Andrew Tanner considers songs of mourning and celebration.
My father died the day after Boxing Day. It seemed, as the cliché goes, a good death. He was surrounded by loving family, in no apparent pain and left us after a respectable innings of 87 eventful years. Dad was a man of the cloth (the church, not the garment industry), and accordingly his funeral service was accompanied by 18th century Protestant hymns. An unbeliever, I found something healing in their sparse, yearning spirituality. As they played, I closed my eyes and imagined, as he did at Richard Manuel’s funeral, that it was Garth Hudson playing those solemn and stately melodies.
Typically, I was afterwards thrown into a period of fairly intense reflection. Life and death, family, meaning and mortality. Yet in the midst of these heavy thoughts, something more trivial danced around. I was thinking about funeral songs.
I’m ‘fessing up, and maybe you can too. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time debating (with myself, and others) the construction of the perfect playlist for my own passing. It’s perhaps not such a strange pastime. Our human tribe has always turned to music to honour the dead, celebrate a life and ease the pain of the living. Maybe in considering the soundtrack to our own end we’re wrestling with The Big One – I’m here now, but one day I’ll be gone. It could be an optimistic attempt to exert some control over that second great inevitability – that there will come a day, as Blind Willie Johnson sang, with ‘twelve men going to the graveyard and eleven coming back’
To my way of thinking, a good funeral playlist should embody all the disparate demands of the ritual. The songs need to create a space big enough to fit celebration, grief and mystery plus give some sense of a unique life. That’s a hefty brief, but surely music is better equipped to do that heavy lifting than mere words alone? One thinks of a New Orleans funeral march – solemn dirges followed by raucous hot jazz after they’ve ‘cut the body loose’. That’s a way to go out.
According to UK newspaper The Guardian, a list of the all-time most popular songs for funerals would include Bette Midler’s ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’, Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’, Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ and Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’. With no disrespect intended, none would make my playlist. To my way of thinking if you want to honour the raw emotions at the heart of the ritual, you should avoid anything too saccharine or overwrought. There’s no comfort in a cliché.
To my funereal list, then. For this confirmed agnostic some ghostly Old Testament wisdom via Mazzy Star and CSN&Y; sad, sweet farewells from Robert Plant and Randy Newman, ecstatic gospel from Aretha and an ethereal instrumental from Fleetwood Mac to bring it home. Of course, there’s always room for one more tomorrow…
Songs of Mourning:
Into Dust/Mazzy Star: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptxZwwfQj9c
Texas Girl at The Funeral Of Her Father/Randy Newman: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzXODq41j6A
Find The Cost Of Freedom/CSN&Y http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfd-Xmdu08Y
Your Long Journey/Robert Plant & Alison Krauss http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eG_rArV84iY
Tomorrow Is A Long Time/Bob Dylan
Songs Of Celebration
Will The Circle Be Unbroken/Staple Singers http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYoWWsrHf0w
Climbing Higher Mountains/Aretha Franklin http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0ey-78WRLk
The Final Song
Albatross/Fleetwood Mac http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8scHKFwr0og