If you have ever heard a song about a lover scorned, perhaps you feel as though you’ve heard them all. The lines reliably refer to the one who got away, and now the singer is left alone, picking up the pieces. What you might not know is that these songs—particularly ones with a jazz sensibility—are known as “torch songs.” From Etta James to Adele, these songs are most often crooned by female artists, and are most likely to be listened to on repeat after a bad breakup.
Unrequited love is a universal theme, so it makes sense that it would have its own anthem, or musical calling card. The phrase torch song comes from the idiom “to carry a torch” for someone, the idea being that the flame of one’s love still burns long after their intended’s has extinguished. But where did the phrase "carry the torch" come from?
In his book Love Songs: The Hidden History, music historian Ted Gioia links the term to a 1927 Vanity Fair piece, which cites Walter Winchell as its source. According to the piece, the phrase "torch song" was used in "Broadway late places" by patrons requesting sad love ballads. Gioia notes that Winchell took pains to explain to readers that “When a fellow 'carries the torch' it doesn't imply that he is 'lit up' or drunk, but girl-less. His steady has quit him for another or he is lonesome for her.”
This, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was the first instance where the phrase "carry the torch" is used in regards to love. But, Gioia writes, "others, perhaps more erudite or merely imaginative, have tried to link the phrase back to the torches carried by ancient Greek revelers at the wedding processions."
While it’s endearing to imagine that in the olden days people kept literal torches burning for their past loves, fanning the flames of their rejection, this isn’t exactly the case. Because torches have played significant roles in wedding traditions dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, their potential (if uncertain) connection to the term is worth exploring.
On the big night of holy matrimony, a torch made of hawthorn twigs, known as spina alba, would be lit in the fire of the bride’s former home to light the fire in the hearth of her new home. Accounts vary as to who would actually hold said torch: One claims the bride’s mother would, another the bride herself, and yet another says that three young boys would accompany the bride from her home to the groom’s, two holding her hands and the third leading the way, carrying the torch himself.
The torch is said to have symbolized the newly-formed connection between the two households. Well-wishers would cheer for the happy couple, and similar to today’s bouquet-throwing tradition, the bride is said to have flung the torch into the crowd. Ironically, despite the danger of throwing a lit flame into a crowd of people, catching the torch was said to grant its new possessor a long life. This ritual is thought to have been connected to Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth, home, and family. Another possibility is that it was intended to represent Ceres, who searched for her daughter Proserpina (better known by the Greek name Persephone) by torchlight after her abduction by Pluto. The torch symbol is also represented in works of art depicting Hymen, the Greek god of marriage ceremonies; according to certain accounts, the gods also held torches.
Many years later, when one of the many Roman gods of death called for the bride, she would be escorted to her tomb the same way she was escorted to her groom’s home—by torchlight. Of course, this probably didn’t do much to quell those who fear commitment’s equivocation of marriage with death.
Aside from its ceremonial trappings, the torch also had obvious practical uses. Take Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, for example. According to legend, Diogenes spent much time wandering the countryside in broad daylight, torch or lamp in hand, in search of an honest man—which speaks to the hopelessness and despair many torch singers convey through their powerful ballads. But it is also thought that “carrying a torch” simply refers to the utility a torch offers when looking for a lost loved one.
Given that the lighting of the hearth in a Roman couple’s home was symbolic of the beginning of a new life, it makes sense that those scorned would be left to carry their torch, it never reaching its intended final destination. But those who are lucky enough to be heartbroken and talented can channel these feelings into powerful music: The kind you either cry to or sing at karaoke (or, perhaps, both).