One can measure the health of a culture – or a music genre – by its love songs. Do its love songs exalt raw sentiment for its own sake? Or do they place emotion in the service of virtue or understanding? Sentimentality isn’t all bad. Americans these days tend to either wallow in sentimentality, or to despise it entirely, which only proves that our society is losing its balance. We do not have the good sense of the Irish, whose traditional culture has always contained a healthy balance of realism and sentimentality.
Secular love songs are by nature sentimental, and they have their place even if “love” is sometimes employed in confusing way. TSO – St. Blog’s resident expert on sentimentality – once said of John Denver (and I like John Denver) that the message of his music is “feelings are everything”. Well, perhaps, but that sounds hyperbolic to me, and anyway not all feelings are created equal. Emotions can be ordered or disordered, and it seems to me that the sentimentality of “Take Me Home Country Roads” is directed to virtuous ends. There is consequently a qualitative difference between the feelings inspired by the music of John Denver and the music of, say, Guns ‘n’ Roses.
So it should not surprise you that, sentimentalist that I am, I have been known to indulge in the occasional love song. And here I would like to showcase what I think are two of America’s best love songs. They have it all: courtship, marriage, sacrifice, devotion, suffering, loss, children and old folks. They have the perspective of time. They represent an America that seems to be slipping through our fingers, even disappearing before our very eyes. There are, in fact, millions of Americans who simply cannot relate to the kind of life these songs portray, who have never known anyone even remotely similar to the people in the lyrics, and who perhaps have always felt a silent and inexpressible longing for what these songs represent. Human love, marriage, and family life are meant to be shadows of heavenly things, and if we can be inspired by these things we are very likely still open to grace.
Jud Strunk’s “Daisy a Day”, from 1973, remains the American love song par excellence: