There are a great many sad songs in the world, but it is my belief that only the sad songs you heard as a child can truly speak to the strange and the inchoate sadness in your individual soul. If you grew up on Billy Joel, only Billy Joel can break your heart (I have a deeply specific musical frame of reference; it cannot be helped).
Growing up, in our house there were roughly six CDs on rotation at any given time: an instrumental album by Jim Brickman, Billy Joel’s “An Innocent Man,” the soundtrack to the film The Mission, the soundtrack to the film Dances With Wolves, whichever Bobby Darin album had both “Lazy River” and “Black Coffee and Cigarettes” on it, and Dan Fogelberg’s Greatest Hits.
(I have a deeply specific musical frame of reference; it still cannot be helped.)
This leads me to my thesis: that Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band” is the saddest song about fathers ever written, sadder than the entire output of noted Dad-haters Everclear, sadder even than Harry Chapin’s more overt ode to sad dads, “Cat’s In the Cradle.” There may be sadder songs about different subjects, of course; an argument can certainly be made that Jim Croce’s “Operator” is the saddest song about gentlemanly resignation ever written. But there is a special kind of sadness you can only feel about your own father, and Fogelberg captures it better than Chapin ever could, mostly through the strategic use of French horns.
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It is a nakedly sincere song; embarrassingly sincere. “Cat’s In the Cradle,” while equally sincere, is about a much more specific type of Boomer-style fatherly shortcomings. Also — and this should not be discounted — it is sung by the father about his child; “Leader of the Band” is sung by the child about his father. Lucie Arnaz sings it about her father Desi sometimes while holding his old straw bandleader’s hat, which is inexpressibly sad.
You may or may not relate to “Cat’s In the Cradle;” your father may or may not have left you. But your father is certainly going to die someday, if he has not already, no matter how much you might want him to live; you must relate to “Leader of the Band” whether you like it or not. Someday, like Dan Fogelberg, you may realize that “Papa, I don’t think I said ‘I love you’ near enough,” but there will be no one left to say it to. There is a finite number of times you can tell your father that you love him.
Dan Fogelberg died in 2007; he has no children. I don’t know if that makes “Leader” more or less heartbreaking. “My brothers’ lives were different/ For they heard another call/ One went to Chicago/ And the other to St. Paul.” I don’t know why that’s the part that always puts me on the floor, but there it is. Your brothers’ lives will be different from yours. They will live in one city, and you will live in another. Then you will have children and they will grow up and move to different cities, too. [Music break.]
“I thank you for the music,” Dan sings, “and your stories of the road/ I thank you for the freedom when it came my time to go/ I thank you for the kindness and the times when you got tough/ And Papa, I don’t think I said I love you near enough.” There it is again.
My father is the only person in my family who can play the piano. My brother plays other instruments, but he does not play the piano often. If I walk in the door of my parents’ house and someone is playing “If Love Were All,” I know exactly who it is. No one else knows how to play that song.
If you had a father who was good to you, “Leader of the Band” is the saddest song in the world. If you had a father you did not appreciate as much as you could have, “Leader of the Band” feels like an accusation crawling up out of the earth and calling your name.
When my father was in seminary, he and a friend of his would periodically scrawl the word “Menachem” over the many BEGIN FREEWAY signs that dotted that Pasadena landscape. Your father will make it impossible for you not to think of him by the time he leaves the world. There will be too many landmarks left behind.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.