Tone Poems and Time Travel
I believe music enables travel through time and space. Thousands of songwriters, instrumentalists and composers routinely do what Einstein and Hawking and Fermi and Bill Nye and Mr. Wizard have failed to explain or achieve. John Denver takes me home, down country roads. Wagner takes me all the way to Valhalla or even better, back to my childhood, spent largely in the company of Warner Brothers cartoons (“kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit.”)
“Muskrat Love” takes me back to 1975, when Dad wished me a happy fifth birthday over the air during his late night radio show in Salinas, California. Artists whom I saw in concert have a particularly potent ability to transport. Lyle Lovett takes me back to Utah with my wife. X transports me to Berkeley with my friends Jim and Blaise. James Taylor, R.E.M., The Cure, Jeff Tweedy, Jack White, U2, New Order, Old 97’s, Rush, Steve Earle, Tim O’Brien, B.B. King, Chet Atkins, and countless others send me all over the Western United States, back across four and a half decades, to the places and the people I love most in the whole wide world.
My greatest time trip occurred in ’96 as I traveled from Portland back to my childhood hometown in Northern California for a wedding. I journeyed with my wife and our six-month old son, who has since grown to be an accomplished time traveler in his own right. I looked forward to seeing my big ‘ol family, from my seven younger brothers and sisters all the way up to my 96-year-old great-grandmother. It was an incredible reunion, one of my favorite times ever.
As the festivities at my parents’ house wound down, Grandpa, Dad and I passed the guitars around, playing and singing with each other. Grandpa’s sweet high-harmony singing made you forget that The Banks of the Ohio was really an old Appalachian murder ballad. We sung favorites that were almost-new to songs that were a hundred years old, with the rest of the family occasionally singing along.
Eventually our fingers tired from all the fretting and picking, and I offered to play a CD I had recently picked up. The album was Tone Poems, by Tony Rice and David Grisman, arguably the greatest living practitioners of bluegrass guitar and mandolin at the time. The album comprises 17 tracks of folk and bluegrass instrumental duets, all from different eras and played on instruments from the songs’ respective periods.
Two seconds after pressing ‘play,’ we heard a quaint, lilting melody being plucked on a 1905 Gibson mandolin, which was soon accompanied by an even older Martin guitar. The song unfolded, pure acoustic tone perfectly played by two geniuses. Grandpa’s face melted into pure joy, tears welling in his eyes as he softly sang along. His father, my great-grandfather Daddy Eric, had given him a Martin guitar back in the 40’s or 50’s, the same one Daddy Eric had played while his brother accompanied him on a Gibson mandolin. Grandpa hadn’t heard tone and playing like this in decades; we could almost hear Daddy Eric and his brothers playing and singing along with Grandpa as we travelled through time together.
Grandpa passed away a few years later, and Daddy Eric’s Martin now sits next to Grandma’s century-old banjo and autoharp in my music room. Each time I play a bluesy song or old-time tune on the cherished guitar, I feel—and can hear—Grandpa there, smiling and singing along. And once again, music bends time, space, and heaven as we sing together. What music transports you through time?