The Musical Maze

February 2nd, 2023

I have been listening to a new CD. It’s from a band called “Soccer Mommy”, and it was recorded in 2020. I like to hear new music, but often it reminds me of old music. Soccer Mommy has a song called Bloodstream. The guitar work in there sounds a bit like that of Jefferson Airplane on the Surrealistic Pillow from back in the late 1960’s. Soccer Mommy also has a song called Royal Screw Up which has vocals that make me think of Suzanne Vega in her song from the 80’s, Gypsy. I have been listening to different kinds of music for almost all of my life, and I find that everything is connected to everything else.

As a boy, I listened entirely to classical music. That is all that my father would play at home. He was rabidly opposed to what he called “nigger music”. That category included just about everything that was on the radio. Classical music was a good foundation for me. I especially enjoyed music from Baroque composers: Bach, Vivaldi, Corelli, Scarlatti. I still play classical pieces on the stereo, but not very often. There are too many other things that I want to hear.

I took a music class when I was in seventh grade. The sound system in the chorus room was phenomenal for that day and age (circa 1971). The teacher, Mr. Osterhaus, for reasons I will never understand, decided to play a vinyl record for the students in the class. He played Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in its entirely.

That changed my life forever.

Then he decided, during another class, to play all of Tommy from The Who. Holy shit. It was like my head exploded.

When I went to West Point, I bought records. I was still heavy into the Beatles and other bands from the 1960’s. However, I purchased music from some bands that were more current: Heart, Fleetwood Mac, Pat Benatar, Blue Oyster Cult, Billy Joel. It was all pretty mainstream. That’s what was available to me. The PX did not have a big selection.

In the late 1980’s, one of my younger brothers was a bass player and a collector of new music. He would send me cassette tapes with songs from bands that he liked. I had not heard of any of these groups, and I never would have if Marc had not kept me abreast of what was out there. He introduced me to REM, Icicles Works, Aztec Camera, The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, and a host of other bands.

Marc dated and married a Texas girl. They played together in a band, Veil of Veronica. I still have some of their recordings. For lack of a better description, I would call their music “Christian Metal”. It was unique.

Marc and his wife introduced me to the work of southern artists. I listened to the Indigo Girls, Nancy Griffith, the Reivers, Better than Ezra. Eventually, I started to appreciate Tab Benoit, Mary Gauthier, John Hiatt, and Jason Isbell. Another world opened up to me.

In the early 80’s I was stationed with the Army in West Germany. I dated and married Karin, a girl who grew up in southern Germany. I incorporated some of her music into my inventory. Karin was into folk music, and she liked European musicians. It was through her that I discovered Zupfgeigenhansel, Georges Moustaki, Spider Murphy Gang, Konstantin Wecker, and BAP. I found out that songs by English speakers were also being recorded in other tongues. Bettina Wegner, an East German singer, did a version of the Bob Marley hit, No Woman, No Cry. German is not necessarily a soothing language, and Wegner had a voice etched with acid. She was a feminist, and her take on the reggae song was brutally honest. It made a deep impression on me.

About fifteen years ago, our youngest son, Stefan, started taking music lessons from a friend of mine who was a blues guitarist. I made a feeble attempt to learn how to play bass so that Stefan and I could play songs together. We did learn how to play Smells Like Teen Spirit from Nirvana, and we were competent with Hey Joe from Jimi Hendrix. My friend introduced us both to some of the masters of the blues: Albert King, Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa, B.B. King.

Musical influences do not all flow from America outward. New music comes to us too. I started to listen to everything from everywhere. I liked the old school Cuban sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club. The group Dengue Fever has a Cambodian female vocalist and a guitarist from Ethiopia. The Jewish rock band, Blue Fringe, has many of its lyrics in Hebrew. Krishna Das does Hindu kirtan chanting and drumming, and his stuff rocks. Nusrat Fetah Ali Khan did Sufi chants, and he worked on songs with Pearl Jam. One of my favorite holiday CD’s is from the Klezmonauts. Oy! To the World is a Jewish folk version of standard Christmas music. There is something delightful in hearing Jingle Bells sung in Yiddish.

Now I babysit my toddler grandson, Asher. When we are playing with his toys, I turn on the stereo and put it on random. We never know what we will hear. It might be an intricate song from Arcade Fire. It might be Adagio for Strings from Samuel Barber. It might a rollicking Celtic melody from Flogging Molly. Maybe the dark rumbling of the Finnish cello quartet, Apocalyptica, guys who do moody covers of heavy metal tunes. Or we might hear a gypsy song come up.

The world is full of music. It’s a never-ending maze.

I’m giving Asher a head start.

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