wedding. And so he wrote and sang this song:
I wish you love, and happiness
I guess I wish you all the best
“I guess.” It goes on:
I wish you don’t do like I do
And ever fall in love with someone like you
Cause if you feel just like I did
You’d probably walk around the block like a little kid
But kids don’t know. They can only guess
How hard it is
To wish you happiness.
If you’re John Prine’s ex, and you ask him to sing at your wedding, I’m sure you know what you’re in for. It’s not one of Prine’s greatest songs—that’s a very high bar—but it’s full of Prine’s pointed, sweet, melancholy, funny simplicity, and full of warm and unexpected beauty. “Yeah, I knew love,” Prine sings, “and love knew me”:
And when I walked, love walked with me
And I got no hate, and I got no pride
Well, I got so much love that I cannot hide
Yeah, I got so much love that I cannot hide
Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody.
P.S. What are your favorite post-love love songs? I invite you to post them in the comments below—even if they are the mean or wallowing kind. First, here are a couple of real old ones, two more of my favorites. In both, a full-sentence title matter-of-factly says it all: “I truly understand you love another man”; “I loved you better than you knew.” Read the magnificent biography of the Carter Family, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?, for some heartbreaking context for the latter tune: that A. P. and Sara Carter were newly separated when they recorded this one is only part of the story. That they’d record so many more songs together for a decade to come—even after their divorce, even when they couldn’t bring themselves to speak between takes—is, too, only part of the story. That the lyrics echo (and portend) so many truths of the singers’ own hearts makes the song only all the more powerful.
As for “I Truly Understand”: The New Lost City Ramblers brought this one to a new generation in the 1950s and ’60s; David Grisman and Jerry Garcia have recorded it since then, and others have too. I’m thankful these fine artists have helped keep the song alive, but the later versions all strip from the song the archaic weirdness of the original. Without the sudden bleating harmonies of the children, it’s just not the same.