Music (The Revelator)
I once read an interview with Ashley Judd in which a reporter asked her how she felt about music. “Oh, music is the balm,” she said. Now I have to agree that truer words were never spoken.
In the days and weeks following September 11, I tried everything to get my mind off the attacks. Even when we tried to avoid the topic, it came up. I dreamed about the rubble, the suffering. I worried what my children were thinking of the whole situation.
So I tried to sit down and write. This has always been my great catharsis, my way of cleansing. But no words would come. I tried mind-numbing television viewing, but one can only take so many Lifetime movies before growing suicidal. I went for walks, played Candyland with my daughters, studied the moon, read books without having any comprehension of the last page I had just turned.
I even tried getting drunk. I was in Memphis and I was tired of living in a funk. Memphis is one of the best places in the world to get drunk, so we partied on Beale Street and ended up jumping in the Memphis fountains. That water felt like a momentary freedom. It was excusable to act so wild because the president had recently urged us to return the flags to full mast, to return to normalcy.
However, as soon as I awoke the next morning — hangover intact — the first thing I did was turn on CNN to check for news of the impending war. And the second thing I did was feel that awful shape of guilt settle on my shoulders, guilt for having tried to find fun again.
But finally — after much searching — I found my balm.
I turned on the stereo. I put a big stack of CDs on the floor, lay back and let the music do its thing. It’s easy to overlook the things that are most important, after all. If nothing else, I had learned that much on September 11. Since that day I now know that the important things are long walks, and playing Candyland with my children, and studying the moon. And the way music can move you.
When I was little, it always amazed me that my sister would go through a tumultuous breakup with her boyfriend of the week and come home only to put on tear-jerking songs. I could not understand why she was playing “Sad Eyes” by Robert John or “Please Don’t Go” by KC & the Sunshine Band only to sit there and shudder with weeping in front of her record player. But I finally figured it out this September. The reason she did that was because it helped.
Like my sister once had in her hour of need, I played some sad songs. I listened to Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever” and “If I Give My Soul”. Shaver was singing about the things that were really important. He realized them a long time before the wakeup call the whole nation experienced. Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott sang “More Love”, and I just had to shake my head in satisfaction and agreement. Julie Miller was saying everything just for me when she belted out “All My Tears”. Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band just about did me in with “Pilgrim”. But all of them helped me to grieve.
In those last long days of September, I didn’t only listen to sad songs, though. And sometimes when I felt tears welling up, it surprised me to find that they were tears of joy or pride. Music has a way of doing that, although we don’t admit it very much. We don’t give music enough credit for the way it can shape and mold us. For the way it can help us.
I listened to everything. I found myself tapping my foot along to Ryan Adams singing “New York New York”. One line in there filled me up with that stubborn American pride again: “Hell, I still love you New York.” I put on Gillian Welch’s new album and was filled with patriotism by a song that won’t be played at any candlelight vigils: “I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll” sounded like an anthem to me. It sounded like a woman singing about wanting to feel passion again, to feel that something was important enough to sing about. That’s the way I wanted to be.
I sung along with Gillian as loud as I could, and it seemed we were both fired by a revolution, that we were ready to face anything, as long as we kept our passion in check. It reminded me of another great quote I read a long time ago. Novelist Bobbie Ann Mason once wrote about the music of the Vietnam era and said this: “Music like that could have won the war all by itself.”
Of course, I also played some things you might expect. You can’t ask for a better song of strength and determination than Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”. John Lennon’s “Imagine” can make you yearn to make the world a better place. “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” by Don Williams is a prayer that anyone can relate to, no matter their religion (or lack thereof).
And I played “Sweet Old World” by Lucinda Williams. Although I had always considered that song the best ballad of all time, it spoke to me now in a way that it never had before. In a time when Americans were realizing just how much we had taken for granted in day-to-day life, here was a song that was listing everything that was worthwhile: “someone calling your name,” “dancing with no shoes,” and “the touch of fingertips.”
In fact, all of these songs seemed to say things they hadn’t before. They seemed to be saying all the right things. Music can do that. It can shape itself to the situation, can speak to the listener in their time of need. It can make you want to get up and dance or break down crying or join along to sing for joy. And in doing all of those things, it made me feel better. Just like in that old song “The Balm Of Gilead”, music was the balm to heal my soul. Music did its job. What a power that is. What an awesome power, right there in our record collections.