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Sad 13 Challenge

Announcing a reader contest: Who can make the saddest mix CD?

By Sara Bir

Years ago, I gave a Hank Williams Sr. CD to my boyfriend. The CD had been a bonus gift from Time-Life for my purchase of the eight-CD Country Classics set, but I already had a three-volume collection of Hank Williams singles. They were on cassette tape, but I felt the selection was superior to the bonus CD, and I could listen to the cassette tapes in my car as I drove around on depressing winter days.

Several months later, I broke up with my boyfriend. It was only in retrospect that I realized I'd given him the Hank Williams CD to prepare him for this event, to furnish him with a coping mechanism. Sad Hank Williams songs are the saddest of songs. Love dies, lives drain away and devotion marches on blindly over barren, thankless landscapes.

Did the CD work? It could have backfired--this former beau may now despise Hank Williams--but I'll never know, as he slipped out of my life to go build his anew, presumably with a good-hearted girlfriend who didn't do things like give him CDs just prior to breaking up with him.

These days, I don't listen to as much Hank Williams. I've heard those songs so many times that they are permanently part of my bloodstream. Most of the music I listen to now is either upbeat or just plain weird, which is not the same thing as sad.

People tend to listen to sad songs when they are sad. Misery loves company, and there's something healing in hearing someone articulate sorrow for you when it's so difficult to do it for yourself. But what makes a song sad? Is it the lyrics, the singer, the melody? Or is it the listener? We tend to associate songs with just two periods of our lives: happy and sad.

This sad business is on my mind these days because a good friend told me about a debate he got into with another friend about sad songs, and being competitive types, they made a bet to see which of them could make the saddest mix CD. They would each make a mix CD of 13 songs, and there was a limit of three Hank Williams Sr. songs per CD. A third party would judge the CDs, with loser owing winner a drink (although the prize was arguably nothing more than the satisfaction of winning).

My friend was going through a divorce at the time, and thus was in a befittingly sorrowful frame of mind. He figured he'd win the bet easily, but he didn't. He claims that his inclusion of the Scrawl song "Please Have Everything" on his CD lost him the contest. "You've heard that song, right?" he said to me. "It just breaks your heart, it's pitiful--I mean, it's a sad song."

Although I agree, I realize the flaw of including it on the CD. Scrawl were around back when indie rock was called "college music." Their songs, sung in the embraceably vulnerable rasp of lead vocalist Marcy Mays, chronicle the numbing depression of what it means to be in your 20s and totally aimless. Even so, rock songs have an abruptness that meshes oddly with the soulful, guttural depth of sad blues songs or sad country songs.

For the next several days after talking to my friend, I tried to mentally cobble together my own CD of 13 sad songs, and I realized that it's pretty hard to do. Is Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" sad or simply melancholy? Are Joy Division too jagged and bleak to be sad? Is "Strange Fruit" too melodramatic?

That's what brought us to announce the Sad 13 Challenge. We want to know what you think makes a song sad. We invite you to make your own sad mix CD and send it to us. A distinguished panel of Bohemian music dorks will judge each entry on a sadness scale of one to 13. The creator of the saddest CD will have a chance to sweep the editor's music schwag shelf clean of free promo music and will have his or her set list subsequently appear in one of my columns.

The rules are insanely simple:

1. Each entry must have 13 songs, and it must fit on one CD or cassette tape. Other media will not be accepted.

2. There is a limit of three Hank Williams Sr. songs per entry (this includes Hank Williams Sr. songs covered by other artists). In fact, there is a limit of only three songs by any particular artist per CD (so ditch that idea of entering a mix of nothing but Nick Cave!).

3. The Sad 13 Challenge values sincerity over calculation. If Air Supply ballads make you weepy, embrace it!

Send your CDs to the North Bay Bohemian, Attn: Sad 13 Challenge, 216 E St., Santa Rosa, CA, 95404. Entries must be postmarked by Monday, Nov. 28. (This means you can make your sad mix CD over the Thanksgiving holiday and harness all that Sturm and Drang of family dysfunction. How considerate of us!) The winner will be announced in mid December.

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From the November 2-8, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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