The Saddest Songs in History: Billy Bragg Tank Park Salute

Billy_Bragg
Billy Bragg at Oya Festival 2012 by Hallgeir Olsen/Johannasvisions

“Daddy is it true that we all have to die?”

“You were so tall. How could you fall?”

In 1991 Billy Bragg released the album, Don’t try this at home.

“… (this album) was where Bragg first began to sound completely comfortable with the notion of a full band. With Johnny Marr (who helped produce two tracks), Peter Buck,Michael Stipe, and Kirsty MacColl on hand to give the sessions a taste of star power, Don’t Try This at Home sounds full but uncluttered; the arrangements (most complete with — gasp! — drums) flesh out Bragg‘s melodies, giving them greater strength in the process”
– Mark Deming (Allmusic)

It is one of his best albums and it has a eulogy to his father Dennis who had died of cancer when the singer was only 18.
It is devastatingly beautiful!

In an interview with the blog Timber and Steel, Billy Bragg said:

” My father passed away in 1976, and before I wrote that song, oh, I’m guessing now, in 1991. It’s on Don’t Try This At Home so it’s about that time. Until I’d written that song, I’d never spoken to anyone about my father dying, which was something I couldn’t face.

And I wrote that, and it just came out in a huge flood. And I got it down on paper and looked at it and thought, “D’ya know what? If I sing this song, I will have to talk about what happened.”

And I went and showed it to teach to my keyboard player to show her part, and she said, “Wow, that’s about your dad, isn’t it?”

And I thought if she gets it, anyone will get it, and it obviously works as a song. And I’m really glad when I find someone who it’s helped because I can tell them – honestly – it helped me too. It had the same effect on me; it helped me to deal with losing somebody. So more often than not these days I find myself playing it at gigs, because more people are getting to the age where we’re losing loved ones, so it’s become a really important part of my set now.”

 

Billy Bragg – Tank Park Salute (Spotify):


In 2008 a father who had lost his little girl in a battle with a nasty childhood cancer wrote  an email to the organisers of the Glastonbury festival telling about how Bragg’s song had helped him dealing with his grief, and said it would mean a lot to him if Billy would sing it at his Sunday night show at the festival. He got a phone call from Billy after a couple of months,  he said that he was going to play and  dedicate the song to the little girl.

He had also changed the lyrics a little bit:

Some photographs of a summer’s day
A little GIRLS lifetime away
Is all I’ve left of everything we’ve done
Like a pale moon in a sunny sky
Death gazes down as I pass by.

You can read the whole touching story here.

Billy Bragg – Tank Park Salute (live, 1991):

“My mum always referred to it as THAT song and whenever she came to a gig, she’d ask if I was going to play THAT song. Once my nephew asked why I always played the song that made Nanny Marie cry. So I explained that she asked me to play the song even though she always wept all the way through it.

So it was played at her funeral and that was good enough for me because she put me up there with Nat King Cole and a line-dancing song she loved.”
– Billy Bragg (Dailyrecord)

Tank Park Salute (Lyrics):

Kiss me goodnight and say my prayers
Leave the light on at the top of the stairs
Tell me the names of the stars up in the sky
A tree taps on the window pane
That feeling smothers me again
Daddy is it true that we all have to die

At the top of the stairs
Is darkness

I closed my eyes and when I looked
Your name was in the memorial book
and what had become of all the things we planned
I accepted the commiserations
Of all your friends and your relations
But there’s some things I still don’t understand

You were so tall
How could you fall?

Some photographs of a summer’s day
A little boy’s lifetime away
Is all I’ve left of everything we’ve done
Like a pale moon in a sunny sky
Death gazes down as I pass by
To remind me that I’m but my father’s son

I offer up to you
This tribute
I offer up to you
This tank park salute

 

 I’m going to put you on the spot. What’s the most honest thing you think you’ve written, where you’ve really bared yourself?

Billy Bragg:
Probably ‘Tank Park Salute’…When I wrote that song, playing it live, people would come up to me and tell me about an experience they had with…not necessarily a family member, just someone dear to them who was lost. So I had to suddenly find a way of speaking about it.

I suppose about my relationship with my father and how I felt about the sense of loss. I suppose that’s obvious to anybody. But there’s some things in there about, you know, about being tall and him being strong and all those dad things that dads are. I’ve had big burly guys who have just loaded all the gear into the truck come to me afterwards and say, “That song about your dad, I thought it was great.” You can’t really ask for more than that.

Interview with Andrew Denton (2003)

Billy Bragg – Tank Park Salute performed at Turner Hall, Milwaukee, September 9, 2010:

 

– Hallgeir (really looking forward to see him live again at Bergenfest this year!)

Also check out these sad songs:

Townes Van Zandt – Marie
George Jones – If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)
Richard and Linda Thompson – Walking on a Wire
Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson – Alexandra Leaving