The Saddest Song on Everyone’s Album


Jude Johnstone began writing songs at the piano as a child growing up in Hancock, Maine. She was technically “discovered” by Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, who met her on a plane, listened to some demos she later sent him, and flew her to New Jersey, where she witnessed Springsteen recording The River. In 1979 she traveled with the band to Los Angeles, locus of the American recording industry, and established herself as a professional songwriter for artists from Johnny Cash to Bette Midler and Trisha Yearwood. Johnstone enjoys the mixed blessing of being the composer, she joked, of “the saddest song on everyone’s album.” Now based in Nashville, she performs, records, and teaches aspiring songwriters. She acknowledges George Gershwin and Cole Porter as influences. Listening to Johnstone’s catalog reveals that she’s among the finest American songwriters of her generation. Her gift is her truth-telling and authenticity.

The song she wrote for Johnny Cash, “Unchained,” was recorded in 1996 and released a year later on Cash’s Grammy-winning album of the same name. It’s a sentimental dirge seemingly ideal for an iconic singer looking back in time at his post-rockabilly, post-prison-song twilight. It begins with a series of A major chords strummed in eighth notes before moving intoa familiar verse, pre-chorus, and chorus guitar plus voice ballad structure. The verses sway between tonic and dominant (the text references a cradle) before a shift into more sophisticated harmonic terrain: the dominant, submediant (F#-minor), and subdominant cloud the texture in keeping with the references to “glasses dark as these” making it “hard to see the rainbow.” In the chorus, Johnstone moves from a monosyllabic declamation to melismatic “oh, oohs” atop a plagal progression. The protagonist declares that he’s “weak” and “vain,” which is as much the cause of his bondage as his loss of faith (“where’s that rock of ages / when I need it most”) and mortality. He sees his alter ego in an “old man swearin’ at the sidewalk,” health failing, appealing to the lord. 

Obviously the song suits Cash’s pivot from his man-in-black, outlaw aesthetic toward penitence at the close of his career, but Johnstone sings “Unchained” differently—and not just because Cash alters a line, changing “from down on my knees” to “from now on, on my knees.” Her treatment morphs from clanging, jangling honkytonk in the verses to gospel, enacting overcoming in the shift from pre-chorus through chorus. Cash sticks to the darker and more ambivalent themes of despair and resignation, whereas Johnstone embraces a braver declaration of renewal. 

Her first album, Coming of Age (2002), reclaims this and other fine songs covered by others. Her second, On A Good Day (2005), includes guest appearances by artists associated with her, including Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt. Blue Light (2007) is a collection of suave jazz-inflected songs for gone-but-not-forgotten relationships were it not for the richness of Johnstone’s voice which, while leavened by experience, soars effortlessly over the octave break. “Good Guy” is gorgeous, with the allusion to the “bittersweet music” of the past captured in the background strings (scored by Vince Mendoza) whose lines dissolve before our ears. Then, for the final line, “she could have held on / she should have held on / to a good guy,” Johnstone’s voice climbs a notch before sighing to a close, the final pitch swollen and bruised. The violins do the holding on through the final cadence. A comparable effect is heard on the title track to A Woman’s Work (2016), a berceuse in waltz time that includes pizzicato strings imitating busy housekeeping. Yet the “work” of the title is metaphorical. The song is about keeping promises, which the piano tells us has not happened. The tinkling sound falls silent on “hurt so deep.” Brightness disappears in reference to something profound that once generated brightness, but no longer. Great songs are great thanks to such tiny details.

Johnstone’s 2013 album Shatter is as personal as songwriting gets, narrating an escape from a broken former self and her fragments. Country & western styles and Celtic melodies (most obvious on “Road to Rathfriland”) commingle with blues and New Orleans jazz influences. The bluntest song is about alcohol doing the talking. “Girl Afraid” is the most acute and direct of the songs, with the hook coming to rest on the mediant B after a defeated drop from D down to G for the title words. She’s afraid, but she’s going to stick with it, as evinced by strident, stepwise harmonic ascent in the bridge, which describes her in the third person as possibly hanging on long enough to be liberated. Uillean pipes (providing the drone) and flutes (performing a line that breaks free of the vocals) are played by Irish musician Paddy Keenan, and Johnstone’s daughter sings the vocal line with her mother. A comparable gem is “On That Train,” which features a string accompaniment (accordion on a live performance viewable online) that both represents a distant train whistle or horn and the “static” that the protagonist seeks to escape.  

For her eighth album Living Room (2019), Johnstone wrote several pieces from a male point of view “for various reasons,” she explains obliquely. The idea for “Serenita” (Serenity) came to her from a friend of hers in Northern Ireland, Maggie Doyle, a “happily married Irish girl” who laid out some extremely unhappy chords that Johnstone, inspired, realizes with a bridge and a dark final verse that Doyle loved. Doyle’s husband Linley Hamilton provides trumpet, giving the song a “spaghetti Western” vibe, and Johnstone’s longtime associate Bob Liepman adds cello. The singer is Nashville-based Brandon Jesse, who has “the deep, dark voice” she wanted for the song. Dave Keary, guitarist for Van Morrison, plays baritone guitar and Mike Meadows, percussion. 

Representing romantic desolation, the song is cast in a slow tango on the chords of A minor, D minor, E7, and F major, offering a chiaroscuro contrast between major and minor in support of references to half-light and sinking winter sun. The accompanimental and trailing vocal line rise and fall by step, turning like Icarus in the sun before falling back down to earth, with a further shading of the anchoring tonic pitch of A with G-sharp. All this in service of a metamorphic tale of a groom left at the altar who tempers his remorse with drink (a country music cliché, deployed ironically, but the pain is real). The doubling of Jesse’s voice with Johnstone’s own in the chorus suggests the ghostly recollection of a relationship. Heartbreak is defined as a loss of ease. “Serenita” is a kind of musical double exposure, a serenade about a serenade, with a mournful open trumpet solo and a shaker adding to the ennui of the tango. Johnstone is very fond of cello, which here lends texture to the reference to an angel singing “way down here below.” Jesse has nothing left to do but disappear, and he does, a couple of measures in advance of the piano.

Happiness? It’s here too, both on the last tracks and the first ones. The 2008 album “Mr. Sun,” for example, is an easy-going, upbeat tune suitable for love drunk Ibiza. Heard on the television series Nurse Jackie in 2009, it says everything you need to know about this artist: “to know her is to love her.”

Simon Morrison is a music historian specializing in 20th-century music. He is the author of Bolshoi Confidential (2016) and Lina and Serge (2013). The latter was featured on BBC Radio 4 (as “Book of the Week”), BBC World News (TV), and WYNC. He was written the New York Times, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, the TLS, and Time.

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