Somewhere way back in my past, according to my mother and her sisters—at the age of four I could carry a tune. Wishful thinking, I surmise! I have no such memory of my singing ability back then. My only vocal attempts over the years have been listening to songs while driving along, walking outdoors with my headphones on, or being alone in the house. Whether I can carry a tune, hit the right notes or harmonize, is of no importance to me. I do it for the pure enjoyment.
My mother could not sing, but rather spoke the lyrics to a few songs; while my father, who took violin lessons as a young child, would often croon along with a tune coming from the wooden box in the corner of the living room.
We owned no record player for many years, so the radio was the conduit to the world. What I heard on the radio were the stations that played my parents’ music. Those songs of the1930s through the1950s, performed by both female and male vocalists, sung solo or in duets and groups; and penned for the Broadway stage productions by the best men and women songwriters in the business. There was a palpable sense of strong emotion that defined many of the lyrics and melodies of that bygone era—a softness in those vocal interpretations that comfortably blanketed their generation—and normalized what it meant to belong in “the family of man,” especially during difficult times. Now as an elder, I have truly come to appreciate and understand their reminiscences and how they took comfort in understanding the familiar, and their gravitational pull to hear what defined them as they came of age in America.
I listened to local radio AM stations broadcasting from New York City and Los Angeles, and later underground FM stations. It was those early listening experiences across those invisible airwaves—of DJs hyping the latest tunes—of hearing recording artists singing their own truths of love and joy, heartache and pain, sprinkled with the social and cultural uprisings all around, that captured the imagination and that began to inform and educate this adolescent. And of course, for those who had cars, with radios—which they all came with—well… cruising was the logical progression for taking our music on the road. It was probably only when we were all sound asleep that there was finally no music to be heard ( a reprieve for our parents)—until the clock radio awakened you in the morning with…MUSIC! Music became a comfort and a balm—and an aural manifesto, at times—more potent than any intoxicant I had tried up until that point, (although, that would come later).
So it was a steady progression: from the radio, to the restaurant and malt shop jukeboxes; to owning the vinyl; to eight tracks and cassette tapes and CDs; and back again to vinyl—and finally to other portable devices. Add in the many live concerts, scattered all along the way, and it was a culture saturated 24/7 with “solid walls of sound.” It has been a musical compendium for me that included, but was not limited too: folk, country, rock, Motown, the blues, R&B, (rhythm and blues), gospel, reggae, various forms of jazz and classical. And with the addition of my parents’ music—the circle remains unbroken.
I believe the sounds of notes and chords and harmonies and tempos, floating through the air may have made our lives, if not better, at least a little less stressful, (although I’m not sure that term was not even in the lexicon back then). Singing along, alone or with friends, was in many ways—the great three-minute escape, which many songs rarely exceeded back then. And if you obtained the LP—well…then it was about forty-five minutes…twenty-two minutes on each side—multiplied by the number of times you kept spinning and flipping the disc, until you memorized every line— hopefully, before it began to skip from the nicks of needle scratches.
Being an adolescent during the1960s was the perfect petri dish that mirrored the historical events that were transpiring across the nation. My generation’s music displayed strong emotions—it was truly a call and response—to what was being heard and seen daily through the media. Potent lyrics, some would call arrogant and offensive—that questioned authority and legitimacy—and spoke truth to power. Messages that were edgy and honest, pushing boundaries with a different creative sensibility, that often times reflected darkness and cynicism were de rigueur. Call it revolutionary or call it a renaissance—it was what was going on— what was happening! And it provided a temporary armor and identification of sorts that offered some spiritual protection from those dangerous, mean streets outside our front doors. If you were singing or humming one of those tunes—you were not alone.
Now, after so many years, I am still surprised by the realization of how those songs rippled through my mind and body back then—like tectonic plates shifting beneath and within me. How to this day, they linger like emotional aftershocks. What usually occurs for me when listening to those tunes is the recollection of memories: of feelings, both bitter and sweet; relationships and causes fought for and forgotten; remembrances of family and friends—some still alive, many more now gone from my life.
Aging and a little wisdom gained have given me the opportunity to revisit some of those familiar tunes. Once upon a time, I took in those songs through the open gates of youthful exuberance and innocence. Now, older—heavier doors slowly swing open—revealing the wisps of nostalgia, even melancholy, brought on by the weight of years and the different textures of life experiences. It is a patchwork quilt, torn, threadbare and stained many times… over time— but with so many colors—that amazingly still hangs together. It is now seen through a glass darkly. Still, there is a comfort in singing those songs from memory. It is the retelling of our personal narratives—of who and where we were at one time. It is good medicine, I think—a release of hormones. It is proof positive of a beating and compassionate heart lying within all of us, that needs no explanation or justification for the spectrum of emotions displayed around the recognition of a certain song’s opening notes or introduction.
The definition of a standard is: a level of quality or attainment. And often finely crafted tunes have been called, standards, for good reason… for they are held in such high regard that all other music is compared to and judged by them. My parents’ generation had their personal favorites, and my generation and succeeding ones will also have theirs as well.
Music has left a lasting imprint, an invisible tattoo—with each generation over the decades lived. We love music because it defines our times, and perhaps some of our values still. It challenges us to come to terms with what was and what is—the good times and the bad times. It can sometimes help us make sense of our relationships—to the world—to one another—even to ourselves. It is the benevolent lighthouse beacon casting out its holy light into a sea of darkness to guide us home—bidding us a reference point to seek shelter from the storm—to hunker down for a spell—if we’re lucky. I truly could not imagine my life without music. It is why so many of us, upon the millionth time listening to the same tune, refer to it as being part of the soundtrack of our lives—it is in our bones… in our blood.