Dan and I took a trip to Boston last night. Not literally--in truth, we only drove down to Annapolis to hear Peter Mulvey and Kris Delmhorst at the Ram's Head. But as soon as Peter started playing his guitar with the bass string tuned way down low, his finger flying, his head back and his eyes closed, as soon as he opened his mouth to sing, we were back in Boston.
As I've written before, different times of life have their soundtrack, and so do different places. Boston's melody line is sung by a band of young, folk-ish singer-songwriters who find plenty of performance spaces, not just in clubs and coffeehouses, but on the street corners in Harvard Square and on just about any subway platform. The church I served in Somerville, MA, had a coffee house the first Friday of every month. The hour before the featured performer was open mike, and if you could stand sitting through it, you could hear the next Tracy Chapman back to back with a guy who sang songs he wrote ten minutes earlier accompanied by his boom box.
Peter Mulvey played at our coffeehouse one night, and since I lived in a parsonage right next door to the church, it was my job to open up for him in the late afternoon and help him set up his amps and speakers. Then he had time to kill, so he accepted my invitation for a bowl of chicken and parsnip soup with my family. He was good company, and thanked me for the soup by dedicating a love song to Dan and me that night. Even better, he remembered both me and that song, and when I'd see him playing in the subway later in the year, he would often play the song again. So last night, I wasn't really sitting in Annapolis listening to him play. I was standing on the Davis Square subway platform with a baby in a backpack and a toddler pulling on either arm, letting the train pass so I could hear one more song.
It's good for me to remember how music can take us back in time, often to the sweetest parts of our past lives. This coming Sunday, we're going to sing one of my all-time least favorite hymns in worship, "Rock of Ages". The lyrics of the hymn (in my humble opinion, of course) manage to be both obscure and objectionable. The song reminds me of funeral homes, but at our Worship Task Group meeting it became clear to me that it reminded Charlie, Nan and Sandy of home. Rock of Ages isn't about being "saved from wrath" for them--the words don't really say what this song is about. It's really about church suppers with covered dishes and sheet cakes. It's about picnics at the lake and the closeness of families sitting in pews in country churches.
But what if I don't have the same associations with a song that someone else does? Sometimes, the song just has to be abandoned, no matter how sweet the memories. Sometimes we can keep the tune and "fix" or change the words. But another thing we can do is share the story behind the song--not so much the story of its author, but the story of where the song takes you, the scene where you find yourself in your memory as you hear the song played. Then, we're not just sharing a song with each other. We're sharing our lives, and claiming a piece of our history as nourishment for today.
Music has such power--if only we were wiser about how to use it to build community! I'm reading an incredible book right now, The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason. It tells the story of a British doctor's work to build peace in nineteenth century colonial Burma. The story is told that this officer and his party were once ambushed in the jungle by bandits. Instead of running from the arrows being shot at him, the doctor stood still and took out a flute, and then played a simple Burmese tune. The ambush stopped, and the bandits then travelled with the party as protectors.
"What was the song?" the piano tuner asks when he hears the story. The teller responds, "a Shan love ditty. When a Shan boy courts his sweetheart, he always plays the same song. It's nothing, rather simple, but it worked like a miracle. Carroll later told the soldier who told me the story that no man could kill one who played a song that reminded him of the first time he had fallen in love."