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QueerQuote: “Seeking a Smile, Someone They Can Hold for a Little While…” – “Ballad Of The Sad Young Men”



Seen as insulting or maudlin by some, Ballad Of Sad Young Men is not exclusive to gay guys. A visit to any bar can tell you that. Yet, the song still reflects the ostracism and the loneliness felt by queers in the 1950s and 1960s, pre-Stonewall. For generations of LGBTQ people, especially those for whom walking into the sometime secret and darkened doorway of a gay bar was often the first step in their coming-out process. The bars have long held a significant place in our personal histories, and in the 1950s and 1960s they could be scary. You could be arrested just for being in one.

I visited my first gay bar when I was still in high school. It was the only gay bar in Spokane and it didn’t seem to have a name and was referred to simply as “The Bar”. I had fake I.D., but no one asked to see it. I went to stupidly try and find a guy who loved The Beatles, Andy Warhol and Ken Russell films and would want to have sex. I ended up with a Nixon-loving, anti-hippy Republican boy with red hair. We made out in the back. I found his politics repulsively erotic.

Ballad Of The Sad Yong Men paints a picture of the desperate search for love and companionship in the only place most gays could think of during that era: the darkness of a bar.

With lyrics are by Fran Landesman and music by Tommy Wolf, it was featured in the very odd beatnik Broadway musical The Nervous Set (1959), along with a perhaps more famous song, Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most: A wealthy publisher and his wife from suburban Connecticut suburb explore Greenwich Village, that was pretty much the plot. The show featured a young Larry Hagman and lasted 23 performances.

Wolf and Landesman via youTube

Most people don’t seem to know this song, but it is one of my favorites. Rod McKuen was the first to record it, but it has been covered by such disparate artists as: Jane Monheit, Boz Scaggs, Marc Almond & Antony Hegarty, David Sanborn, Kurt Elling, Steve Lawrence, Johnny Hartman, Mark Murphy, Rickie Lee Jones, Petula Clark, Mariam Makebam, Johnny Mathis, Shirley Bassey, and Roberta Flack.

Is the song about sad, young gay men? Many think so.

Here are the lyrics:

Sing a song of sad young men

Glasses full of rye

All the news is bad again

 Kiss your dreams goodbye


All the sad young men

Sitting in the bars

Knowing neon lights

And missing all the stars


All the sad young men

Drifting through the town

Drinking up the night

Trying not to drown


All the sad young men

Singing in the cold

Trying to forget

That they’re growing old


All the sad young men

Choking on their youth

Trying to be brave

Running from the truth


Autumn turns the leaves to gold

Slowly dies the heart

Sad young men are growing old

That’s the cruelest part


All the sad young men

Seek a certain smile

Someone they can hold

For a little while


Tired little girl

Does the best she can

Trying to be gay

For a sad young man


While the grimy moon

Watches from above

All the sad young men

Play at making love


Misbegotten moon

Shine for sad young men

Let your gentle light

Guide them home tonight

All the sad young men


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