Read more from Slate’s Geezers Issue.
“Hope I die before I get old,” sang 21-year-old Roger Daltrey in 1965—and 43 years later, he’s still singing it. Rock ’n’ roll has always been invested in a Byronic cult of blazing youth and beautiful corpses. But as tyros have turned into reunion-tour warhorses, rockers have had to come to terms with the ironies—and the indignities and the glories—of old age.
Other musical genres got there long before. Aging, mortality, saintly old women, dirty old men—these are perennial themes in pop and blues and soul. And, of course, country. Nashville’s song factories have been churning out hits about the sunset years for decades. The No. 2 song on Billboard’s country chart this week is Brad Paisley’s “Waitin’ on a Woman,” a ballad about an overall-wearing coot who dispenses worldly wisdom from a bench in a shopping-mall food court.
Here, then, are 25 great songs about old people: honky-tonk ballads and Tin Pan Alley standards and French chanson and rumba and, yes, Jay-Z, who kicks off his ode to aging with grace with the AARP’s favorite euphemism, boasting about “the maturation of Jay-Zeezy.” There are paeans to beloved patriarchs, metaphysical musings on time’s passage, and lots of anxious songs about diminished potency. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the finest, most touching music here was recorded by actual senior citizens. Turns out, dying after you get old has some advantages. You know what the man said about vintage wine from fine old kegs …
Fats Waller, “Old Grand Dad” The greatest novelty-song singer of all time reflects on the hazards of sharing a house with a grumpy old man. “Who’s the one that I adore/ Though he beats me to the floor?/ Old grand dad/ My old grand dad.”
Bill Withers, “ Grandma’s Hands”
Bill Withers’ bluesy 1971 paean to Grandma bores in on the details: gnarled, arthritic hands that soothe, scold, point the way, and punctuate pearls of wisdom.
Gene Autry, “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” Be good to dear old dad while he’s still got his faculties. Soon he’ll be stuck away “in a vine-covered shack in the mountains/ Bravely fighting the battle of time.”
Will Oakland, “Silver Threads Among the Gold” Published in 1873, this parlor ballad waltz was one of the most popular songs of the late 19th century, a time when musical taste leaned hard toward the lachrymose. In this 1913 wax-cylinder recording, countertenor Will Oakland spares no warble in telling the tale of a love that outlasts the graying of hair and the sagging of flesh.
Jacques Brel, “ Les Vieux”
”Que l’on vive à Paris on vit tous en province quand on vit trop longtemps.” (“Though you live in Paris, you live in the provinces when you live too long.”) As an accordion wheezes behind him, the legendary Belgian chansonnier spits out a mordant song-poem about the golden years. It’s not a pretty picture: The old have voices that crack and apartments that smell of musty Bibles. They spend sunny days trudging through funeral processions for “an older man, an uglier woman.” And their beloved household pets? Long gone: “Le petit chat est mort.”
Elvis Costello, “ Veronica”
“When I’m 64” is not Paul McCartney’s best song about old age. McCartney co-wrote the music for Elvis Costello’s brilliant, touching 1989 quasi-hit about an elderly woman slipping into senility. Money lines: “All the time she laughs at those/ Who shout her name and steal her clothes.”
Pulp, “ Help the Aged”
A cautionary tale for the carefree young from Britpop’s foppish poet laureate, Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker: “Help the aged/ One time they were just like you/ Drinking, smoking cigs, and sniffing glue.”
Jay-Z, “ 30 Something”
“Thirty is the new 20,” crows Jay-Z, but he knows better: In hip-hop years, 30 is more like 75. But old age has its benefits: a handsome stock portfolio; “black cards, good credit and such”; and the wisdom not to trick out your car with spinner rims.
Toby Keith, “ As Good As I Once Was”
“I ain’t as good as I once was/ I’ve got a few years on me now,” sings amiable good ol’ boy Toby Keith. But when it’s time to throw down in a bar brawl or roll in the hay with blond twins, he can still rise to the occasion—with a little help from Viagra, as the video makes clear. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
LCD Soundsystem, “ Losing My Edge”
The aging hipster’s lament.
Kitty Wells, “ A Woman Half My Age”
“You say your love for me you’ve laid aside/ And she’s rekindled flames you thought had died.” Country’s first big female star braves her man’s midlife crisis with a stiff upper lip, promising, in the song’s most heartbreaking lines, to take him back once his affair has run its course: “Come back and we’ll tear out this tarnished page/ And we’ll forget that woman half my age.”
Steely Dan, “ Hey Nineteen”
As hot as it is having a girlfriend 30 years your junior, it’s kind of a buzz kill when she’s never heard of Aretha Franklin. “Hey nineteen/ No, we got nothing in common/ No, we can’t talk at all.”
Joe Tex, “Buying a Book” The raspy-voiced Southern soul hero delivers a homily on the perils of May-December romance. Listen and learn.
Tom Lehrer, “ When You Are Old and Gray”
“Your teeth will start to go, dear/ Your waist will start to spread/ In 20 years or so, dear/ I’ll wish that you were dead.” The evilest old-age song ever written. Maybe the best.
Willie Nelson, “ September Song”
On second thought: Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s dark, glorious “September Song” is pop’s definitive statement on aging. Here, Willie Nelson summons the full force of his taciturn ballad-singing genius, bearing down beautifully on the key line: “September, November …”
Frank Sinatra, “ The September of My Years”
No singer aged with more dignity than Frank Sinatra, who in the 1960s and ‘70s transformed himself from roguish boulevardier to Lion in Winter—with a little help from his favorite songwriters, Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn.
The Grateful Dead, “ Touch of Grey”
”I weeeeeel get by/ I weeeeel survive …”
Hoagy Carmichael, “ Rockin’ Chair”
Carmichael’s great 1932 ballad—sung here by the songwriter himself some 24 years later—makes curmudgeonly codgerdom sound like an idyll. “Old rockin’ chair’s got me/ Cane by my side/ Fetch me that gin, son/ ‘Fore I tan your hide.”
Nas, “ Can’t Forget About You”
Or, “Rockin’ Chair,” the rap version: “There comes a day in your life when you wanna kick back/ Straw hat on the porch when you old perhaps/ Wanna gather your thoughts, have a cold one/ Brag to your grandkids about how life is golden.”
Hazel Dickens, “Old and in the Way” Help the aged. “Just remember when you’re young/ That to you, the time will come/ When you’re old and only in the way.”
The Magnetic Fields, “When You’re Old and Lonely” Perpetual sad sack Stephin Merritt finds solace in time the avenger: “When you’re old and lonely/ You will wish you’d married me.”
Celia Cruz, “Yo Vivire(I Will Survive)” In 2003, the late queen of salsa overhauled Gloria Gaynor’s classic disco breakup anthem, turning it into an Ode on the Immortality of Celia Cruz. “My voice can fly,” Cruz sings, “Can overcome any hurt/ Any time/ Any loneliness.”
Johnny Cash, “ We’ll Meet Again”
The Man in Black turns the World War II-era anthem into a promise of reunion in the great beyond. The final track on Cash’s final album. Get out the hankie for Cash’s spoken-word verse that begins at the 1:32 mark.
The Zimmers, “ My Generation”
Brilliant novelty-song stunt or ugly oldsploitation pop? The answer is in the ear of the beholder. This 2007 cover of the Who classic by an army of London pensioners certainly struck a chord, cracking the top 30 on the U.K. charts and going viral on YouTube.
Jimmy Durante, “ Young at Heart”
Age ain’t nothing but a number.