Joni Mitchell once said, in her song “People’s Parties”: “Laughing and crying, you know it’s the same release.”
And yet, although everyone loves to laugh, crying gets a bad rap. Men in particular have been taught to believe that showing tears, let alone actual weeping, is a sign of weakness. Even women, who studies have shown are far more apt to cry than men, often stifle their emotions in public and save their crying for more private moments.
Psychologists and others who examine the human condition recommend crying whenever the mood strikes. That mood may be sadness, or betrayal, or fright, or heartbreak, or grief, or physical pain — or overwhelming joy. Whatever the cause, crying is a healthy emotion that shouldn’t be suppressed, despite what some songwriters might suggest.
Cry, don’t cry, cry like a baby, cry up a storm, cry me a river — tunesmiths through the years have found crying to be a compelling, lucrative topic. In the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, songs about crying were everywhere on the charts, country, R&B, pop, rock, you name it. I’ve found it challenging this week to select a dozen diverse, memorable songs from a whole slew of possibilities. If your favorite didn’t make my list, have no fear, it’s probably included in my “honorable mentions” section. All of them can be found on my Spotify playlist at the end of this post.
“Crying,” Roy Orbison, 1961
Orbison ended up a legendary singer in the annals of rock, but at first, he was an introvert with stage fright, and his first taste of fame came when he began composing material with songwriter Joe Melson. They came up with some true classics, recorded by Orbison and/or others: “Only the Lonely,” “Running Scared,” “Blue Bayou” and, perhaps most notably, “Crying,” a heartbreaking ballad that reached #2 on the charts for Orbison in 1961. He had an uncanny talent for capturing the pain of romantic loss, both in his songwriting and the way he recorded them: “I thought that I was over you, but it’s true, so true, /I love you even more than I did before, but darling, what can I do? /For you don’t love me, and I’ll always be crying, crying, crying over you…” Don McLean resurrected “Crying” in 1981 and had a #5 hit with his rendition.
“Cry Baby Cry,” The Beatles, 1968
John Lennon was an impatient songwriter, expecting it to burst forth fully formed, and if not, he would give up quickly. So he had many song fragments sitting around, waiting for him to return to them if the mood struck. One such tune ended up as “Cry Baby Cry” from The Beatles White Album. He had seen a TV ad that used the line, “Cry baby cry, make your mother buy,” but months later, he changed “buy” to “sigh,” adding, “She’s old enough to know better” and various altered bits from children’s nursery rhymes. By contrast, the minor-chord melody and arrangement were somewhat dark, yet oddly riveting. Lennon later dismissed the song as “rubbish,” but I respectfully disagree. I love the images of “the king of Marigold” and “the duchess of Kircaldy” playing with the children as the baby continues to cry, as babies do.
“No Woman, No Cry,” Bob Marley and The Wailers, 1974
Marley had been performing with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer as a member of The Wailers since 1969. Following the success of “Burnin’,” their 1973 LP with future classics “Get Up Stand Up” and “I Shot the Sheriff,” Tosh and Wailer left to pursue solo careers, and Marley assumed the mantle of frontman. “Natty Dread,” the first album by Bob Marley and The Wailers, included “No Woman, No Cry,” which became a huge favorite in concert. Although some misinterpreted the title to mean “If there’s no woman, there’s no reason to cry,” Marley said he meant it in Jamaican lingo as, “No, woman, nuh cry (don’t cry).” He was offering comfort in times of sadness: “Good friends we have, oh, good friends we have lost along the way, yeah, /In this great future, you can’t forget your past, so dry your tears, I say, /No, woman, no cry…”
“Cry Me a River,” Joe Cocker, 1970
Songwriter Arthur Hamilton wrote this torch song in 1955 for Ella Fitzgerald to sing in the 1955 film “Pete Kelly’s Blues,” but the director chose not to use it. When singer Julie London sang it in the musical comedy “The Girl Can’t Help It” the following year, it became a Top Ten hit and was subsequently covered by a wide range of artists including Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, Barbra Streisand and, more recently, Diana Krall, Rita Coolidge and Michael Bublé. In 1970, Joe Cocker performed a rollicking version with Leon Russell that ended up reaching #11 in the US as a single from their “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” LP. Hamilton said he thought the phrase “cry me a river” was an excellent retort when someone claims to now be sad after having broken your heart: “Remember all that you said, you told me you were through with me, /And now you say you love me, well, just to prove you do, /Come on and cry, cry, cry me a river, ’cause I cried a river over you…”
“Who’s Crying Now,” Journey, 1981
Not long after vocalist Steve Perry joined Journey’s lineup in 1978, the band became one of the biggest rock bands in the country, with seven hugely successful albums and a slew of hit singles over the next eight years. “Who’s Crying Now,” from their multi-platinum 1981 LP “Escape,” showcased Perry and keyboardist Jonathan Cain, who co-wrote the track. Perry said he wanted to write about a couple he knew who loved each other deeply but constantly fought and emotionally hurt each other. “Their mutual passion drove them to ecstatic highs and hellish lows,” he recalled. The track reached #4 in the US, their second highest charting of their career: “One love feeds the fire, one heart burns desire, wonder who’s cryin’ now? /Two hearts born to run, who’ll be the lonely one, wonder who’s cryin’ now?…”
“Laughing On the Outside (Crying On the Inside),” Aretha Franklin, 1962
Lyricist Ben Raleigh did a nice job capturing the difficulty we feel whenever we try to put on a strong front when we’re heartbroken on the inside. Teaming with Bernie Wayne (best known for writing “Blue Velvet”), the song was an instant hit not once but three times in 1946. As far as I know, it’s the only instance in Top 40 history that three versions of the same song were in the Top Ten at the same time, in the summer of 1946: Dinah Shore (#3), Andy Russell (#4) and Sammy Kaye Orchestra (#7). In 1962, Aretha Franklin recorded an album of jazz and pop standards that included “Laughing On the Outside (Crying on the Inside),” and she nailed it: “So darling, can’t we make up? Ever since our breakup, make-believe is all I do, /I’m laughing on the outside, crying on the inside, ‘Cause I’m still in love with you…”
“Cry Like a Rainstorm,” Bonnie Raitt, 1973
From her debut LP in 1971 onward, Raitt has enjoyed widespread critical praise for her skills as a slide guitarist as well as a fine interpreter of songs written by others. She has recorded definitive versions of songs by John Prine (“Angel From Montgomery”), James Taylor (“Rainy Day Man”), Karla Bonoff (“Home”) and especially Eric Kaz, a highly successful songwriter who wrote “Love Has No Pride” and this poignant song from Raitt’s third LP, “Takin’ My Time.” It was later recorded by Linda Ronstadt on her 1989 collaborative LP with Aaron Neville: “Sometimes I’m up, most times I’m down, /Where can I run to? Tell me how have I sinned, /When you cry like a rainstorm and you howl like the wind… So who shall I start with? Tell me how to begin /When you cry like a rainstorm and you howl like the wind…”
“You Don’t Have to Cry,” Crosby, Stills and Nash, 1969
When Graham Nash first met David Crosby and Stephen Stills in 1968, they were putting finishing touches on this song, the first they would ever sing together. “When I went for the high harmony and we heard the three voices for the first time, this is the song we were singing,” said Nash. “That’s why it’s so special to me.” Stills said he wrote it as a love letter to Judy Collins, with whom he’d recently broken up. She was struggling with alcoholism and other family issues, and Stills tried to ease her burden with songs like “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “You Don’t Have to Cry.” It’s one of CSN’s prettiest tracks, from their magnificent “Crosby, Stills and Nash” debut album: “And the difference between me and you, I won’t argue right or wrong but I have time to cry, my baby, /You don’t have to cry, I said cry, my baby, you don’t have to cry…”
“Judy’s Turn to Cry,” Lesley Gore, 1963
Lesley Gore was only 16 when her recording of the Wally Gold/Seymour Gottlieb teenage classic “It’s My Party” rocketed to #1 in June 1963. Gore and her producer Quincy Jones commissioned a sequel by Beverly Ross and Edna Lewis, “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” in which the tables were turned on boyfriend stealer Judy. Only weeks later, it reached #5 on the pop charts, and many radio stations played the two songs back to back as a sort of teenage opera. The way I see it, the two girls fought over a fickle boy who played fast and loose with their emotions and wasn’t worth their time, but the listening audience of 1963 certainly ate it up: “Well, it hurt me so to see them dance together, I felt like making a scene, /Then my tears just felt like rain drops, ’cause Judy’s smile was so mean, /But now it’s Judy’s turn to cry, Judy’s turn to cry, Judy’s turn to cry, ’cause Johnny’s come back to me…”
“When Doves Cry,” Prince, 1984
The soundtrack for “Purple Rain,” the rock musical drama based loosely on Prince’s life, was nearly complete when director Albert Magnoli asked him to write a song that would work well as an aural backdrop for a scene that depicted parental difficulties intermingled with a complicated romantic love affair. He came up with “When Doves Cry,” which featured a melody and arrangement dominated by drum machine and a sort of baroque synthesizer sound, and lyrics that provided just what the director requested. It reached #1 in 1984 as the leadoff single from Prince’s multi-platinum album. How interesting to equate the sound of a couple screaming at each other with doves crying: “Maybe I’m just like my father, too bold, /Maybe you’re just like my mother, she’s never satisfied, /Why do we scream at each other? /This is what it sounds like when doves cry…”
“To Cry You a Song,” Jethro Tull, 1970
Ian Anderson, Tull’s prolific composer, has penned numerous tracks through the years that examine romantic love from various viewpoints (“Wondering Aloud,” “Fire at Midnight,” “A Gift of Roses”). One of his best lyrics was paired with a hard rock arrangement on Tull’s third LP, “Benefit,” in 1970. When you’ve been traveling and are missing your lover, there’s a strong longing for the time when you will be back in her arms. Anderson describes the moments in the airport, on the plane, and in a cab leading up to that reunion when he will be crying tears of joy about it: “Searching my case, can’t find what they’re looking for, /Waving me through to cry you a song… I’ll jump in a taxi cab, driving through London town to cry you a song… The smile in your eyes was never so sweet before, /Came down from the skies to cry you a song…”
“Don’t Cry Baby,” Etta James, 1961
This classic blues tune dates back to 1929, when James Johnson and Saul Bernie co-wrote it for blues legend Bessie Smith, one of nearly 200 blues tracks she recorded during The Jazz Age. In the ’40s, bandleader Erskine Hawkins simplified the arrangement by removing an introductory verse and the second section of the chorus, which became the version most artists used from then on, most notably Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and the great Etta James, who broke into the Top 40 (#6 on the R&B chart) with her rendition in 1961. The lyrics tell the time-honored tale of a woman hoping her man will forgive her unkindness and resume their relationship: “You know I didn’t mean to ever treat you so mean, /C’mon, c’mon sweetheart, and let’s try it over again, /And oh, don’t cry, don’t cry baby, don’t cry, don’t cry, /Dry your eyes, and let’s be sweethearts again…”
There are numerous honorable mentions in the “crying” category, including songs with “tears” in the title. Any of these songs are worthy of inclusion on a “Songs about crying” playlist, and consequently, they’ve been included in my Spotify playlist below.
“Cryin’ Time,” Ray Charles, 1961; “The Sky is Crying,” Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1991; “Tears of a Clown,” Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, 1970; “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” Gerry and The Pacemakers, 1964; “Cry Baby,” Janis Joplin, 1970; “Tears in Heaven,” Eric Clapton, 1991; “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” The Four Seasons, 1962; “Cry If You Want,” The Who, 1982; “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Hank Williams, 1949; “Here Come Those Tears Again,” Jackson Browne, 1976; “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” Buddy Holly, 1959; “Tears,” Pure Prairie League, 1972; “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” Melissa Manchester, 1978; “Crying in the Night,” Stevie Nicks, 1973/1983; “Cry Tough,” Nils Lofgren, 1976; “Don’t Cry Blue,” Jonathan Edwards, 1971; “96 Tears,” ? and The Mysterians, 1966; “Fool to Cry,” The Rolling Stones, 1976; “Don’t Cry,” Asia, 1983; “Crying in the Rain,” The Everly Brothers, 1962; “Run From Tears,” Crosby, Stills and Nash, 1977; “Crying Through the Night,” Stevie Wonder, 1987; “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” Bob Dylan, 1965; “Crying in the Chapel,” Elvis Presley, 1965: “I’ll Cry Instead,” The Beatles, 1964; “Crying to the Sky,” Be Bop Deluxe, 1976; “The Tracks of My Tears,” Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, 1966; “Cry Like a Baby,” The Box Tops, 1967.