Music transports us through time

In 1984, I took a Greyhound bus from Arizona to the East and back. At the time, round-trip bus tickets weren’t restricted to specific dates. So along the way I stopped, visited friends and family for a few days, then hopped on another bus. I did this in Chicago, northern Michigan and Dayton before returning to Tucson, Arizona, where I was living.

Spending several days on a bus was mostly unmemorable. What stands out is the music of Kate Bush, an English artist with a haunting voice. I listened to her album “The Dreaming” nonstop on my Sony Walkman while reading “Christine” by Stephen King.

In the nearly 40 since, whenever I hear Bush’s music, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I immediately think of the novel’s ’58 Plymouth Fury possessing its owner and terrorizing the townspeople of Rockbridge, California. It’s creepy.

Music competes only with fragrance in its power to instantly transport a person to times past. That’s why couples fondly recount “their song,” one that reminds them of when they first fell in love, and class reunions play tunes that were popular the year the celebrants graduated.

The Beatles canon takes me back to my earliest childhood memories living in inner-city Chicago with my young dad and his hippy entourage. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” conjures the darkened high school gymnasium where my friends and I hoped to be in the arms of our crushes for that 12-minute slow dance.

“Time” by The Alan Parsons Project makes me think of the sun and sand on Lake Michigan Beach where, in the summer of 1982, I unfortunately thought it a good idea to work on a tan.

Long ago on NPR, I heard a story in which a man rued the fact that he listened to pop music as a teen while his wife grew up with parents who played jazz, blues and classical music. As a result, he knew all the words to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” whereas his wife could sing along with Billie Holiday’s entire catalog.

The takeaway was to give some consideration to the music played when children’s brains are at their peak memory-building capacity. While I’ve never specifically curated the music we listen to, my kids have grown up exposed to far more musical genres than the poor man in that NPR piece.

In 2007, soon after I left my three sons’ father, I took them on a cross-country road trip. We brought with us just four CDs, including a mix made by a friend. That limited musical repertoire resonates with each of us to this day. Recently, my son Hugo, who is now 24, told me one of the songs, Emmylou Harris’s beautifully depressing “Red Dirt Girl,” marks the end of childhood for him.

After the road trip, the boys and I had a few hardscrabble years. I discovered Damien Rice’s album “O,” which I exclusively played in the car for months. As odd as it may sound, Rice’s plaintive melodies buoyed my boys and me as they acknowledged that life is sometimes complicated.

This past spring, we watched an extended live performance of the album’s song “I Remember” and remember we did.

This has been quite a year for the irrepressible Jon Batiste, the music director and band leader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He’s won an Oscar, Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice Award for composing the music to Pixar’s fun, yet serious film “Soul.”

But it is Batiste’s latest album, “We Are,” that scores with my youngest children, Leif and Lyra. The tracks are a joyful mix with a dash of sadness that pull from jazz, pop, funk, rap, gospel, Motown and classical music.

My two littles have been attending day camp in northern Michigan since mid-June. At 8:15 each weekday, as we pile into my car, 8-year-old Lyra cries out, “Our friend, Jon Batiste!” while 11-year-old Leif connects my iPhone to the car and starts our friend’s album.

When the New Orleans Gospel Soul Children choir launches into the title song’s refrain, “We are the golden ones, we are the chosen ones,” Lyra is right there with them belting it out in the back seat.

When I pick the children up at the end of the day, Leif immediately restarts Batiste’s album. We’ve now listened to it so many times, Leif’s begun analyzing the structure of the songs.

“I like that bit, you know like video-game music bits, that’s in the song ‘WHATCHUTALKINBOUT,’ ” he recently told me, accurately referring to the recognizable sound of 8-bit music found in retro video games. I hadn’t noticed until he pointed it out to me.

There’s no way to know how Leif or Lyra will recall “We Are” and what memories it will one day evoke in them. But that they will, I have no doubt. And what splendorous music to have lodged in one’s long-term memory.

My children and I cannot recommend enough giving the album, along with Batiste’s recent interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, a listen.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 25, 2021.


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