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Ramblings: Music

February 12, 1997

"A man who don't have a song in him ain't no good nohow."

A very wise old songwriter told me that a long time ago, and it is something I've never forgotten. Not that anyone who can't write a song is worthless--not at all. But it's essential that every person, in some way, has an appreciation for beauty, for artistry. We stand in awe at the ruddy grandeur of each sunset and almost weep at the fragile beauty in the flash of a bird's wing, stand very still and listen closely for the chirrup of its song.

For me it is music. My first memory of anything musical is when I was maybe five years old. I learned to read at a very early age, thanks to a kindergarten teacher named Mary Hunter, and by age five could easily read the words in the old hymnals we used at church. My earliest memory is of sitting next to my grandmother and following her finger as she pointed to the words as we sang--I can't remember the exact song. Sometimes I would study the hymnal and try to figure out what all those notes meant--I couldn't wait to learn how to read them. My dad got a few books on musical basics and it wasn't long before I could recognize the arcane shapes and symbols, and know what "Do" meant, and why it was different from "Ti." I say all this to try to explain that for me, music isn't just something pretty to listen to--it's something that has always been inside of me and has never gone away, something that I've understood almost instinctively like another language.

Growing up in a small south Texas town and belonging to a small church congregation, I grew up with music. We always sang in church. In the Church of Christ we use no instruments other than our own voices. Sometimes this means the singing is a little spare in the middle parts of tenor and alto. But it also drives us to learn music, perhaps more than most other people. To fill out a song and have 100 or so people singing together in four-part harmony, and be a part of it, is something that is a vital part of our lives. As I grew I eventually took part in leading songs, even went to a summer camp that focused exclusively on hymnal singing and training song leaders, and now when I lead the singing on a Sunday morning I am taken by a euphoria and maybe know a little of what a great conductor feels when his orchestra plays to his direction.

Of course, growing up as I did, I also grew up with country music. Though most country music is taken up by singing about getting drunk and cheating on your spouse, it is also a music of memories, of coping with the problems of life, and of spirituality. Country music and the gospel music that was born in the 19th century, the gospel music that remains largely unchanged to this day, are tied together in their roots and in some ways share the same purposes. When we are taught to sing hymns to edify each other, and when Chet Atkins said that country music is usually about things that hurt us because "life just ain't fair," it comes down to the same thing. We sing because it brings us together and makes us stronger.

My musical interests eventually wandered far and wide, through rock, because my parents didn't like it, to classical, because I had to learn about it in college, then beyond into other things. Now I enjoy artists as widely dispersed as Enya, Bach, Jimmy Smith, and the Louvin Brothers. That's why I sometimes can only smile helplessly when someone asks me what kind of music I like. "Just play something," I say, "if I don't like it I'll let you know."

And, as Jim Morrison said, Let it Roll...