Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Power of Music

I had this dream about these angels
I had this dream the other night
it was really weird
they were playing guitars
and getting loud
and they spilt beer on Jesus
--Daniel Johnston, "I Save Cigarette Butts"

We are reading James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues"--a masterful short story, with multiple strong themes dealing with race, brothers, religion, loss, drug use, music, heritage, expression, repression, understanding, and communication (just to name a few)--in American Lit this week. Earlier this week, in connection with the story, I asked students to ponder the question, "What is the power of music?" Responses ranged from, "It keeps me awake when I am driving," to, "It mirrors emotions, or, "It expresses emotions (the artist's and the listener's)." The discussion was a pretty good one for a Monday.

Yesterday, enjoying a snow day after we were dumped on all day Tuesday, I sat in the living room warmed by a crackling fire and listening to the iPod on shuffle. What could be better? I'd just finished Cormac McCarthy's The Road (more on that in a later post), and I was feeling quite contemplative (a post-apocalyptic novel will do that), when Daniel Johnston's "I Save Cigarette Butts" came on. Recorded on a cassette recorder in his parent's basement in the early 80s, it is rough, stark, and awesome--just a songwriter, his song, and his piano. With lyrics that seem odd, but are truly kind of honest, powerful, and masterful in their own right, this stripped down piece of expression is followed by the strings, backing chorus, rousing crescendo, and other production values of Elvis Presley's live recording of "The Wonder of You." The pairing could not have been more perfect in revealing the true power of music to my ears.

I love Elvis. Hell, I put him on the iPod--he's not there by accident. "The Wonder of You" is a good song--not great, by any means, but a good 60s-style ballad--but snuggled up against Johnston's emotionally raw, frill-free gem, Elvis sounds schlockier than ever--crappy and stupid.

The power of music. It doesn't lie in what sounds good or clear. It doesn't lie in the packaging or the production. It doesn't lie in rhinestones, or leather, or denim, or hair. It lies in the fingers of the musician, the soul of the singer, the heart of the songwriter, and the ears of the listener. It stirs us. It lifts us. It brings tears to our eyes. Pain to our hearts. Smiles to our faces. Glimmers to our eyes. It moves us to feeling. It moves us to move. It tells us a story. It makes us think. It makes us mad. It makes us content. It makes us.

In Baldwin's story, one brother lives the power of music (sometimes to his detriment), while the other must come to understand it. Eventually (another of music's many abilities), it brings the two together. Without a doubt, the brother's are NOT listening to Elvis. More like Bird.


comoprozac said...

Ahhh, the wonders of an iPod. I'm really looking forward to Johnston in Omaha...may post about this later.

BTW-the word verification is "ruelz". Is some pre-teen texting me?

La Fashionista said...

Speaking of interesting musical juxtapositions, in the past months I've been drawn to "In A Big Country" and all kinds of jazz. Something about both of these speaks healing, triumph to and of the soul.



Jami said...

I am so envious of your snow day, fireplace experience Tony Reda! I would kill for a fireplace, all much as much as I would kill for a snow day. Tomorrow is looking sort of promising as we are under a Winter Storm Watch and they are predicting freezing rain/sleet/snow with measurable precipitation....all day!!!

I am doing the dance as I type. Looking forward to having our special boy in a couple of weeks. Joe's parents thought they were going to get him....NOT!!!! Tom will most likely go get both he and London whilst Joe is watching films and I am volunteering. He should have a pretty exciting couple of days.