The Friday Song: Davy Graham, ‘The Ballad of the Sad Young Men’

I first heard ‘The Ballad of the Sad Young Men’ in the mid-1960s, sung by Davy Graham on his astonishing second album Folk, Blues and Beyond, and it has stayed with me ever since.

I’ve always loved its opening lines, ‘Sing a song of sad young men/ Glasses full of rye/ All the news is bad again/ Kiss your dreams goodbye.’ (Those last two lines have been particularly resonant in recent weeks and months).

The lyrics for the song were written by Fran Landesman, with music by Tommy Wolf, for their 1959 off-Broadway musical The Nervous Set. The story was set in the world of the Beat Generation, of which Fran Landesman was a part, courted by Kerouac and serenaded by Allen Ginsberg. Not many of those hip cats, it seems to me, wrote songs or stories about the subtle sadness of middle age.

Like all great songs, ‘The Ballad of the Sad Young Men’ paints a picture  – a guy, alone in a bar, ‘drinking up the night and trying not to drown, realising that his life is on the turn and the party has moved on.

‘All the sad young men, choking on their youth
Trying to be brave, running from the truth.’

Fran Landesman, who moved to London with her husband Jay in the mid-1960s, came from a wildly bohemian literary background. The Nervous Set started out as a novel and two of her greatest songs were said to have been inspired by literature. ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’, covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Barbra Streisand, was a jazz version of TS Eliot’s line from The Wasteland, ‘April is the cruellest month’ while ‘The Ballad of the Sad Young Men’ can only have been sent on its way by the name of  Scott Fitzgerald’s third collection of short stories All the Sad Young Men.

The song has a timeless, melancholy quality, captured not only in the lyrics but in Wolf’s tender melody, and down the years,  a huge number of wildly varying covers have been released. Roberta Flack had a hit with it, Rickie Lee Jones, Petula Clark, Boz Scaggs, Shirley Bassey and many other have had a go. Most, it seems to me, take the edge off the song by making too smooth, too late-night-jazz, too damned comfortable.

Davy Graham’s version is probably one of the least musically perfect ( there’s a special place in hell for a Marc Almond effort) but captures the bitter, awkward sadness of the song better than any other.

Folk, Blues and Beyond,  has remained one of my most treasured LPs and,  according to its Wikipedia entry, is now regarded as ‘a defining record of the 20th century’. That’s pushing it a bit, but Davy Graham was certainly the guitarist who helped change the direction of folk in the 1960s, bringing in influences from jazz to world music (of which he was a pioneer), inventing the DADGAD tuning beloved of folk musicians since then, writing the ultimate finger-picker’s instrumental  ‘Anji’,  and influencing musicians from John Renbourn (who wrote this little essay about him) to Jimmy Page  and Paul Simon. According to the 1999 Channel Four documentary Blame It On My Youth, now available on YouTube,  Paul Simon once once asked Davy Graham and Bert Jansch to replace for Art Garfunkel while he was away making a film, a mind-boggling idea).

In the documentary, Davy Graham says, ‘It’s no good being the centre of attention without knowing how to handle it’, and he spoke from experience.  He lived a  restless, beatnik, wandering life, was addicted to heroin at one point, and eventually seems to have become more interested in languages (he spoke Gaelic, French, Greek, Turkish) than playing the guitar. Even his first name has a bit of a wobble to it –  sometimes he’s Davy, sometimes Davey. In spite of a revival of interest towards the end of his life (he died in 2008), he has never received the recognition he deserves.

His music is a living rebuke to folkie purists (of which there are many today) who believe that folk should be uncontaminated by songs that are not ‘in the tradition’. As the title and playlist of Folk, Blues and Beyond shows, Davy Graham took good music from wherever he found it. Not many albums cover Cyril Tawney, a Broadway show, Blind Willie Johnson, a tune from Tangiers and Charlie Mingus.

Davy Graham’s version of Fran Landesman’s song is  a shortened version – a shame since the original lyrics broaden out the song to a wonderfully melancholic conclusion:

Tired little girl, does the best she can
Trying to be gay, for a sad young man

While a grimy moon, watches from above
All the sad young men, who play at making love.

Misbegotten moon. shine for sad young men.
Let your gentle light guide them home again
All the sad, sad, sad, young men.

What a great song: a dash of Fitzgerald, a taste of the Beat Generation, a hint of Broadway, all served up by one of the great folk-jazz guitarists of the past half century.

It will last as long as that misbegotten moon keeps shining.