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Top Five Lyrics that Move Your Humble Blogger's Heart

Top Five Lyrics that Move Your Heart

Before I begin: This one was difficult even to decide what the criteria are. The big problem is that (as with all Top Fives in whatever fields) so much of my attachment to a piece has to do with the initial circumstances in which I heard it, and with how much I later heard it, and when, and with whom. It’s not easy to tell whether it’s the lyric moving me, or my own memories, particularly as the way a good lyric moves me is to evoke my own memories.

But here: an example. “My Funny Valentine” is a terrific song and a terrific lyric. I love the song, and find it moving, and so does my Best Reader. Because of that, we chose it as “our song”; in the course of preparing a musical soundtrack to our wedding reception YHB sought the best possible version, gathering ten or more versions before settling on Frank Sinatra’s Paris recording with the Septet. Of course, all that listening in that context heightened the association of the song with my Best Reader and our wedding, not to mention our marriage. In the event, although I’m sure the song was played, I have no recollection of it, or indeed of much of the events of that day. Still, every time I hear the song or even come across the lyrics, I am moved to the point of goofiness. Which is nice and all, but in considering the Top Five, I wound up deciding that what was moving me was not the lyric, but the marriage that we deliberately chose to associate with it. So I left it off. Maybe that’s wrong, but that’s my decision. At least today.

I also, after much struggle, ruled out liturgical songs. My heart is much moved when we sing v’zot ha-torah (that is the torah) or col hanshamah t’hallel’yah, hall’lu yah (let all creatures that have breath sing praise to the Lord), but I think that’s all beyond the scope of the question. On the other hand, what I’ve done is to leave out precisely those lyrics that move me the most: those that I have invested the most in, and those that have had the most invested in them by my community. Perhaps this is pointing out the silliness of trying to separate the lyric from those that listen to it, when our criterion is emotional anyway. Still, I tried. The following are lyrics that I find incredibly moving, trying as best I can to judge that it is the lyric that moves me, and not my own investment in it (or the melody or whatnot).

  • Every Time We Say Goodbye, Cole Porter: “There’s no love song finer/but how strange/the change/from major to minor/every time we say goodbye”
    This is simply one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking songs YHB has ever heard. The combination of resignation and hope. The pretense at near-indifference, as ‘a little’ is tacked on to the end of the real feeling. I’m inclined to the Ella Fitzgerald version, myself, but really, it’s a terrific song no matter who sings it.
  • I Want You, Elvis Costello: “It’s knowing that he knows you now after only guessing/It’s the thought of him undressing you, or you undressing”
    I know Mr. McManus is Mr. Revenge-and-Guilt, but he really outdoes himself on this descent into jealousy and obsession. The scary thing, the thing that really moves me, is the way he makes it almost attractive, almost as if what he’s describing is true love, and if you aren’t making mad threats, you aren’t really in love. It’s not played for that effect, though; that’s just the background to the sympathetic and scary portrait.
  • I’ll Be Seeing You, Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain: “In that small café, the park across the way/The children's carousel, the chestnut tree, the wishing well”
    I can’t really defend this one. It’s mawkish and sentimental, and all that stuff. Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.
  • Ver Es Hot, Abraham Reisen and Chava Alberstein: Ver es hot a templ, Ver es hot a klayzl/Ver s'bazukht a shenkl, Ver a freylekh hayzl/Epes muz men hobn, Eynem muz men gloybn/Tsi a tayvl untn, Tsi a got dort oybn. In English, more or less: “One man goes to shul, one to a library, one to a bar, one to a brothel. You’ve got to pick one, you’ve got to believe something. There’s a devil under there, there’s the Lord up there”
    Yes, Your Humble Blogger is aware of how unutterably pretentious it is to include a lyric in another language. Particularly as I don’t speak it myself. Still, I know enough German and enough Hebrew to catch a sense of the original, I think. And it’s wonderful, isn’t it? The second verse says, more or less, ‘otherwise, you will walk the earth like Cain, and people will cross the street to get out of your way, and the whole world will be a cemetery.’ But it’s so much better in Yiddish.
  • Finishing the Hat, Stephen Sondheim: “And when the woman that you wanted goes/You say to yourself, "Well, I give what I give."/But the woman who won't wait for you knows/That however you live/There's a part of you always standing by/Mapping out the sky/Finishing a hat/Starting on a hat/Finishing a hat/Look, I made a hat/Where there never was a hat”
    I surprised myself by including this one, after all. I mean, I love the song, and I used to love it even more, back when I considered myself ambitious and George-like. Now, Lord knows, I can leave the hat unfinished. Still, even when the memory of that drive to that hollow victory is dim in my own self, Mr. Sondheim makes it powerful again.

The temptation, of course, was to include “Oop-Pop-A-Da” or even “De Doo Doo Doo De Da Da Da”. The other issue was that the question specifies lyrics that move my heart, rather than my brain or whatnot, so I left out many of my favorites, and wound up picking sadder songs, rather than joyful ones (despite being aware that joy moves my heart as well). My just-left-off list includes Mark Knopfler’s “Romeo and Juliet”, about half-a-dozen songs by Mr. Costello, Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit”, Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”, Paul Simon’s “Born at the Right Time”, Tom Waits’ “Soldier’s Things”, Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, and dozens and dozens more, I’m sure. If I did the list on a different day, I’d have come up with a different list.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


I've Just Seen a Face, the Bob Belden/Holly Cole version rather than the Beatles:

I have never known
the like of this
I've been alone
and I have missed things
and kept out of sight
for other boys
were never quite like this

Anniversary Song, Cowboy Junkies:

Well I've known all these things
and the joys that they can bring
And I'll share them all
for a cup of coffee and to wear your ring

Something Old, Susan Levine:

And I feel like I'm home
But I feel like I'm nowhere
With my feet made of stone
Tell me how will I get there
and I feel just like Dorothy
Holding tight onto Toto
And I click my heels
And I close my eyes
And I pray to God I'll someday know I was there

Silent Night, Uncle Bonsai:

My father's house was warm at night
He used to sing me lullabies
Just like his father before him always did
Just like his mother would have done if she had lived

Mr. Blue, Yaz:

Mr. Blue, I'm here to stay with you
And no matter what you do
When you're lonely, I'll be lonely too

in the town where i was born
lived a man who sailed to sea
and he told us of his life
in the land of submarines

yellow sheets in a hong kong bed
stazybo horn and a slingerland ride
to the carnival is what she said
a hundred dollars makes it dark inside

my heart is like an artichoke
i eat petals myself one by one
until i feel enough
until i lose to love

life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone
i hear you call my name
and it feels like home

it's not just sentimental no no no
she has her grief and care
but the soft words they are spoke so gentle
it makes it easier
easier to bear

beatles. tom waits. cibo matto. madonna. otis redding.

Sleep my child and peace attend thee, all through the night
Guardian angels god will send thee, all through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping,
Hill and dale in slumber steeping
I, my loved one, watch am keeping, all through the night
"All Through the Night," trad.
As the people here grow colder
I turn to my computer
And spend my evenings with it like a friend
"Deeper Understanding," Kate Bush
We lean against railings
Describing the colours
The smells of our homelands
Acting like lovers
How did we get here?
To this point of living?
I held my breath
And you said something
"You Said Something," P. J. Harvey
In this story we sit down on luna bridge
And catch snow in our cupped hands and music
Is coming from the houses or it sings inside me I begin to mend
Oh happy, oh happy, the end, the end, the end
"Happy, the End", The Innocence Mission
Every boy is a snake is a lily
Every pearl is a lynx is a girl
Little ones
My sons and my daughters
Your sweat is salty
I am why
"Oceania," Bjork

Arrgh. I did the stupid thing and used paragraph breaks instead of the br/ tag. May I ask for a cosmetic edit?

And david, nice to see a nod to Cibo Matto.

Some that come to mind --
"Being Boring", by the Pet Shop Boys:

In rented rooms and foreign places
All the people I was kissing
Some are here and some are missing
In the 1990s
I never dreamt that I would get to be
The creature that I always meant to be
But I thought in spite of dreams
You’d be sitting somewhere here with me

I'm a sucker for nostalgic songs. "In My Life" always gets me as well. And then there's always the "regretful breakup song" genre -- "Letting Go" by Squeeze:

She boils the eggs, I make the tea
Outside the sun shines on the street
We're at that point here love has gone
The fuse is lit, it won't be long
I take a walk, she cleans the house
This is the end, I'm in no doubt
But neither one of us can show
The slightest sign of letting go

But songs don't have to be downers to move one. E.g., "Jackie Wilson Said" by Van Morrison:

And you know I'm so wired up
I don't need any more tea in my cup...
I'm in heaven when you smile
And when you walk across the street
It makes my heart go boom boom boom

Perfect. "Us Amazonians" by Kirsty MacColl blisses me out every time as well.

Here in the country we dance and we play
And we pray to our saints and we make love all day
I fell in love with a real city boy
Who's afraid of his nature, afraid of his joy
Us Amazonians know where we stand
We got kids, we got jobs, why do we need a man?
Us Amazonians make out alright
But we want something to hold in the forest at night

I'm also totally on board with that P.J. Harvey pick, Dan.

I'm noticing how much some of these lyrics (mine especially) depend on the memory of the music. I mean, I adore Kirsty MacColl, but I haven't heard that song and so it's not quite hooking in -- even though I can tell that the lyrics are more inventive and engaging than some of her songs that I remember pretty well. Or "Happy, the End": there's something hesitant about the musicality of that song that balances the title line right on the edge between sincerity and irony, which I now note doesn't come across at all in text.

Well, that's the thing about lyrics, at least for me -- they're completely inseparable from the music, in terms of how they affect me. If the list were "5 Lyrics That Can Stand Alone Without Their Music", I'd have to write a totally different list.

Other contenders for my top five heart-moving lyrics would be New Order's "Regret" and the Style Council's "Waiting", and man, those are two songs whose lyrics read like crap on the page.

I agree with you two; it's always tough to read the lyrics off the page and not find them stale. "I'll Be Seeing You" is particularly brutal that way. As cheesy as I admit it to be with the music, without the music it's all bull and a yard wide.
Also I should probably have said that "Ver Es Hot" is an upbeat song, with a chorus of "Ya lalala La la/Ya lalala La la". If it had been a ballad, I probably wouldn't have found the lyrics moving at all.

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