Friday, May 27, 2016

The Songs that Shape Us

Two weeks ago, my spouse practiced his violin on the front porch.  Towards the end of the practice time, he played "Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep."  I could sing every verse, and I thought, how do I know this song?

Long ago, I had a cassette tape of a group called HARP, composed of Holly Near, Arlo Guthrie, Ronnie Gilbert, and Pete Seeger.  During my first year of grad school, that tape played regularly in my car stereo.  I wondered if I could get a copy of it on CD, since the tape has long ago gone to cassette heaven.

Not only could I get the original 8 songs, but there's a CD that has other songs from the recording session.  So I bought it.  It was a splurge, but I had an Amazon gift card from Teacher Appreciation Day.

We live in a time where it seems that everything ever made is available on the Internet, but that's not true.  I remember when I thought I would replace all my LPs with CDs, and I was surprised to realize how much of my collection was not being digitized.

Part of my purchase was impulse buy--but part of it was being surprised that the CD even existed--and wanting to own it while I still could.

This week, I've been listening to it in the car.  It's been a treat to revisit these songs--truth be told, I haven't listened to the new songs that are included, because I've been enjoying hearing this music again.  I can sing along, and I even remember the harmonizing, the background patter, the backup bits.

I've been stuck on "Pallet on the Floor"--and I'm struck by how many artists have recorded it (an impartial list is here).  And as I've been driving from place to place, belting out these lyrics, I'm thinking about how little has changed in the 30 years since I first heard this song recorded by these artists.  I'm still teaching, still writing, still dedicated to my spouse.  I'm still thinking about some of the same social justice issues:  why as a society do we shrug and say, "The poor, the homeless, the abused, the junkies, the _________ we will always have with us."

I might argue that things are worse in 30 years.  This political season has been ugly, and it's likely to get uglier.  There are more homeless and less affordable housing and fewer shelters than there were 30 years ago.  There are fewer jobs for regular people.

And yet, how much has changed.  A woman runs for the office of president, and she may win.  We've had our first president who had a black father.  My homosexual friends can marry.  We argue about who can use which bathroom, but it means we have an awareness of transgender people.  As I write this, President Obama delivering a speech at Hiroshima is being broadcast on the BBC.

I think about the songs that have given people the courage to work for this change.  I think of the songs that say, "You are not alone in these values that you hold dear."

I think of songs as a sort of prayer, with a lineage that goes back to the Psalms and back further.  We have the songs that remind us of who we are.  We have the songs that call us to a higher and better purpose.  We have the songs that mourn.  We have the songs that rage and remind us that we have become too passive, too accepting.

I am so grateful for these songs.

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