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March Sadness: The Tournament For The Most Sorrowful Song

This winter. Oof. If the political division of the nation doesn’t get you, the record-breaking weather will.

Cassandra Profita

In the search for solutions, “State of Wonder” has happened upon a novel approach aligned with the seasonal obsession with bracketology. If one sad song makes us feel better, wouldn’t a whole bunch of them turn the whole month around? Maybe even push up some daisies out of the ground?

Online tournaments have sprung up in celebration of March Sadness: the most sorrowful songs you can think of, going head-to-head, tournament-style.

There are several March Sadness tournaments in existence. Our favorite was started by one Julie Hahn, a writer living in Boise.
“I just had the idea for the name,” Hahn said. “March Sadness just seemed like a funny thing at the time, I think because, at the time, I had cabin fever. I just tried to think about what the contest would be.”

Hahn says winter in Boise has been just as brutal as in Eastern and Central Oregon. This third year of March Sadness got her through a lot of snow.

“I really love sad songs,” Hanh said. “I think we try to avoid sadness a lot. I revel in it, especially in winter.”

Hahn says she’s more than happy to admit any “State of Wonder” listeners to the Facebook group. This year, Hahn’s tournament will culminate with a party. Guests are being asked to bring, in lieu of booze, a donation to an Idaho suicide prevention group.

Hahn said, “I think that’s a good way to put March Sadness to work, wherever you are.”

Voting is mostly over, but you can enjoy lots of music the group members submitted, and start scheming for next year. If “enjoy” is the right word…

As for why those sad songs pack such a punch, we turn to music critic David Stabler, formerly of The Oregonian newspaper. He’s been teaching a series of music appreciation courses at Portland’s Classic Pianos. He has scheduled a session next week on the music of grieving.

Stabler told OPB’s “Think Out Loud,” the human brain actually has a craving for the songs of heartbreakers and grim reapers:

“One of the reasons we like sad music is it helps produce a hormone called Prolactin. It helps us to sort of manage that grief.”

We found ourselves inspired to drown our sorrows in our very own March Sadness bracket. This year, songs were submitted by OPB staff. (Oddsmakers say next year we’ll do a full set of 64 with public votes at every stage.) We did the hard work of narrowing down 32 contenders. See the bracket below, cast your vote on the Final Four, and check out what a few OPB staffers had to say about their picks.

Editor’s Note March 25, 2017: We’re now down to the final two: Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Hurt” and the Pogues “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” Vote for the March Sadness Champion here.





Here’s what OPB staffers said about their favorites….

“I Need You” - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Derek Smith, host of “The Morning Session” on KMHD Jazz Radio
“Nick Cave is a master lyricist. At the time he was recording the album, his son, Arthur, fell to his death. You know the recording of this entire album is mired in absolute grief and loss. A lot of the lyrics were written before, but it’s almost like Cave could see into the future.”

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6, 4th movement
Steve Bass, President and CEO of OPB and wind instrument enthusiast
“It was written right before the composer died. Sitting in the middle of an orchestra at the end of that movement is quite an experience.”

“u” - Kendrick Lamar 
Bradley Parks, OPB Digital Producer
“It starts with a soul-ripping series of screams. He compiles pretty much any criticism of yourself you could hear in the course of a lifetime in a five-minute song. Makes me think about the criticisms leveled against me, or that I level against other people. It makes you think of your place in the world.”

“Carissa” - Sun Kil Moon 
Jerald Walker, Music Director for opbmusic
“On an album that includes songs about the Newtown school shooting and the death of serial killer Richard Ramirez, this is actually the saddest. It was written about his cousin, Carissa. She was killed walking past a trash fire. An aerosol can blew up and engulfed her in flames. Her grandfather also died like that several years before. The last time songwriter Mark Kozelek saw Carissa was at his funeral. It’s pretty much bottomless.”

“Freight Train” - Elizabeth Cotten
Jessica Rand, afternoon host for KMHD Jazz Radio
“Elizabeth Cotten was born in 1895 in the south. She used to steal her brother’s banjo, but she was left-handed and taught herself to play it upside down and backward. She wrote this sad song at 11, but then got married at 15, and became a domestic servant, and didn’t play music again until she was in her 60s. She was working as a maid for the Seeger family and was playing around one day on one of their guitars, and they said, ‘You are amazing. We have to record you right now.’”

“Long Ride Home” - Patty Griffin
Aaron Scott, State of Wonder producer
“Patty Griffin is writing from the viewpoint of a woman driving home from her husband’s funeral. She’s looking back on this long life they shared together, arriving at their now empty home. I just don’t know of any contemporary artist who approaches loss the way she does.”

“Die Liebe Farbe” from the Schubert song cycle Die Schone Mullerin - Franz Schubert
Al Bersch, OPB Archivist
“It’s basically a jealous obsession — a jilted lover’s favorite color. He sings, ‘I want to cover myself in your favorite color, green. I’ll cover myself in cedar, and I want the grass to grow on my grave.’ My father performed this song as his thesis project when he was a music student at the University of Oregon, and I was five. It reminds me of him, but it’s also just really beautiful. Makes me feel like it’s raining. It’s wet and green.”

“Just a Friend” - Biz Markie
Bryan Vance, OPB Digital producer
“It’s hilarious and equally depressing to see so many people get stuck in the friend zone and then just feel miserable about it. It makes me feel sad for Biz Markie but also a little bit happy because he’s completely off key throughout the entire song.”

“And the Band Played Waltzing Mathilda” The Pogues 
April Baer, State of Wonder host
“A song about Australian veterans coming home from World War I. This song pulls zero punches about alienation and people who are never going to be whole again. Also, Shane McGowan’s voice is like a big middle finger to sadness.”

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