Ancient Love Songs (4000 to 1500 B.C.E.)

In ancient times, all poetry was sung. The poet is pictured playing a lyre or other instrument. There was no separation of lyrics and melody as we now think of them. Unfortunately none of the melodies for these early love lyrics has survived but it’s easy to imagine a softly strummed harp and a husky voice singing the words that have come down to us.

Though they are thousands of years old, the earliest love songs sound so contemporary, so honest, so urgent, they might have been written yesterday. They are proof that human emotions have not changed. When we fall in love today, we feel what men and women felt in centuries past: desire, joy, disappointment, yearning, fulfillment.

So just how far back can we trace love songs? When Pharoah Rameses wanted to tell a beautiful, bronze-skinned Egyptian lady that he found her desirable, did he have a court musician sing something that sounded like “Love Me Tender”? In a way, he did. We have recovered 3500-year-old Egyptian love poems from pieces of papyrus and pottery fragments. They are filled with the language and sentiments we hear in today’s pop songs.

The oldest written record of love songs comes from an area around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers known as Sumeria. The cone-shaped cuneiform script of Sumer was pressed into clay tablets which have survived to this day, giving us a glimpse into the Top 40 songs – or, at any rate, the lyrics – of 4000 years ago. These poem/songs were written in praise of the Sumerian gods and goddesses, notably Inana, a Moon and fertility goddess, and Dumiz (or Tamuz), a god of crops and fields. But like the later Hebrew “Song Of Songs,” the religious context seems slight indeed. The songs speak to us of the very real emotions of young lovers, sensual pleasure, and romantic encounters.

In the lyrics for the song “My Honey Sweet” can be seen the very same type of repetition we use today in pop songs. A repeated line – which is called a “hook” in today’s music – is easy to remember and catches the listener’s attention.

Here’s a beautiful Egyptian love song written about 1500 BCE Early love songs commonly referred to the loved one as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’.

“Sick With Love”

Seven days since I saw my sister,
And I am sick inside.
My limbs are weak,
My body fails.
When the doctors come to me,
My heart refuses their remedies;
The magicians can do nothing,
My sickness is unknown.
But only say “She is here” and I revive.
The sound of her name would make me well;
The sight of her messenger coming,
That would heal my heart!
My sister is better than all their medicines,
She does more for me than all their potions;
She is my charm
For the sight of her makes me well.
When I see her eyes then my body is young,
When I hear her voice then I am strong,
Holding her close I feel no pain…
Seven days since she has gone.

“My Honey Sweet” (excerpt)
Sumeria, circa 2000 BCE

My dearest, my dearest, my dearest, my darling,
My darling, my honey of her mother,
My fruitful vine, my honey-sweet,
My honey-mouthed of her mother!

The gazing of your eyes is pleasant to me,
Come my beloved sister.
The speaking of your mouth is pleasant to me,
My honey-mouthed of her mother.
The kissing of your lips is pleasant to me,
Come my beloved sister.

My sister, the beer of your barley is good,
My honey-mouthed of her mother.
The ale of your beer-bread is good,
Come my beloved sister.

The Song Of Songs (1000 B.C.E.)

The “Song of Songs” or “Song Of Solomon,”which appears among the sacred works in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian “Old Testament”), was probably written about 3000 years ago and has been the subject of controversy for much of that time. Many have argued that it can’t simply be the ardent, sensual love song it appears to be; if it’s included in the holy scripture it must be about love of God. Possibly it works on both levels, much as today’s Christian rock and pop songs do. Many of these contemporary songs, especially the ones that become ‘crossover’ hits in the mainstream market, work on two levels: they can be heard as love songs between a woman and man or between the singer and God. They are simply addressed to an unspecified “you” and describe the joy of loving and being loved. In the “Song of Songs,” however, the physical delights of lovemaking are described in such detail it seems unlikely that it was intended as a tribute to the distant God of the Israelites. For what it’s worth, I think it’s just what it appears to be — a group of love songs expressing the joys of love and sex in a manner as frank as any contemporary song. If it were recorded today, this one would definitely require a ‘parental advisory’ sticker!

“Song Of Songs” (excerpt)

You have ravished my heart,
My sister, my spouse.
You have ravished my heart
With one look of your eyes,
With one link of your necklace.

How fair is your love,
My sister, my spouse!
How much better than wine is your love.
And the scent of your perfumes,
than all spices.

Your lips, O my spouse,
Drip as the honeycomb;
honey and milk are under your tongue;
And the fragrance of your garments
Is like the fragrance of Lebanon.

The Love Songs of Sappho (c. 630 B.C.E.)

Sappho is often considered the greatest love poet of ancient Greece. Her poems were written to both men and women but, unquestionably, her most famous and moving lines were addressed to a female lover. Her lyrics express physical desire and emotional yearning with an openness and immediacy that can still move us today.

Sappho’s writings have come down to us largely in fragmentary form — quoted in other manuscripts. But recently there was an amazing discovery — a papyrus manuscript that had been torn into strips and used to wrap a mummy was found to contain fragments of Sappho’s writings, adding immeasurably to our knowledge of her work.

“He Is More Than A Hero” – Sappho

He is more than a hero,
he is a god in my eyes —
the man who is allowed to sit beside you.
He who listens intimately
to the sweet murmur of your voice,
the enticing laughter that makes my own
heart beat fast.
If I meet you suddenly,
I can’t speak — my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under my skin.
Seeing nothing,
hearing only my own ears drumming,
I drip with sweat.
Trembling shakes my body
and I turn paler than dry grass.
At such times death is not far from me.

By the fourth century C.E., many Roman’s had ceased to take very seriously the pantheon of pagan gods. Nevertheless a good Roman poet could still pen a ditty in praise of his favorite love goddess:

“Vigil Of Venus” – Tiberianus,
Governor of Gaul c.325 C.E

The woodland’s silent smile
Where flowers raise their heads
And Venus bids you welcome
Loose your girdle, come to bed
Indulge yourself. Give in to love.

Roman Love Songs. (100 – 400 C.E.)

The ancient Romans were, to say the least, frank about sexuality. And, by and large, their attitude was “What’s love got to do with it?” Their erotic poems and songs would make Hugh Hefner blush! Sex in ancient Rome was something you just didn’t hide under a barrel. Consequently most Roman love songs are of the ‘love-the-one-you’re-with’ variety. Ovid, in his Amores writes with a lusty ebullience about long nights (and afternoons) of pleasure. Of course, jealousy could still cause a few problems for an overindulgent Roman; Ovid admits that when he fails to perform up to his usual standard, his mistress is quick to suspect another woman. Think of Roman love songs as the equivalent of our disco era. You can almost hear Rodius Stewartus singing, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

A handful of songs written by women troubadours have survived and they are among my favorites. The Countess of Die was in love with Raimbaut de Vacqueyras, one of the most famous troubadours of his day. It seems, however, that he did not recognize either her talent or her charms.

“I Must Sing” – The Countess of Die

I must sing, whether I will or no.
I feel so much pain over him
whose friend I am.
For I love him more than anything that is.
But Grace and Poetry
avail me not at all with him.
Nor my beauty, nor my virtues, nor my wit.
I am brought low and betrayed
as if I had no charms at all.

I know in my heart
I have never been false to you
My friend, or done you any wrong
I love you more than Seguin loved Valence
And I am a better lover.
My friend, though you excel all other men
You are arrogant towards me
in word and deed
Yet with another you behave so charmingly….

Whatever she may offer you,
whatever she may say
Remember the time when our love began.
God knows, I will always be true.

Love Songs Survive the Dark Ages

Throughout Europe’s Dark Ages and early Medieval period, the Church suppressed the writing and singing of love songs. Considered the devil’s handiwork, music was restricted to rhythmically- and tonally-limited religious chants. However, the tradition of romantic, sensual songs was kept alive in certain parts of the Islamic world, notably in Spain. Known since the ninth century as “Al Tarab” translated as “enchantment,” the music of Andalusia blended influences from many cultures including that of the Jews, pre-Islamic Spanish music, the rhythms of Berber soldiers, and the poetry of Arab immigrants. These mystic songs to the glory of God and Mohammed, His prophet, could easily be mistaken for profane love songs, and probably were by many. But here again, as in the “Song of Songs,” music that celebrates the carnal love of men and women was acceptable if it was interpreted as divine love.

The Troubadours Invent Modern Romance

It is during the era of the troubadours (circa 1000 C.E. to 1200 C.E.) that our modern love ballad is born. It has been suggested that the sensuous poetry and melodies developed in Spain during the previous 200 years made their way over the Pyranees and into Provence where they were picked up, molded, and adapted by the troubadours to express their own longing for the Unobtainable Other. Although in the Spanish songs, this ‘Other’ was the God of religion, the troubadours were having none of that. No longer would love songs cloak themselves in the guise of religion, at least not for a few short, shining years.

Although some of the troubadours have been justly accused of flattering women of high birth in order to advance their careers, there were others (including women troubadours) who wrote love songs of timeless beauty and honesty. Like many earlier poets, the troubadours used whatever melodies were at hand, freely lifting from each other as well as using tunes that had been passed down through generations. But their lyrics were unique, personal expressions of passionate love and desire. Unlike contemporary songwriters, the troubadours took an enormous risk in writing about romantic and physical attraction. In an age when the Church dominated all political and scientific thought, this was tantamount to heresy. Not only was the desired one not God, but the woman in question came dangerously close to being an object of worship herself, the ancient and powerful Goddess/Muse.

Although it may seem strange to link the troubadours of 12th century France with contemporary songwriters, Jaufre Rudel’s “L’Amour de Loin” (“Distant Love”) and Paul McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road” have much in common. The story of Layla and Majnun was related by the Persian poet Nizami in the 12th century and later became Eric Clapton’s inspiration for his pop hit, “Layla.”

Greensleeves – Henry VIII?

Alas my love, you do me wrong
To cast me off discourteously:
And I have loved you so long,
Delighting in your company.

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight:
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my Lady Greensleeves.

I have been ready at your command,
To grant whatever you would crave
I have wagered my life and land,
Your love and goodwill for to have.


Thou couldst desire no earthly thing,
But still thou hadst it most readily,
Thy music still to play and sing,
And yet thou wouldst not love me.


Greensleeves now farewell, adieu
God I pray to prosper thee,
For I am still thy lover true
Come once again and love me.

Greensleeves & Love Songs of the Renaissance

In the 15th through the early 17th centuries, music began to be printed and sold. Musical themes spread rapidly throughout Europe, particularly those developed by the troubadours of Provence in earlier centuries. With the coming of the Renaissance, the Church lost some of its power to control ideas. The notion of courtly love, so despised by the clergy, was celebrated once again. Of course it was hardly taken seriously, but its imagery was still powerful and it sounded good.

There is a long standing debate over whether England’s King Henry VIII (circa: ) did, in fact, write “Greensleeves,” one of the most celebrated, and certainly most frequently performed, love songs ever written. It’s doubtful whether we can ever know for sure. This much we do know: Henry VIII was well educated and thought of himself as quite the Renaissance man. He played several instruments including organ, harp, and virginals, so he certainly could have picked out the melody. We have a love letter written by him to Anne Boleyn which displays an eloquence (and impatience) that leads one to believe he could have written the song’s lyrics. Lines from this letter such as “struck by the dart of love” sound a bit trite, but it shows he probably knew a decent metaphor when he heard one. Most likely the tune already existed and Henry simply added his own lyrics since this was a perfectly acceptable practice in those days. Henry, no doubt thought of himself as a latter day troubadour wooing his lady love. But, as Anne was to find out, like some other troubadours of olde, Henry was a fickle lover and quickly moved on the next muse.

Punning sexual allusions and bawdy language were quite common in the love songs of this period. The Renaissance delighted in images of outdoor lovemaking and thinly disguised it by employing the metaphor of dancing as in Thomas Morley’s song, “Now Is the Month of Maying” (‘Barley-break’ is Renaissance-speak for ‘a roll in the hay’)

The Spring, clad all in gladness,
Doth laugh at Winter’s sadness, fa la,
And to the bagpipe’s sound
The nymphs tread out their ground, fa la.
Fie then, why sit we musing,
Youth’s sweet delight refusing, fa la.
Say, dainty nymphs, and speak,
Shall we play at barley-break? fa la.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, like other playwrights, sprinkled songs throughout his stage plays. We don’t have know the original melodies but, like Greensleeves, they were probably sung to well-known tunes of the day, whichever ones the actors happened to know. Although Shakespeare’s love sonnets are deeply moving, the love songs in his plays tend to be more for laughs. Slow ballads probably didn’t go over well with a rambunctious live audience just waiting for an excuse to throw rotten vegetables!

Fairs and religious festivals were among the very few occasions when young people could meet and spend time together. Therefore, they play a central role in several folk love ballads. “Scarborough Fair” is a love song that is also a riddle song as is another well known folk ballad, “I Gave My Love A Cherry.” Both songs are at least 400 years old.

“Scarborough Fair” – Anonymous

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Remember me to one who lives there,
For once she was a true love of mine.

Have her make me a cambric shirt,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Without a seam or fine needle work,
And then she’ll be a true love of mine.

Have her wash it in yonder dry well,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Where ne’er a drop of water e’er fell.
And then she’ll be a true love of mine.

Love Songs by Anonymous (1600’s)

The 1600’s gave birth of some of the most enduring English and Irish love ballads; these were folk songs, written anonymously, that told of unrequited or lost love. Their haunting melodies and evocative lyrics have ensured their continuous popularity over the centuries despite changing tastes in music. In my opinion, these are some of the most beautiful love songs ever written. You can hear echoes of them today in such hits as “My Heart Will Go On” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”

Songs from this period include “Scarborough Fair,” “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair,” “The Water Is Wide,” and “She Moved Through the Fair.” According to Ossian’s “Folksongs and Ballads” the melody of “She Moved Through the Fair” dates back to Medieval times but the lyrics, as we generally know them today, were probably written in the 1600’s. Along with “Greensleeves,” it is the earliest love song still widely sung today.

“Lavender’s Blue” is another folk song from this period that has had many incarnations. It is both a well-loved nursery rhyme and a contemporary love song recorded by Johnny Mathis. The original song was a broadside titled “The Kind Country Lovers” first printed in 1685. It had a number of bawdy verses and was probably part of a festival in which a king and queen were chosen from the village youth. This may be a remnant of an early pagan fertility rite, later dressed up as a Christian holiday. The simple logic of the lyric makes it memorable and fun to sing. It begins… Lavender’s blue, diddle diddle / Lavender’s green, / When I am king, diddle diddle/ You shall be queen.// Lavender’s green, diddle diddle / Lavender’s blue, / You must love me, diddle diddle / ‘Cause I love you.

Plaisir D’Amour
Jean-Paul Martini &
Jean Pierre Claris De Florian

The pleasure of love lasts only a moment
The sorrow of love lasts a lifetime

l gave up everything for my ungrateful Sylvia,
Now she leaves me for another lover.

The pleasure of love lasts only a moment
The sorrow of love lasts a lifetime

“As long as the water flows softly
toward the stream at the edge of the meadow,
I will love you,” Sylvia told me
The water still flows but she has changed.

The pleasure of love lasts only a moment
The sorrow of love lasts a lifetime

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime (1700’s)

As population centers grew, the 1700’s saw an increase in the public’s desire for entertainment and, by extension, songs that aimed to please. Taverns provided an opportunity for raucous, musical merriment. Tavern songs were often lewd, recounting the charms of loose women and the amorous adventures of well-endowed sailors and soldiers. But they could also be sentimental, cry-in-your-tankard songs of virtuous maids left behind at home.

During the same period, the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote love poems of enduring beauty, many of which were set to existing tunes. “My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose” was known widely at the time and is still sung today, as are “Sweet Afton” and “Green Grow The Rushes.” In Italy, delicate art songs such as “Nel Mio Cuore” (“In My Heart”) and “Si Tu M’ami” (“If You Love Me”) were written by well-known composers. Romance was on the rise although it would not reach its fullest expression until the Romantic Poets of the early 19th century.

But it is in France that one of the most beautiful love songs of the 18th century was penned: “Plaisir D’Amour.” The languid melody is a simple arc of sorrow while the lyrics echo the great ballads of the 1600’s with their bitter-sweet attachment to an unfaithful love. In fact, this plaintive lament sounds like a traditional folk ballad but it is not; the song was written in 1775 by Jean-Paul Martini and Jean Pierre Claris de Florian. Martini wrote the music and Florian the words so this may be one of the earliest known song collaborations in history. It quickly became the 1700’s equivalent of a Top Ten hit in France and it continues to be performed today by such artists as Andrea Bocelli (2002), Marianne Faithfull (1965), and Joan Baez (1961). The hit song “Can’t Help Falling in Love” sung by Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii is based on the melody of “Plaisir D’Amour” with new, english-language lyrics by George Weiss.

“Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair”
Stephen Foster (words and music)

I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,
Borne like a vapor on the summer air.
I see her tripping where the bright streams play,
Happy as the daisies that dance on her way.
Many were the wild notes her merry voice would pour,
Many were the blithe birds that warbled them o’er:
Oh! I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,
Floating, like a vapor on the soft summer air.

I long for Jeanie with the day dawn smile,
Radiant in gladness, warm winning guile;
I hear her melodies, like joys gone by,
Sighing round my heart o’er the fond hopes that die:
Sighing like the night wind and sobbing like the rain,
Wailing for the lost one that comes not again:
Oh! I long for Jeanie and my heart bows low,
Nevermore to find her where the bright waters flow.

The Rise of the Professional Songwriter (1800’s)

The 19th century saw the gradual rise of popular songwriting as a profession. Thomas Moore, a noted composer, satirist, and musician living in Dublin, writer of the evergreen classic “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms,” created a multi-volume work titled Irish Melodies containing 130 of his poems set to music by Moore and Sir John Stevenson. The work was a smash hit earning Moore five hundred pounds a year for more than 25 years, an enormous sum at the time.

Such a lucrative payoff did not go unnoticed. Gradually, throughout the 1800’s, we find the names of more and more popular songwriters – Henry Clay Work, Charles K. Harris, Hubert P. Main, G. W. Chadwick, and Henry Russell. We even have the names (and songs) of some African-American songwriters like Gussie L. Davis and Samuel Lover. No longer were the composers of art songs, opera, and leider the only ones getting credit for their work; popular love songs, schmaltzy and sentimental, were the order of the day. Music publishers vied for the right to print and sell sheet music. Usually the writers sold their songs to the publishers outright, sometimes they received a royalty though many music publishers did not pay up. Such was the case with Stephen Foster.

Stephen Collins Foster is considered to be the first professional songwriter in America and one of its greatest. He painstakingly wrote and rewrote his songs until he was satisfied, creating both original lyrics and melodies. Although he garnered wide recognition during his lifetime, due to a combination of personal problems and business deals gone bad, he died in poverty. Among his love songs are such classics as “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and “Wilt Thou Be Gone Love.”

This early Tin Pan Alley song is typical of the pathos that infused so many love songs of the time. Audiences ate it up!

You Tell Me Your Dream, I’ll Tell You Mine
Daniels/Rice/Brown (1908)

Two little children one morning,
After their breakfast was o’er,
Were laughing and playing together,
Alone on the dining room floor;
The girl of a dream had been talking,
But refused with a toss of her head,
To tell it all to her playmate,
Until he coaxingly said;

You had a dream,
Well, I had one too,
I know mine’s best
‘Cause it was of you.
Come sweetheart tell me,
Now is the time,
You tell me your dream,
I’ll tell you mine.

Tom said, I dreamed you had promised,
That someday we should be wed
Why that’s just exactly like my dream,
Mary then blushingly said;
Time they say brings many changes,
But their love no change ever knew,
So they were happily married,
The dream of their childhood came true.


Sadness has entered the household,
Where happiness once reigned supreme,
The sunshine of life now has vanished,
Grief has dispelled their bright dream;
For Mary his kind loving helpmate,
Had yesterday passed away,
And in sorrow Tom thinks of the morning,
When in childhood to her he did say,


The Gay Nineties & Tin Pan Alley (1890 to 1930)
Songwriters, and particularly American popular songwriters, came into their own during this period. It was an era of fun and innocent flirtation. Novelty love songs like “Come, Josephine, In My Flying Machine,” “Jeepers, Creepers!” and “A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight” were wildly popular. But so were melodramatic tear-jerkers like “You Tell Me Your Dream, I’ll Tell You Mine” and “After The Ball.” The latter, written by Charles K. Harris, sold over a million sheet music copies.

Vaudeville, touring revues, burlesque, and minstel shows created an insatiable demand for new songs and there was no shortage of music publishers anxious to fill it. The industry boomed. Publishers depended on big name stars to introduce their latest offerings to the public and thus create a demand for sheet music. The shows’ headliners, in turn, needed songs that could grab and hold an audience’s attention. Unfortunately tender, honest love ballads were not what they were looking for; a song had to entertain with a capital E! Nevertheless, amidst the bathos and novelty tunes, classics were created that can still move us today, great love songs such as “You Made Me Love You,” “Heart Of My Heart,” “My Wild Irish Rose,” “Somebody Loves Me,” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”

With so much demand and big money to be made in sheet music sales, music publishers quickly realized they needed a dependable flow of new songs. They began paying songwriters to turn ’em out. The publishers provided each songwriter (or team of songwriters) with a tiny office and a piano where they cranked out tunes by the dozens. Most music publishers were located within a few blocks of each other on Manhattan’s West 28th Street. Thanks to the racket made by all the pianos, it became known as Tin Pan Alley. Although many fine songwriters labored there in the first couple decades of the 20th century, in my opinion the Tin Pan Alley era was not a golden age of love songs.

There’s disagreement over just when Tin Pan Alley ceased to be a dominant force in songwriting. Some say it thrived well into the 1950’s when rock and roll finally did it in; others date its demise to the 1930’s and the rise of radio. The way I see it, the Victrola sealed its fate. Until the advent of the phonograph, music was circulated primarily in sheet music form, sold to folks who gathered round the piano of a Sunday afternoon and sang their favorite tunes. But with the rise of the Victrola, everything changed. As soon as people realized they could buy a recording of a song sung by their favorite crooner, well, who wanted to sit around the parlor piano listening to Sis mangle it! Sheet music sales fell and, at the same time, love songs were released from the shenanigans of the vaudeville stage. Listeners could enjoy a song in the quiet and privacy or their own home. The singer was singing just for them and the song became an intimate emotional experience.

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