We grew up singing these songs, humming their irresistibly catchy melodies without giving another thought to the history behind these secretly sad songs. It’s hard to un-hear the sadness in these songs once you know the truth, but even so they are still some of our favorite songs of all time. Have a look at these happy songs you had no idea were so depressing.
1) You Are My Sunshine
We might not realize just how sad a song is when parts of the song commonly get left out and that is certainly the case with “You Are My Sunshine.” The lyrics in full speak of a love that has gone away, the person left behind pleading through troubled dreams for the return of their dearest.
But, as seen in this stunning performance below by Johnny Cash and June Carter, even the professionals often left out the sad verses to this classic song and they mainly sing the chorus. The soothing melody has been used by many a parent as a lullaby, but if you really examine the lyrics the song becomes a morose tale of heartbreak. This song has been a hit since 1940, but probably only because we haven’t been listening to the verses closely enough!
2) Detroit Rock City
At first listen “Detroit Rock City” sounds like a party song. But, further examination reveals a young man speeding through the night before he meets his end in a crash. The saddest part of all is that Paul Stanley wrote this song about a fan who died in car crash while rushing to make it to a Kiss concert in 1974, though the location of the crash still remains in question.
3) Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
Sometimes when a song has a particularly upbeat or goofy melody it can be hard to suss out the meaning behind it. Such is the case “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” by the Beatles. The wacky music acts as a red herring for McCartney’s song, which if you listen closely tells the story of a murderer whose weapon happens to be a silver hammer.
McCartney claimed the song was intended to highlight the unknown events that life throws at us, but doing it through murder tales is certainly more maudlin than uplifting- unless you consider the melody.
4) Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees
The disco anthem is the opening scene from Saturday Night Fever, it’s the basis for many a nightclub mashup, and the song that generally just makes you feel good. Something about the lyrics and the beat together creates an irresistible dance song. But, the song is actually about life in New York City and literally just trying to survive each day.
There’s more sadness to the story because the drummer, Dennis Byron, lost his mother right before recording was scheduled and had to drop out. Unable to find a last-minute replacement where they were recording in France, they made some changes and used a looped sample for the rhythm, taken from another song. They named the fictional drummer “Bernard Lupe” when asked who did the drumming on the track.
5) Ring Around the Rosy
Some of us have heard that “Ring Around the Rosy” is really about the plague, but there is little evidence for that. Instead the sad fact is that in order to be able to dance under the strict Protestant laws of the 18th and 19th centuries, children would perform party games masking their intent. The “ashes to ashes/ we all fall down” lines are theorized to have been a coded way to end the game suddenly if adults suspected there was illicit dancing going on.
6) Waltzing Matilda
This Australian classic has been getting stuck in people’s heads for around 125 years. But, the heart of this upbeat song is the tale of an itinerant worker “waltzing” (walking) with his “Matilda” (an Australian slang for the pack that traveling sheep hands carried with them and slept with) who through dire circumstance is drowned after being caught stealing a stray sheep for his dinner. What at first seems like a love song is a story of a wondering man- alone and poor.
There has been speculation that the song may have also had pro-union socialist message for many Australians in the tumultuous period right before they gained independence since the song discusses the life of the lowly sheep hand.
7) Bye Bye Love
With a title like that it seems crazy that we could forget how sad this song is. But, when the music comes on we tap our feet and generally find ourselves in a better mood. But why? The lyrics so clearly describe a broken-hearted man longing for his sweetheart. But, the melody is just too pleasing and the hook so enticing. Even live acoustic versions of this Everly Brothers hit make us happy rather than sad.