Songwriting and Grief: Creative Unifying Principles

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I was thinking this week about Sting’s creative process when writing both Nothing Like The Sun and The Soul Cages. It is well documented how Nothing Like the Sun was written during a time when Sting’s mother died from cancer, while The Soul Cages is dedicated to the memory of his father – who also suffered and died from the disease in same year – 1987. This prompted me to consider other artists that have undergone a similar process to see if there any any unifying characterisics. After asking some popular music colleagues for recommendations – here are a few songs/albums that cover this territory.


  • ‘My Mummy’s Dead’ by John Lennon on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.Lennon also wrote another song on the album dedicated to his mother – ‘Mother’, in addition to the earlier ‘Julia’ (The Beatles, 1968).
  • ‘Tears in Heaven’ by Eric Clapton: Concerns (death of his child)
  • ‘The Living Years’ by Mike and the Mechanics (death of a father)
  • ‘Ocean Spray’ by The Manic Street Preachers (death of a mother)
  • Bono has also written a few songs related to his mother – ‘Tomorrow’ from October, ‘Mofo’ from Pop and, most recently, ‘Iris (Hold Me Close)’ from Songs of Innocence.


  • Magic and Loss by Lou Reed
  • Sufjan Stevens’ latest release Carrie & Lowell (2015 – death of a mother)
  • Eels Electro Chock Blues
  • ‘Never Went To Church’ by The Streets

Other songs mentioned include Pink Floyd’s  ‘Wish You Were Here’  and ‘Shine on You, Crazy Diamond’, James Taylor’s ‘Fire and Rain’, Sinead O’Connor’s ‘I Am Stretched on Your Grave’, in addition to the many songs about the death of Hank Williams and all the gospel and country songs about the death of JFK (for example ‘Sunny’ by Bobby Hebb), the soul and gospel songs about the death of Martin Luther King (For example ‘Happy Birthday’ by Stevie Wonder), and the whole genre of “coffin songs” related to teenage car driving/biking casualties, between the end of the 1950s and the mid-1960s (for example ‘Teen Angel’, ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’, ‘Leader of the Pack’). There were also a few songs directly related to the subject of aids – including ‘Halloween Parade’ by Lou Reed, Madonna’s ‘In This Life’ and of course Elton John’s rewrite of ‘Candle In The Wind’ – which is related to  Princess Diana – although it was proposed that the original was missing emotive grief.

Indeed this brings me back to to original impetus for the post – Sting’s music. IASPM colleagues also informed me of a number of instances of song’s that were not intended to be associated with grief – but ended up being so. The first example I  can think of with Sting is the song ‘Fragile’ – which of course is not inextricably linked to the 9/11 Twin Towers disaster – although this was not its original intension.

Although I am only focusing on the ‘English Language’ songs – there is a whole other area of non EL songs, which I have not covered in this post – so I appologise for not having the time to cover this. I would be interested in any additional thoughts anyone has regarding the creative process of songwriting and grief. How does it impact the creative process? Are there any unifying traits anyone has noticed?

To  finish, here are a couple of interesting web posts – one in The Guardian here, and another on ‘disaster songs here.

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
This entry was posted in Musicology, songwriting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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