Songs that look back on life

When they reach a certain age, singers often take up songs that reflect back on life. Some songs betray boastful arrogance and self-satisfaction, such as Frank Sinatra and My Way, while others convey a jaded, world-weary, disenchanted sensibility like Peggy Lee singing Is that all there is?. To my mind, one of the best such songs is by Charles Aznavour, who died last week at the age of 94.

Aznavour was a French singer, songwriter, and actor who wrote an incredible number of songs, numbering over 1,200. Here he is singing the English version of his song Yesterday, when I was young that he felt was more poetic than the French lyrics. It is of a person who looks back with regret at all the chances he squandered, the loves he let slip away, and the selfishness that he displayed in a life that he now sees as wasted.


  1. DonDueed says

    “Turn Around” is another notable song in this category.

    Then, of course, there’s “The Old Gray Mare”…

  2. sonofrojblake says

    You know that thing, when you look back on something you remember from your youth and realise it’s horrifying? The comedy that as a five year old you roared at but you now realise was massively racist in a way you weren’t equipped to see at the time?

    Or that beautiful, elegaic song about being a father, that you now realise has lyrics that can be effectively summed up as “rape culture makes life hard for us blokes, amirite?”.

  3. efogoto says

    “My Way” had words by Paul Anka for Sinatra set to an earlier tune. Then he wrote “You’re having My Baby” for himself. Frank got the better song.

  4. suttkus says

    I remember hearing Roy Clark sing this song, on Hee Haw, I think. I was a child, and I think it was the first song I heard that moved me on a level deeper than rhythm and melody. I remember just being staggered by the weight of it.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before by Hal David and Albert Hammond, performed by Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias. Creepy.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    ♪ We had joy, we had fun, we had Seasons in the Sun… ♫

    (A search for which reveals it came from Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel, with lyrics adapted by Rod McKuen.)

  7. Mano Singham says

    Pierce @#10,

    Always thought that song was about the untimely death of a young man, not one looking back on a long life.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    Pierce @10: I was going to link Brel’s song “Le Moribond” yesterday, but thought it not quite on topic. Closer than the McKuen version, though.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    The lyrics to SitS say so little about the narrator, one can project into it whatever one wants.

    The French version gets more specific (addressed to an individual, Émile, who will “take care of my woman”), but leaves age undefined.

    Tangential note: the US armies which invaded Mexico in 1846 -- comprised mostly of ad-hoc volunteers who refused such lowly duties as digging ditches and latrines -- suffered such a high mortality rate from infectious diseases that the local mockingbirds learned and began singing the standard military funeral music.

  10. John Morales says

    Me, I do like Seasons in the Sun, and see it as Pierce does.

    But then, nostalgia is not quite the same thing, is it?

    Another one: Those Were The Days.

    (“The memories of a man in his old age are the deeds of a man in his prime.” — Obscured by Clouds, Pink Floyd)

  11. Jenora Feuer says

    A little late to the party, I know…

    My first exposure to Charles Aznavour was actually from the Muppet Show.

    As for songs, how about “Years may come, years may go”? Which, admittedly, I first heard in the Irish Rovers cover.

    Years may come (Many years are still ahead)
    Years may go (Many years have passed)
    Some go fast (They belong to yesterday)
    Some go slow (Still the memories last)
    Some are good (Couldn’t stop the laughter flowing)
    Some are bad (Couldn’t stop the tears)
    For each one (Thank the Lord that we have been)
    Just be glad (Together through the years)

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