Where Does the Music Take You?

By Larry Sherber

This presentation was delivered to the congregation of Mountain Light UUC on 2006 April 26.

This morning I'd like to share with you some of my personal thoughts about music and some of my musical experiences, including a lively discourse on how music has influenced myself, our culture, and our country. When my presentation is mercifully over, we can converse about the importance of music in your lives.

I have a confession to make: I'm hooked, an addict, a junkie. My drug of choice – music, all kinds. From classical to hard rock, from country to oldies, from folk to bluegrass, jazz to blues, from instrumentals to ballads; I love it all! Any of my friends and family will tell you I'm prone to exaggeration. But I literally know thousands of songs and many of their lyrics. Why is it that I can't remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but I can recall the words from a song published 60 years ago. Now I'm almost certain my habit is not genetic. One of my early thoughts about music takes me back to my birthplace, Cleveland, Ohio – home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – a must visit for those of you, like me, that have rock music coursing through your veins. I was having a conversation with my father, a man with absolutely no appreciation for the art of music whatsoever. He assured me that that new British group, the Beatles, had no talent and would never last. I'm just thankful he was a carpet salesman and not a music critic or I never would have had any money to buy records.

Music is amazing – it can do beautiful, magical, and even practical things for us. Aside from the obvious entertainment aspect, it can instantly transport us to both real and imaginary places. Julie Andrews took us to the top of a mountain in Austria when she sang "the hills are alive with the sound of music," which I still foolishly sing off key at the top of my lungs when viewing a particularly beautiful north Georgia scene. "If this old world starts getting you down" just go "up on the roof" with The Drifters and "all your cares will drift right into space" – cheaper than counseling and medication! Out of skymiles and need to escape? Let Judy Garland take you "somewhere over the rainbow", although my Zen Buddhist friends will tell you that staying in the here and now is better for your non-egoic Self.

Music can make us laugh or even cry. Recently I heard 2 Jewish men from New York being interviewed on NPR radio. They have formed a band named "What I Like About Jew". They were discussing their new CD "Unorthodox" and a song in it made for Passover entitled "They Tried to Kill Us, We Survived, Let's Eat!" If you have a Jewish background and you're like me and don't take the religion too seriously, the irreverent lyrics to that song will make you roll on the floor with laughter! But for some reason music seems to dwell on sadness, especially the kind that comes from lost romantic love; and noone does it better than country western singers. Crystal Gayle singing "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" and Dolly Parton declaring "I Will Always Love You" are classics in that tradition. I'm sorry, I'm getting emotional. But the granddaddy of them all has to be "He Stopped Loving Her Today," by George Jones. In this heart–rending song the guy actually has to die to escape the pain of unrequited love – excuse me while I wipe away this tear. On a somewhat lighter note there's my favorite: "My Wife Ran Off With My Best Friend and I Sure Do Miss Him" – that, believe it or not, is a real song!

Some music is capable of touching us deeply, and powerfully affecting our emotions. Fellow fans of the silver screen may remember a movie called "Philadelphia" about a man who was dying of aids. At one point, the man, played by Tom Hanks, was listening to Maria Callas singing an aria from an opera with his lawyer, played by Denzel Washington. The beauty of the music and the emotion of the moment moved both the actors and the entire audience to tears – an unforgettable scene. Luciano Pavarotti, arguably the greatest tenor of all time, takes my breath away in the final crescendo of "Nessun dorma," when he hits notes never released before from human vocal cords. One memorable concert I attended in Atlanta years ago featured a group named "Foreigner." During the final song, entitled "I Want to Know Where Love Is," the entire 50 member Georgia Tech choir filed on stage and sang along with the group, sending chills up and down my spine. The love I felt was not just ordinary romantic love, but the deeper love we have for our family and friends, and the highest and most profound love of all: that love we feel for our pets! You pet lovers understand. Yes, that night, at that concert, with the music playing, the choir singing, the laser show lasering, and the drugs kicking in; at that moment I knew where love was. Only the music could have shown me the way.

In the song "American Pie" Don Mclean asks the question "Do you believe in rock n' roll, can music save your mortal soul?" Well I believe in rock n' roll, but whether there's any direct connection between Elvis and my mortal soul is doubtful. However, music that does reach the soul and nourish the spirit is frequently heard in our houses of worship. Often, when I'm in a large church with lots of echoes and a professional choir singing the "Hallelujah chorus," or even in our modest church listening to the Taize (tozzay) music that Marti Keller played for us on January 15th, I feel my spirit moved by the melodies. Just as I knew where love was at the Atlanta concert, I feel I know where God is when inspired by these reverential sounds. The bad news is that when I leave one of the large cathedrals built for the glory of God, I'm afraid I leave Him, or Her, behind. The good news is that when I leave our church I bring along with me more love, community, and connectedness than any one person should be allowed to experience.

We've discussed some of the things that music can do for us, now let's talk about what it can't do. It can not make you a good dancer. During the disco craze, I listened to Donna Summers' albums and practiced disco dancing to the point of exhaustion. I learned an important lesson: if you don't have rhythm, the music won't make you a good dancer. I still carry the moniker "disco dentist," which a friend sarcastically bestowed on me after my wife and I finished 3rd in a four couple dance contest.

Music can not make you a good singer. I'm living proof. Imagine my shock and horror when, as an eleven year old who couldn't carry a tune, I was picked as a soloist to sing "O Sole Mio" in the 6th grade play. I'll never forget my elation when Danny Arnold, a legitimate soloist, was chosen to replace me after the first rehearsal. Rumors followed that the move was made to save our music teacher's job and the school's reputation, but my fear was much greater than my pride and I still feel I avoided what could have been a life-changing humiliation. As much as I love music, I just can't sing; a statement that can be verified by anyone of you who has stood next to me on Sunday mornings. Maybe that's why I enjoy so many songs by artists who can't carry a tune any better than I can: tone deaf singers such as Jimmy Durante, Alice Cooper, and and Janice Joplin, to name a few. And then there are the songwriters who can write wonderful music but can't sing a note. Burt Bacharach, Kris Kristofferson, and of course Bob Dylan can kill a newly written song before the ink is dry just by trying to sing it. I think what's happening here is that so many people like the music made by these members of the the Singer and Songwriter Hall of Shame that noone has the heart to tell them how bad they sound. I guess there's no mystery as to why I like the song "Bobby Mcgee"; it's written by Kris Kristofferson and sung by Janice Joplin, a lethal musical combination.

What is it that draws us to a piece of music? It can be the actual notes themselves, the lyrics, the artist, or even the writer of the music or the lyrics; or sometimes a combination of any or all of the above. It's a mystery why some songs get into your head and have a profound effect on you. Case in point: A song called "People Get Ready," inspired by Martin Luther King's march on Washington D.C. in 1963, written by Curtis Mayfield, and sung by Rod Stewart. The song is about a train on its way to Jordan and if "you just thank the Lord" you can get on board. It contains phrases such as "all you need is faith," and "there ain't no room for the hopeless sinner." Now I have no faith in a traditional God and I have no desire to go to Jordan or anywhere else in the middle east. And by most measures, if not a hopeless sinner, I'm at least a world class sinner. But when I sit on the deck of our cabin watching a beautiful north Georgia sunset, sipping vodka, listening to Rod Stewart with the volume cranked up, I'm deeply moved by that song. Since it's not the lyrics, it must be the music that transforms me into a Bible totin', scripture quotin', God fearin' believer that would do anything to get on that train. Go figure!

I don't know why I still love to play old Bob Dylan songs. He can't carry a tune and some of his lyrics could have been written by my 3 year old grandson. Yet somehow his voice, the music, and words together appeal to me. Did you ever wonder what stimulated this great musical poet to write some of his lyrics? From the song "Subterranean Homesick Blues" comes this deeply moving, beautiful picture painted by Dylan's words: "You better jump down the alley way lookin' for a new friend, a man in a coonskin cap in a pig pen wants 11 dollar bills, you only got 10" – what the heck is that all about? Dylan hints at the inspiration for his lyrics in the song "Rainy Day Women" where he repeatedly sings "everybody must get stoned." Let's hope it's the drugs talking, right Bob?

Music can be categorized in many ways; for instance, into 3 different levels of human consciousness: egocentric, ethnocentric, and worldcentric. The song "Urgent," by Foreigner, typifies male, sexist, egocentrism. The lyric "I'm not looking for a love that will last, I know what I need and I need it fast" speaks for itself. Another, more updated, version of testosterone at work is "Candy Shop," by rapper 50 Cent. Things have sure changed since 1981. To say this song objectifies women for men's sexual fulfillment is a gross understatement. I'll spare you the pornographic lyrics; by comparison, it makes the words to "Urgent" read like a children's bedtime story. But we all tend to criticize the next generation because they didn't do things the way we did; talk about egocentrism.! I see rapper 50 Cent the way my parents viewed rocker Elvis Presley when he swung his hips around in his television debut on the Ed Sullivan Show – shocking! Everything, including music, needs to be taken in the context of the times.

Ethnocentric music has a completely different sound. As a teenager I loved the patriotic music and tempo of John Phillip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." (sing a few bars) The piccolos playing, the drums beating, the cymbals crashing, and my heart racing; man that was exciting! And then there's my own updated lyrics for Francis Scott Key's "Star Spangled Banner": "and the scud missles' red glare, the smart bombs bursting near residential areas, gave proof through the night that our president's father hated Sadaam Hussein, or is it Saaaadam? Whatever. Things haven't changed much in the U.S. since our National Anthem was written, have they? As an adult I've come to realize that ethnocentric, patriotic music, at best, is designed to make you want to defend your homeland against invisible invaders with non-existent weapons. The downside of this kind of music is that if you really love your country, it might make you want to rip out the enemy's liver and eat it for lunch in the name of Da Fuhrer! Well, you get the message.

Now we come to worldcentric music. From the man who brought you "Morning Has Broken," a favorite Unitarian hymn, come the lyrics from Cat Stevens' "Peace Train": "Oh I've been smiling lately, dreaming about the world as one, and I believe it could be, some day it's going to come." Ironic, in light of recent world events, that Cat Stevens adopted the Muslim religion. Probably the best known worldcentric song, performed by Jackie DeShannon, gives us these words of wisdom: "What the world needs now is love, sweet love, no not just for some but for everyone." Mr. President, take a lesson; this is what "kindlier and gentler" is really all about. Another, less melodic worldcentric song is "Give Peace a Chance" by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. When you listen to this song, remember, it's the thought that counts. Unfortunately, Lennon's untimely death proved that not everyone was willing to give peace a chance.

Music has been used often over the years for social comment and protest. Jimmy Cliff's "We want our Piece of the Pie" typifies Reggae music's fight for economic equality and social justice in the Caribbean. "War," by Edwin Starr and "Where have All the Flowers Gone," by the Kingston Trio and Peter Paul and Mary protested against war and its futility through the medium of music. And how many of us didn't stop and think when we heard the words to "Abraham, Martin, and John," sung by Dion in 1968 about those unthinkable assassinations.

A little known fact is that the early roots of feminism actually began to form with the help of music written over 40 years ago. That ever popular classic "Johnny Get Angry" was sung by Joanie Summers in 1962. Lyrics such as "Johnny get angry, Johnny get mad," "I want a brave man, I want a caveman"; and the ultimate sexist insult "let me know that you're the boss" may have been socially acceptable back then, but they no doubt helped bring women to their senses. "You've come a long way baby." I'm reasonably sure that if I let my significant other know that I'm the boss, she'll let me know where the blackboard is so I can write "I am not the boss!" 1,000 times. Who wrote those lyrics anyway, Arnold Schwarzneggar?

In conclusion, I'd like to state that when my time on this planet is up and I move on from this life to the great unknown, at my memorial service: no religious or spiritual songs thank you. I want to go out to Little Richard, or Chuck Berry, or Jerry Lee Lewis. Don't miss the service, you'll like the music! Thanks again for letting me have my fun and may the music that connects us always play in our hearts.