3 Songs That Upset Me As A Child

These songs haunted me. I couldn’t let it go. I kept going back to them in my mind, over and over, asking the same questions, trying to find a loophole in the lyrics … Maybe THIS time the song won’t end the same way … maybe I can find the way out to a different ending.

— the song “You take the low road and I’ll take the high road …” I never listened to it without feeling an ache in my heart and without trying to talk TO the song, and ask it why it had to be that way. I always just wanted to intervene and say, ‘No, no, can’t you BOTH take the low road, you and your true love? So you don’t have to separate?” A small 7 year old intervention. The song really upset me, and I kept trying to negotiate with the song itself … trying to figure out a way for the lovers to stay together

— Little Jackie Paper’s betrayal (that’s how I saw it) and the last moment when Puff the Magic Dragon crawled into the cave. Can’t even talk about it. To this day.

— John Henry and his hammer. I learned that song in 2nd grade, I think there was even a picture book, and I remember the illustrations – particularly one very dark one, which showed John Henry – in the tunnel – swinging his hammer … and I knew he was a big strong man but the illustration made him look very small, in the distance, coming through with his hammer. I hated that he died and it seemed so unfair, I remember sitting at my little desk in 2nd grade in a total funk about it. There was a line in the song about how his heart gave out – he had worked so hard – and it just made me sick to think about. It was another song where I wanted to intervene. I wanted to run through the tunnel in my little Keds sneakers, and drag John Henry out by the hand before his heart gave out. Not fair. Learning the lyrics to that song ruined my day. I still have a strong reaction to that song (which now comes up on my iPod all the time, thanks to Bruce Springsteen) and part of it is because of how upset it made me when I was in 2nd grade.

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33 Responses to 3 Songs That Upset Me As A Child

  1. Betsy says:

    The John Henry experience – I could never wrap my little head around it!

  2. John Henry always did seem a little brutal to me for a children’s song. I mean, he dies. Not like an animated animal dying (which I know is still a traumatic thing) but a person, a human being, a guy who worked himself to death. Geez.

  3. ted says:

    Puff The Magic Dragon always made me grieve too, although I kept coming back to it over and over.

  4. just1beth says:

    The kindergarten class sang that song in our school’s annual “Musical Review” this year. (Puff, that is.)And every time we practiced it, I would get all choked up at the part that goes, “Dragons live forever, but not so little boys…” because it reminds me of my children growing up, and all these precious little kids singing in front of me, and I would just LOSE it. Eventually, they would just take turns holding my hand, or patting my back when we got to that part of the song.

  5. nightfly says:

    beth – oy. That sounds so wrenching. And of course the kids have no clue that what they’re singing applies to them, which brings it to a whole different level…

    I’m most familiar with Johnny Cash’s “John Henry” from the Folsom Prison album… It’s a little melancholy.

  6. red says:

    Oh Beth!!! I love the image of them patting their crazy crying teacher comfortingly!

    Yeah, that line kills me.

  7. otherstevie says:

    “Lonely Boy” by Andrew Gold. That song made me miserable to the point of tears!

  8. ricki says:

    And it didn’t help me one bit when I read one interpretation that the “low road” was actually the Underworld, i.e., the person taking the Low Road was going to be dead and traveling only in spirit.

    I have no idea if that’s an accepted interpretation of the song or not but some music teacher or other explained it to my class that way, and it always made me sadder to think about.

  9. Jeff says:

    If you’ve never heard it, you should try to track down Johnny Cash’s version of the John Henry legend – it’s on his box set, appropriately titled “The Legend.” Talk about an epic – it goes on for almost eight minutes.

    Of course, then you’d never get any sleep.

  10. brendan says:

    puff the magic dragon is especially disturbing when you really take a look at the folks who wrote it..

    peter paul and mary are the WEIRDEST group ever. i remember being creeped out by them when i was little and the feeling has only intensified as i’ve gotten older.

    they look like they have a body in the trunk of their car and they are singing to distract everyone until they come up with a getaway plan.

  11. red says:

    I have the Johnny Cash version as well. I think I have Pete Seeger singing it, too.

    But for some reason Springsteen comes up most often in my iPod.

  12. red says:

    bren – I thought that was your impression of the Mamas and the Papas. Didn’t they freak you out, too? I remember you making us howl with laughter at the Cape one summer talking about how scared of the Mamas and the Papas you were when you were little. hahahahahahahahahaha

  13. brendan says:

    i think that might have been the mamas and the papas but they are virtually the same.

    hey man, we’re all cool with whatever is going down, dig? let me hip you to a crucial fact…we, uh, we sort of murdered this guy we picked up hitchhiking. it was a bad scene and we don’t really want to talk about it. we’ve got a show to do, so, uh, would you take care of that for us?

    it would really clear our minds, man.

  14. red says:


    It’s not Helen Keller on a camping trip … but then again, what is??

    Back to my blog post:

    There was also one Carly Simon song that HAUNTED me … I think it might be “that’s the way I’ve always heard it would be” … I know what the album cover looked like, and I was little, maybe 8 or 9, and I remember listening to the lyrics to that song and saying something to Mum like, “Why is the father sitting up alone at night?” and Mum was like, “It’s a really sad family…” or something sweet and simple like that. I remember that moment vividly – Mum explaining that the family was sad in a Carly Simon song.

    Who knows why we remember such things!!

  15. brendan says:


    i remember the entire beatles catalog made me afraid to grow up.

    i couldn’t get over the fact that they’d broken up.

    if the beatles were so unhappy they had to break up, what the hell chance did i have at being happy?

    cashel’s favorite song is ‘eleanor rigby’ so he’s already doomed to write a blog post like this some day when he grows up.

  16. red says:

    ricki – that interpretation definitely makes it sadder! Ouch!!!

  17. Jackie says:

    “goodbye michelle it’s hard to die, when all the birds are singing in the sky” from that “we had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun” song – that made me very meloncholy as a child and “alone again naturally”, a sappy 70’s song made me very sad. I remember that feeling, hearing the song, not really getting what it meant, but feeling very blue..

  18. red says:

    Bren – I think I was in 3rd grade when I first heard that he “keeps his face in a jar by the door” – and I SAW that that image in my head. I didn’t understand it but I could not (and still cannot) get rid of it – really scary, but beautiful, difficult …

  19. just1beth says:

    OH MY GOD!I was just talking with my kids at lunch today about the Beatles and saying how I can’t stand Eleanor Rigby cause it scared the SHIT outta me when I was a kid!! Ceileidh is freaked by “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, while Conor’s is the Macarena. (ha ha!!)

  20. Ken says:

    Yeah, “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “John Henry” made me sad as a child. Still do, for that matter. Know what chokes me up even more, though (for all that it’s an a beautiful melody)?

    “Ashokan Farewell.” Damn thing doesn’t even have words, far as I know.

  21. Lisa says:

    Hayden has some Disney collaboration movie (American Legends?) that has the John Henry cartoon in it. It’s kinda weird, like the writers and animators got some sweet grass and then said, “Dude! Let’s do FOLK HEROES!”

  22. DBW says:

    Yeah, that Simon song is depressing–although I always liked it.

    My Father sits at night with no lights on,
    His cigarette glows in the Dark,
    The living room is still,
    I walk by,
    There’s no remark.

    Now, that’s melancholy. As someone who grew up in a Leave it to Beaver wonderland of Family excellence, I never related to such lyrics unitl I got old enough to understand what they really meant–which was about 100 years ago.

  23. red says:

    DBW – yes, it’s just such a sad chilly scene, isn’t it? Yikes.

    Then of course in the second verse there’s a line about “you used to make me moan in bed” … I didn’t get THAT either. What? Sad family? Why is she moaning in bed?


  24. A says:

    Eleanor Rigby made me so sad I wrote part of a high school paper on it! I always thought the line “Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door” referred to makeup, particularly because of the next line “Who is it for?”. It was slang in England and other Commonwealth countries to call putting on makeup “putting my face on” (still is, really). I don’t know if it ever was in America?

    I still say “I’ll just go put my face on” when I’m about to apply makeup, because one of the last minute leaving-the-house-are-you-completely-ready questions from my mother and grandmother was always “Have you got your face on?” I’ve never thought about it before, but it does sound gruesome, doesn’t it? As if one has to clip one’s skin into position like the lizards from V.

    I remember a conversation I had with my mother about how ‘social’ a thing wearing makeup was in the early sixties, and how much of it was informed by the fact they were all being raised by women who’d been through the war and used cosmetics as a form of defiance and boosting the morale of anyone who saw them. Mum said for herself and her friends, the idea of makeup being for yourself alone was a foreign concept until the L’oreal “Because I’m worth it” ads of the seventies, I think? Until then, one put on makeup for other people, so the idea of poor Eleanor having gone to all the trouble of putting her (social) face on when no-one’s going to see it is so so sad.

    That Traitor, Little Jacky Paper! We had to sing Puff in class in primary school, and I was always awash by the end. It was awful! I didn’t understand all of it, I just knew it was All Bad. Not as bad as Bright Eyes, though. The bunnies!!! Oh God!!!

  25. A says:

    Dear God, I am so, so sorry. My first ever comment on your blog, and it’s an essay! I’m sure you know all this already, and here I am, without prior introduction, spontaneously starting to download the ENTIRE SECTION OF MY BRAIN that has the Beatles, cosmetics and 1960’s social behaviour cross-referenced of all things on to your comments page! I tend to go on and on, freewheeling off the top off my head when I’m interested in things and sound like an utter arse. I’m really embarrassed and sorry!

  26. red says:

    A – hahahaha are you kidding me?? I love comments like yours! Never apologize for a comment like that! It was awesome!! Freewheel away.

    About the “face in the jar” – I heard women, too, say “I have to put my face on” as a kid … but I know that when I heard that Eleanor Rigby song, I saw an actual FACE in a jar … like it was pickled or something, waiting to be used – and it horrified me. It was SUCH an isolated image … brilliant, really!

    I love what you say about L’Oreal “I’m worth it” – I am very interested to read this new biography that is out about Max Factor and how he revolutionized makeup, in general … but I had never thought before about the whole public/private thing about women and makeup. I’m working on an essay now about men looking at themselves in the mirror in movies … and we always see women looking at themselves in the mirror, to check their makeup, or take it off, or put cold cream on … It is relatively banal, although interesting. A woman armoring up, shall we say … “putting her face on”. For the public.

    Like I said – I LOVED that that was your first comment. It was fascinating.

    I don’t know what “Bright Eyes” is, though. Another song??

  27. Dave E. says:

    I understand what people are talking about with all of the songs mentioned, but I thought I was going to get away pretty much unscathed in this thread until Jackie had to mention “Seasons in the Sun”. I think I was about 13 at the time it was released and I’d managed to pretty much forget about that song.

    Heh, so much for that unscathed thing.

  28. A says:

    Red – Oh, thank you so much! What a relief! I’ve been DYING to comment on the Cary Grant posts, but when I realised what I’d done on this one, thought “That’s it. I’ve blown it.” Ha!

    I’m so glad you found the makeup sidetrack interesting. I’ve been fascinated for years by the public/private associations of women and appearance, the meanings and the baggage assigned to the smallest things. When I’m interested in something, I compulsively research the hell out of it, so I have reams of books on the social symbolism of makeup application through the ages (no, seriously – they really do write them), what blonde hair meant to the ancient Greeks, how French nobility communicated via face patches – and they’re SO GOOD, in that juicy way of plumbing the depths of peculiar obsessions. I even wrote a paper in a university semiotics class on this kind of stuff, because I had all the research materials I needed in my house! Hahaha! I’m keen to read that Max Factor book too.

    Bright Eyes is a song from Watership Down. It’s an animated film (taken from a book, I believe) about anthropomorphic rabbits living and apparently being continuously slaughtered in the English countryside, which, wisely, my parents never let me see because just the video of this song had me in floods of tears. It still works that way, I’ve just discovered, when I went searching for a video link for you and the first few seconds brought up all my childhood scars. God damn you, Art Garfunkel and Michael Batt!!!!


  29. Tonio Kruger says:

    The first time I heard “Puff the Magic Dragon” freaked me out too. But I didn’t necessarily see it as a betrayal. More an unwelcome reminder that death comes even to storybook characters. (Not that I characterized it that way back then but still…)

    As for other songs, I don’t remember being especially freaked out by any other song when I was a kid though I do have memories of freaking out one of my aunts when I noted that one of my favorite songs to listen to on the radio was “Lady Madonna.” It took me a shameful number of years to realize why she would be shocked by that, first when I realized the possible religious interpretation of that song, the second when I realized the possible sexual interpretation. It’s embarrassing how old I was when I realized that second part…

  30. red says:

    Dave E.. – ha! None of us escape unscathed!

  31. red says:

    When I’m interested in something, I compulsively research the hell out of it

    We are kindred spirits.

    I read Watership Down when I was about 10 or 11 – but I don’t think I saw the film – so I have no childhood scars to re-visit therein. Maybe I should check it out!

  32. The song that did it for me: “Send In The Clowns”.

    A haunting yet terribly sad song, about clowns. What was so sad about clowns that required her to sing so sadly like that? Could clowns, like, get sad or something? Could they get hurt? Could they die?

    At age 4 or whatever, I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to know. That song probably caused me some lasting emotional damage.

  33. Hmmm.

    I guess today is “John” Day on my blog. That was a complete coincidence. More Johns (some of which I have written about): — John Ford (post) — John Tyler — John Steinbeck (post) — John Mayer — John Jacob…

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