I believe in the power of music to make the world a better place. Music can open the heart, lift the spirit, help us make sense of death and grief, or simply make a hard day
a little easier. It seems I’m always listening to music – as I write this I have John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme – or I’m whistling a tune or singing. I have to watch myself sometimes when out in public. The other day as a stranger passed me on the street I overheard him say to his cell phone, “ Well, I don’t know what’s going on.”, and I almost broke out into a full-voiced refrain of What’s Going On? by Marvin Gaye before I caught myself.
In high school I fell in love with soul and R&B. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing –driving the family’s ’62 Ford Falcon down Ravine Street in Munhall, PA — when I heard the news of Otis Redding’s untimely death. I was 18 years old and devastated that the beauty of his voice had been taken from us so prematurely. The song he recorded a few days before his death – Dock of the Bay – has always held a special poignancy for me because it was not released until after he was gone. In August of 1969 I hitchhiked down the west coast to San Francisco. My ride dropped me in Golden Gate Park just before sunrise and I sang “Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun, I’ll be here when the evening comes” as I watched dawn come to San Francisco Bay.
How many of us don’t have a favorite country, soul, or rock song from youth that helped get us over a love affair? Earlier today I was listening to the outtakes of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan from the Nashville Skyline sessions. There are a couple of tunes on there that would make my short list of greatest hits, including the two of them harmonizing on Cash’s Big River, a wonderful song that blends unrequited love and American geography into one seamless journey down the Mississippi.
My family didn’t have a car with a working radio until we got the ’62 Falcon in 1964. But we were never without music on our drives from PA to Ohio or Washington, for my dad loved to sing and had a wonderful smooth tenor voice, and would entertain my mother, brother, sister and I with the songs of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Louis Armstrong, to name a few.
My father died of heart failure in 1983 at the age of 70. Tragically, there are no recordings of him singing, but to this day whenever I feel lonely or blue I can conjure his voice as we cross the Allegheny Mountains, singing – was it Bing Crosby or Dean Martin? — “Those far away places with strange sounding names are calling, calling me.” and pull myself out of my blue mood. Thanks dad, for the music.
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