Perhaps a decade ago, I was driving in Sparks when “In My Life” by the Beatles came on the radio and then, about halfway through the song, I was crying, apropos of nothing.

Well, not nothing. Plainly, the lyrics say something, and not just to me. In 2000, a group of renowned songwriters convened by Mojo magazine selected “In My Life,” written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and made a hit by the Beatles, as the greatest song ever written. The Beatles’ famed producer, George Martin, produced a farewell album of his own, gathering a group of “heroes and friends” to perform Beatles songs. He titled it In My Life.

The song itself may partly explain why I reacted to it the way I did. “Though I know I’ll never/ Ever lose affection/ For people and things that went before/ I know I’ll often stop and think about them.”

It’s a song of my time, my experiences, my generational identity. I get why it resonates with me.

But there’s another song that does it, too—“I’ll Be Seeing You.” It’s not a song of my experiences and generation. I wasn’t even aware of it until I heard it in my 40s in a movie, The Philadelphia Experiment. It’s a World War II song, and I’m a baby boomer. Why does it get to me?

I began asking people and writing others to learn if there were songs that could make them cry. It was an occasional hobby stretching over the years, for so long that one of my respondents, former Nevada schools superintendent Eugene Paslov, passed away. His contribution, spanning decades of times and experiences, is included here. Some participants speak here of family or friends who are also gone. I thank those in whom my queries awakened painful memories but who assisted me, anyway. I’d like this article to pique interest so that some readers will go looking for some of these titles.

One thing I didn’t want was a cluster of recent hits. I vividly recall all those end-of-century lists in 1999, of movies and albums and books that named the greatest—or worst—of the 1900s (we were still a year away from the end of the 20th century). They tended to name titles within the memory of those who were asked, meaning they tended to be bunched around the late 1900s.

Number one

There is even a song called “The Saddest Song” by the Ataris. The lyrics portray a man who grew up without a father—and whose son is now growing up the same way: “So I pretend I’m doing all I can/ And hope someday you’ll find it in your heart/ To understand why I’m not around/ And forgive me for not being in your life.”

But I would argue that it is not just sad songs that make us cry. It is meaningful songs that resonate with us, some of which are sad. Some people are moved simply by the power of music, not necessarily the lyrics—I’m that way myself.

Sparks therapist Lori Floto names “Danny Boy” as a song that makes her tear up. “I think it’s because it’s about fathers, and longing, and loss.” Nevertheless, she says, “For me, it’s almost always more about the music than the lyrics.” (“Danny Boy” is now usually sung to an earlier melody, “Londonderry Air.”)

For former television anchor Lise Mousel, lyrics aren’t even necessary. She names the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony—“It steals my breath with its beauty and force. Sometimes it makes me feel sad, other times powerful. Either way, it affects me deeply every time I hear it.”

Journalism professor Jake Highton: “I don’t know of any song that makes me cry. But opera has arias that bring tears to my eyes. I think it depends on your mood, time and place of the song and/or aria. I have listened to opera, seen opera, where tears of joy pour from my eyes, moved by the beauty of song, the human voice at its greatest, the music.”

The most commonly named title I heard was “Amazing Grace.”

University of Nevada, Reno English lecturer Mary Webb: “Mine is ’Amazing Grace’—every time I hear it I weep. … ’Amazing Grace’ was my father’s favorite song; it was played at his funeral. The sense of hope and grace resonate for me. I always loved that line, ’and saved a wretch, like me.’”

Dr. Trudy Larson, director of the School of Community Health Sciences: “’Amazing Grace’ often brings tears to my eyes. Granted, it is usually sung at solemn events but still the melody just reminds me of loss and sadness.”

Musician and retired teacher Patty Carrico Dickens: “The song is comforting, something I sing mostly when I’m feeling grateful and loved. Also, the melody is simple, lyrical and expresses the text perfectly.”

Interestingly, we received a vote against “Amazing Grace.” One person said, “I hate that ’a wretch like me’ stuff.” She seemed to think that God would not regard his creations so disdainfully, and that we should not so regard his creations—even if they are us.

Close to home

Not surprisingly, family is the source of feeling for many people about the songs that can make them cry.

Jo Nell Simonian, daughter of well-remembered Reno High teacher Simon Simonian, names Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band” and “Silent House” by the Dixie Chicks. She relates both to her “parents’ diminishing health. … The line that keeps coming back to me is ’I’ll try to connect all the pieces you left/ I will carry it on, so you can forget./ I’ll remember the years when your mind was clear/ How your laughter and life filled up this silent house.’ I often think of my amazing mom who lived and continues to live (even with her dementia) her life with such warmth and grace. … My father was very sick from kidney disease and congestive heart failure. He had just gotten out of the hospital and was determined to see me married. He and mom and [brother] Lane drove up in the station wagon with dad lying in the back most of the way. He made it and lived to see both my sons born. I still can’t make it through that song without memories of my father and moist eyes.”

Ed Rugg, a graduate of Manogue Catholic High School and UNR and now manager of a fashionable restaurant in Newport Beach, still responds to one aspect of his upbringing: “I went to a lot of Italian funerals when I was young, the most notable one being my grandfather’s. The ’Ave Maria’ was usually played during a service to a chorus of weeping aunts and uncles who were usually the most jovial at family dinners, picnics at Bowers mansion and Idlewild Park. Among the few records we had in our home in Reno in the early ’50s, before TV, was Mario Lanza’s ’Ave Maria,’ which I would play and sing along to.”

Former casino executive Phil Bryan: “I haven’t been able to listen to such songs since the death of my daughter Phyllis in late 2012. She was the best ’soul’ singer in our family. … Your question opened floodgates of tearful and joyful memories. When Phyllis was very young she learned ’What the World Needs Now,’ Burt Bacharach and Hal David. … Phyllis could sing all versions, but more like Dionne [Warwick] and Jackie [DeShannon] in my memory.”

Trisha White, a former reporter: “’Forever Young’ by Rod Stewart. My dying brother asked that this be played to comfort his children.”

Disc jockey Laurie Adamson: “There are a few hymns that I associate with my dad’s passing that always make me cry. ’On Eagle’s Wings,’ ’Here I Am, Lord’ and ’How Great Thou Art.’. That last one, especially done by Carrie Underwood and Vince Gill. A gusher! … ’Here and Now’ by Luther Vandross. It’s just a beautiful love song that means so much to me because of my love for [husband] John. When I hear it, if John’s around, he knows I’m going to make him dance with me and he also knows the tears will fall.”

Laurie Yarborough of Reno, a mother and community activist: “Butterfly Kisses” by Tim McGraw. “It represents the greatest of gifts—beauty, innocence and the preciousness of children, which really is the love that inspires us to do good, to be present, to cherish this time which is ever so fleeting. … [I]t makes me wish I could go back in time to that preciousness and hug a little longer, listen a little more, play more dress up, have more tea parties, giggle more, be silly a little longer, because that time has passed.”

We, the people

This is not an era in which government makes it easy to have faith in country, but one of our answers came from someone who still has that sense—actress Dawn Wells, Miss Nevada 1959: “My song that makes me tear up is 'America the Beautiful.’ It fills me with such pride, and standing at Pikes Peak looking over the vastness, one 'hears’ the beauty of the song. It says it all! We are a beautiful country. With times the way they are, I so appreciate who we are and where we live.”

I decided not to ask any elected officials, though. I had a feeling most of them would decline, and those who agreed to participate would likely assemble their staffs or advisors to reach a consensus on what to name.

I contacted John J. Miller, a writer for National Review, the conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley Jr. Miller once compiled a list of conservative rock songs for NR. “I can’t think of a song that makes me weepy,” he replied. “If one comes close, it’s probably ’Question,’ by the Old 97’s—a really sweet ballad by a country-punk band.” “Question” is one of the Dallas band’s most familiar pieces, in part because it has frequently been used on series television: “Someday somebody’s gonna ask you/ A question that you should say yes to/ Once in your life.”

U.S. State Department official Shannon Runyon of Reno: “’Live Like You Were Dying’ shares the advice of a man who has been diagnosed with something fatal. And since life is 100 percent fatal, it reminds us that the only thing different about people who get the ’bad news’ that their clock is ticking faster than expected (i.e. 6 months to live) and the rest of us is that they have a more specific time frame to work with. What would you do if you knew for a fact that tomorrow (or this week, or this month) was your last time on earth? Would you go to the office? Would you avoid that phone call from a friend?”

Job Corps principal Joe Reading: “As a certifiable girly man, (i.e., feminist), I can get emotional or cry over almost anything. Whenever I choke up, my daughter calls it a ’nerdgasm.’ Songwise, how about Dolly Parton’s ’Coat of Many Colors,’ Woody Guthrie’s ’1913 Massacre’ which I just heard yesterday on XM and can’t get out of my mind, but also—and more compellingly—’Deportees.’”

A couple of weeks ago, Washoe Superintendent of Schools Traci Davis was watching Jordan Sasser sing “It’s All Coming Back” on American Idol and something in the song got to her: “It reminded me of my parents. They’re going to celebrate their 46th wedding anniversary. … I don’t know, for me, I heard him singing that song, and I was thinking about relationships and how we impact people’s lives.”

Joe Bell, a former UNR student body president, served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, has returned there twice and also traveled to Kenya and Tanzania. “I have to say the main theme from Out of Africa. Probably obvious, it reminds me of several of my African experiences, especially Kenya and Tanzania, as well as Ethiopia. Being in Africa changed my life.”

Reno mother Heidi Waterman: “’Some Enchanted Evening.’ It’s from South Pacific. My Dad used to serenade my mom with that song, so it makes me tear up when I hear it.”

Amy Saathoff of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges: “One of the things I love about music is that, when you hear a certain song, it can transport you to a favorite memory. Whether it’s the lyrics or the notes, something inside us is triggered to think back to another place and time. So, it is not such a stretch that some of those memories may make us sad. Maybe because we recognize a missed opportunity or because we reminisce a sad event that the lyrics speak to or it reminds us of a happy time and we recognize how blessed we truly are. For all of those reasons, the song that can make me cry is ’In Your Eyes’ by Peter Gabriel.”

Todd Gitlin was the first president of Students for a Democratic Society and today is a journalism professor at Columbia: “Some choking up, anyway: Springsteen, ’Who’ll Be the Last to Die for a Mistake?’” The lyrics, drawn from John Kerry’s 1971 congressional testimony on behalf of Vietnam veterans: “A voice drifted up from the radio/ We saw the voice from long ago…/ Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break/ Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?”

Yolanda Garcia runs Harry Reid’s Carson City office. She didn’t initially respond. Replying to a second request, she said, “I didn’t send my favorite song as it is in Spanish—’Paloma Querida’ or, translated, ’Beloved Dove’ We played it at our wedding.” A Coby Lubliner translation of José Alfredo Jiménez’s lyrics: “I don’t know if my life is worth living/ But to give it to you is my aim/ I don’t know how you’ll take what I’m giving/ But I’ll leave you my life all the same.”

Bernie Sanders organizer Carol Cizauskas: “Wedding Song (There Is Love)” by Noel Paul Stookey. “I do believe that marriage is divinely inspired, as the song goes, ’The union of your spirits here/ Has caused Him to remain/ For wherever two or more of you/ Are gathered in His name/ there is Love.’ I also really like that the song asks unanswered questions, the questions I believe everyone should ask before marrying.”

Ken Bode, a former McCarthy and McGovern staffer who later reported for NBC and CNN and moderated Washington Week in Review, named an early version of “With God on Our Side,” a storied 1963 Bob Dylan song touching on one of the themes of Lincoln’s second inaugural (“Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”). Dylan’s lyrics resonated later in the decade with the Vietnam generation: “So many young men died/ So many mothers cried/ Now I ask the question/ Was God on our side?”

Former state legislator and Washoe airport authority member Dawn Gibbons named “That’s Life,” with its lyrics “That’s life/ That’s what all the people say/ You’re ridin’ high in April/ Shot down in May.” She said, “The ups and downs in anyone’s journey brings challenges. That’s life.”

Mélange

I spoke with people who teared up when recalling various tragedies—personal or societal—or even their contacts with history’s terrors.

Vanessa Gower Coates, a young woman who spent her childhood in Reno and now lives in Denver, spoke of a loss with which many will identify. Her song summons up memories of a beloved dog: “The song that makes me cry every time is ’Arms of an Angel’ by Sarah McLaughlan. [Husband] Bob made a video about Sam when he died, using this song. I still tear up when I hear this.”

UNR art professor Howard Rosenberg named “More Than You Know,” a song of aloneness that has been recorded hundreds of times, from Billie Holliday to Eddie Vedder: “All of us have, at one time or another, met someone, cared for someone, were involved with someone, and we didn’t realize how important that person was, and we let that person get away or lost touch with that person. It may have been a friendship or a romance or a family member. And that person was a part of our life, our emotions, our heart more than we know.”

One reader named “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, as sung by Rufus Wainwright: “You can hear it on the Shrek 1 soundtrack. The CD was given to me by the love of my life who was shortly thereafter killed in a car accident.”

Historian Guy Louis Rocha was devastated by his first visit to the United States Holocaust Museum. He named a piece with the riveting title “Auschwitz-Birkenau” from the Schindler’s List soundtrack. “I cannot describe the utter despair and pathos that wells up in me when I hear these songs. I’m crying now as I compose this email. The scenes from Schindler’s List will live with me as long as my memory survives. … I had a friend take a stone from Nevada and place it on Oskar Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem some years ago.”

I conclude with Gene Paslov’s email response to my question.

Gene Paslov: “’Blowing in the Wind’ does it for me. Also any Pete Seeger piece. I was actually an adult in the ’60s but I think of myself as a ’child of the ’60s.’ And I’m a Korean Conflict veteran—early ’50s—flew around the world with atomic bombs in a B-47 as a 19-year-old flight engineer; and I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the early ’60s—one of the few veterans to serve in both war and peace. I think I’ve earned the right to call myself a child of the ’60s (but I did pot in the ’50s). I might also add that I break into tears when I hear a Mozart Opera! Go figure! Gene.”

A longer version of this article can be read on our Newsview blog.

Avatar photo

Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...