A torch song is a sentimental love song, typically one in which the singer laments an unrequited or lost love, either where one party is oblivious to the existence of the other, where one party has moved on, or where a romantic affair has affected the relationship. Love songs have been around for centuries and likely grew out of the courtly love songs of troubadour during the Middle Ages. The torch song had its genesis much later but is certainly as enduring.
The association of a torch with love is thought to have originated in Greek mythology and Hymenaios, the Greek god of marriage. In antiquity the groom took the wedding torch made of hawthorn twigs, from the fire of his bride’s former home to the hearth of her new matrimonial home. The lit torch was thought to symbolized the newly-formed connection between the two households. The term, "to carry a torch for someone", or to keep aflame the light of an unrequited love is thought to have originated from this old Greek and Roman custom.
In the High Middle Ages (1100-1350), songs of unrequited love became a universal theme and traveling professional jongleurs or ménestrels sang of the high-minded ideals of true romance , extolling the ennobling effects of the lover’s’ selfless devotion in courtly love. The Troubadour’s songs promoted a love yearned for, and at times rewarded by, the solace of every delight of the beloved except physical possession by sexual union. The relationship was always illicit i.e. the woman was usually older, the spouse of another, often a lord or patron, and consummation was not possible. Troubadours were the forefathers of the popular singer and developed many genres including the sad song. Ballads derived from the medieval chanson balladée or ballade. These were originally "danced songs,'' or "ballares" (L: ballare, to dance), with lyrics that told a story in 13 lines with an ABABBCBC form. Traditionally sad songs were performed whilst dancing. These were usually a cross between the Desdansa which was a dance designed for sad occasions; and the Planh or lament on the death of someone important. A song of courtly love (chanson courtoise), was usually written by a man to his noble lover.
The Romantic sad song or ballad were impersonal stories with vivid dialogue and became extremely popular by the 15th century. A usual formula was to recount a dramatic story with brief reference to things that had gone before and little attention devoted to depth of character, setting, or moral commentary.
Ballads, in their many forms became popular across the Western World. In France, the chanson réaliste (realist song), became popular from the 1880s until the end of World War II. Born of the cafés-concerts and cabarets of the Montmartre district of Paris it was influenced by literary realism and the naturalist movements in literature and theatre. It was a musical style mainly performed by women and dealt with the lives of Paris's poor and working class. Among the better-known performers of the genre are Marie-Louise Damien (Damia), Fréhel, and Édith Piaf.
In the US, sentimental ballads were called “drawing-room ballads" and enjoyed popularity among the middle classes. They reached their zenith in the late nineteenth century during the early era of ‘Tin Pan Alley.’ These songs generally had sentimental narratives told in strophic form. Stephen Foster is considered the "father of American music," wrote "Gentle Annie" which is a lament by a young man for his departed sweetheart. His better known “Beautiful dreamer” finds the singer begging his departed lover (beautiful dreamer) to awake because 'Then wills all clouds of sorrow depart'.
Dubbed "tear-jerkers" the songs were generally sentimental, narrative, and verse-repeating or in chorus form and generally melodic enough to get the listener's attention. They were first recorded on wax cylinders (predating vinyl) at the end of the 19th century. Wax cylinders proved particularly popular with arcade and tavern proprietors who snapped them up to play in their nickel-in-the-slot machines (early juke boxes).
According to Gioia the phrase "torch song" had its origins in the nightclubs of Broadway in the 20s, when patrons requested sad love ballads. The lyrics of a Torch Song refer to the one who got away, and now the singer is left alone, picking up the pieces. One of the most popular of these early torch songs was "My Melancholy Baby" written by Ernie Burnett, the lyrics by George A. Norton and published in 1912. William Frawley (1887 – 1966) performed the song for the first time, in the Mozart Cafe in Denver, Colorado.
A singer specializing in chansons is known as a "chanteur" (male) or "chanteuse" (female) Many of the standard Torch songs started as show songs which transferred well to the intimacy of New York and Chicago night clubs and illegal Speakeasies of the Prohibition period (1920 – 1933). Once a chanteuse's repertoire consisted predominantly from that genre, she became a Torch Singer. Belle Baker (1893 - 1957), became known for her Yiddish themed torch songs. Sophie Tucker wrote "My Yiddishe Mama" as a blatant tearjerker, and it became Baker’s signature song. Fanny Brice (1891 – 1951) was a famous stage actress and comediam who had an impressive repetoire of torch songs. But is was the Jazz and Blues genres which truly engulfed embraced music and lyrics of lamented and unrequited love with Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959) a major attraction.
Gertrude Niesen (1911-1975) was a popular torch singer/songwriter, actress, and comedian, in the 1930s and 1940s. She was the first person to record "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes", written by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach in in1933. Jazz singer Annette Hanshaw (1901 –1985) was known as the ‘personality girl,’ and sang under many pseudonyms, she sold over four million of her records during the years of the Great Depression and in 1934 was voted the best female popular singer by listeners to Radioland Magazine. (Bing Crosby was voted the best male popular singer). She vied with fellow torch singer and actress, Ruth Etting and both recorded the classic, ‘Body and Soul.’ In 1939, German chanson singer/sonwriter recorded ‘Lili Marleen. ’ ("The Girl under the Lantern"). and it quickly became immensely popular with German soldiers at the front. After many Allied soldiers made a point of listening to the song at the end of the day, it was later recorded in English by Marlene Dietrich.
Sad ballads enjoyed a renaissance after the Second World War and the introduction of the crooner brought more male singers to the fore. Home entertainment in the form or radio saw a massive rise in record sales. Singer/composer, Hoagy Carmichael ( 1899 –1981 ) enjoyed enormous success with Skylark in 1941. "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" was written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer for the movie musical The Sky's the Limit (1943). It was first performed by Fred Astaire, but popularised by Frank Sinatra. who recorded the song several times during his career. ‘My funny valentine’ was another show song which became a standard torch song covered by many artists including Frank Sinatra, Big Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald. In 1945, the version by Hal McIntyre & His Orchestra with vocalist Ruth Gaylor, hit the charts.
By the fifties, hi fidelity home stereos meant enthusiasts could enjoy better quality recordings and torch songs continued to be a popular genre. In 1953, Arthur Hamilton wrote "Cry Me a River" which gave Julie London a hit two years later after it featured in the film,The Girl Can't Help It . Julie Garland had an enormous hit with "The Man that Got Away" from the movie A Star Is Born (1954). Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel wrote and sang "Ne me quitte pas" ("Don't leave me") which firmly established him as champion of "chanson française," and the tear jerking classic was covered by many French artists as well as being translated into and performed in many other languages.
The bludgeoning teenage market of the 50s and 60s saw the sad song temporarily metamorphose into the teenage tragedy song (also known as a splatter platter). This was a style of ballad sung either from the viewpoint of the dead person's sweetheart, or sometimes from the viewpoint of the dead (or dying) person. The first major commercial success came from one time mortician’s assistant, Jody Reynolds with "Endless Sleep, " in 1958. The rockabilly ballad tells of a girl drowning in the water, however, at the insistence of the record company the ending was changed and the girl was saved at the last minute by her brave boyfriend. There were many examples from the 60s which enjoyed high positions on the hit parade from Ray Peterson’s ‘Tell Laura I love her,’ (1960); Johnny Preston‘s ‘Running Bear’ (1960) ; to perhaps the best known death record of the 60s, “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las. This was a massive worldwide hit in 1964 despite being banned from many radio stations. The subject matter was young love, parental disapproval and death by motorbike. In spite of the violence of the late sixties and early seventies, there was remarkably few sad songs recorded with direct reference to the Vietnam War or Race Riots in the US. Perhaps the grief was too much to bare or it was not commercially or politically viable to wallow in pity.
Torch Songs continued to engage public interest but took on a more pop feel appropriate to the tastes of younger lovers. In 1962, "Rhythm of the Rain" was a hit for The Cascades, and rose to number three on the US pop charts and number one on the US Easy Listening chart. The lyrics are sung by a man who wishes the rain would stop falling and reminding him of the error of his ways, and to let him cry alone, as his lover had left him. "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" was written by Jimmy Webb and originally recorded by Johnny Rivers in 1965. No less a personage than Frank Sinatra considered thus song to be the greatest torch song ever written. Glen Campbell’s version in 1967, was a major hit and the Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) named it the third most performed song from 1940 to 1990. The Beatles released ‘Yesterday’ in 1965, written by Paul McCartney (and credited to Lennon–McCartney), he recorded it without the rest of the Beatles. The singer laments for yesterday when he and his love were together, before she left because of something he said. What gave added interest and irony at the tine, was many fans feared this was the end of the Fab Four. In 2000, it was voted the No. 1 pop song of all time by MTV and Rolling Stone magazine. A measure of its resounding popularity is, ‘Yesterday’ has been covered more than 2,200 times.
In the era of the disco, new torch songs were less evident as love songs and death songs took precedence. Less female artists enjoyed chart success during the decade with torch songs as the genre was dominated by male groups. One notable exception was Dolly Parton’s "I Will Always Love You" which was written and recorded in 1973 and reached No# 1 in the Billboard Hot Country Songs a year later. The version recorded by Whitney Houston,for the film The Bodyguard (1992) is now considered the definitive version and holds the record for being the best-selling single by a woman in music history.
10cc, had a massive hit with "I'm Not in Love, " written by Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman and topped the charts in 1975. After Paul McCartney was heavily criticised for writing only lightweight love songs, he responded with a massive hit in 1976 entitled, "Silly Love Songs", penned by himself and Linda McCartney and performed by Wings. In the same year, Chicago had an enormous worldwide hit with their ballad , "If You Leave Me Now" written and sung by bass guitar player Peter Cetera.
The Killing of Georgie (Part 1 & 2) by Rod Stewart was a hit in 1976/77 and told the true-life story of a gay acquaintance of Rod Stewart called Georgie, who was killed in New York City by a New Jersey gang. The song peaked at #2 in the UK singles chart in September 1976, and at #30 in the US in July 1977.
In the second half of the 20th century, performers of torch songs generally moved away from cabaret settings and show tunes. Still caught in movies, most people listen to bleak tales of love, passion, betrayal and hurt through the medium of recorded music. Crooners have been replaced by popular singers such as Gene Pitney, Scott Walker, John Martyn, Leonard Cohen, and Nick Cave.
Chanteuse, like Dusty Springfield, Cher, Nina Simone, Sade, Amy Winehouse, Adele and many, many others have carried the ladies of torch from the 20th century into the 21st century.
de Rougemont D (Translated from the French by Montgomery Belgion) (1983) Love in the Western World" Princeton University Press
Gioia T (2015) Love Songs: The Hidden History Oxford University Press,
Marc Almond's Torch Song Trilogy
The Art of the Torch Singer blog