Life’s Music

Songs I want to hear again

By Bill Thompson

No matter how hard we try, how much attention we pay to details, how much research we do or how committed we are, we can never create another first time. By definition a first time can’t be repeated. As I get older I often wish I could re-create some of the most momentous moments of my life. Some I can’t repeat because I don’t remember them: my first steps, my first words. Some I don’t want to repeat, in fact, some I’d just as soon forget.

But as I get older, I naturally reflect on my past. In doing so, I have found that there is one recurring theme for me: music. Almost every aspect of my life has been influenced in some way by music. Some of those times I was a performer and sometimes I was a listener. But in every case, the first time I had that musical experience it affected how I proceeded from that time on. Although I can’t hear or sing that music again for the first time, I can recall it.

I want to hear again for the first time the sound of a country band with a steel guitar playing in a room so filled with smoke that it looks like the place is on fire. I want to watch people dance who can’t dance but move their feet and whatever other parts of their body that still work to the beat of the music. I want to listen to a song about home and railroads and lost love and pickup trucks and mama.

I want to hear again for the first time the clear voice of a young soprano learning Puccini’s “Un Bel Di, Vedrimo” from Madame Butterfly. I want to hear that aria ringing down the hall of the college music building to mix with a violin and an oboe and other instruments and other voices to form a beautiful cacophony. I want to hear the pipe organ in the chapel pushing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue across the campus on a cold winter’s night accompanying young lovers holding hands as they walk down the brick walkways that weave between the classroom buildings.

I want to hear again for the first time the sea breeze blowing across the sand dunes and lifting the easy rhythm of “My Girl” to the outdoor pavilion where couples dance, their fingers barely touching, their Weejuns sliding across the wooden dance floor. I want to hear the youthful laughter, feel the sense of time and place created there that will be transferred to the next generation and the next, a part of our Southern heritage.

I want to hear for the first time the sound of a worn-out guitar playing the real blues, the kind that bursts and ripples and weeps and shouts and whispers from the soul of the black man playing it on the dirt patio of a juke joint where I wasn’t supposed to be. I want to hear that voice as it sheds a lifetime of struggle and acceptance at the feet of those like him who have shared that struggle and understand the acquiescence.

I want to hear again for the first time the blending of choir voices: a small country church choir singing those old hymns sung from memory and accompanied by a pianist playing “by ear” on an upright piano with chipped keys; a choir of young boys lifted from home situations where they were sometimes abused and neglected but, through music, lifted above their past; a choir of small children, me among them, each singing his own version of “I Wonder As I Wander” to an audience of family members.

And, yes, I want to hear again for the first time the applause of the audience when I sang my first solo as a member of my high school chorus when the football coach who had previously viewed me as most inadequate said, “Damn, boy! You can sing!”

I want to hear again for the first time the comfortable, magical blend of voices and a beat-up old guitar as my sister and I sang the folk songs of the ’60s to any group that would pay us even if the pay was just a meal.

Time doesn’t dim the memory of such things. Those sounds are indelibly imprinted in my mind and I can recall them almost as clearly as if they happened just yesterday. That’s a good thing, I guess, since I can’t re-create that first time.

Bill Thompson is a regular Salt contributor. His newest novel, Chasing Jubal, a coming of age story in the 1950s Blue Ridge, is available where books are sold.

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