I was born with music.
My Dad was a failed music major (he didn’t want to learn violin), and an accomplished amateur church organist. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to him play the ancient pump organ in the antebellum chapel in our backyard. Later, he adopted a reed organ from a deconsecrated Catholic Church and rebuilt it in our basement. When we moved to Georgia, the organ got the master bedroom. I grew up to a soundtrack of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues.
There was classical music, but Dad also loved his German music (yes, complete with accordion). Heino was a particular favourite. Mom was partial to Gordon Lightfoot, especially “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which she must have played a million times.
My Uncle Chuck played piano, organ, and accordion — an instinct I seem to have inherited from him.
I grew up with the usual exposure to pop and rock, with a little country mixed in. I started playing clarinet when I was 11 and later added saxophone. I loved playing classical music, but yearned to play jazz. Dad reckoned if I ever ran away, he’d find me busking on Jackson Square in New Orleans. He’s probably right. In the end, I was either too shy, too lazy, or lacked the confidence to pursue a musical career. When I started university, I packed up the instruments. But over the years to come I explored a world of music.
As a consumer of music my taste has always been eclectic. It is easiest to explain my musical taste by identifying the music I don’t like: ABBA. I’ve told Simon that if I am ever in a vegetative state and he has to decide whether to pull the plug, he should sit by my bedside and play ABBA. If I don’t immediately wake up and tell him to turn that sh*t off, I’m gone. There. Is. No. One. Home.
Please don’t troll me. I don’t think less of you because you love ABBA. My best friend loves ABBA. My husband at least likes ABBA. My dogs would probably love ABBA if I allowed it to be played in the house. Chickens, too.
You hate Brussels Sprouts? Well I love them. There’s no accounting for taste.
I especially love various kinds of soul music, by which I mean, music that expresses the deepest elements of a people’s history, spirituality, and identity. Cajun Zydeco. Appalachian Bluegrass. Portuguese Fado. Memphis Blues. Gypsy Swing. Kletzmer. Reggae. Ska. Dixieland Jazz. New Orleans Funk. Motown. Gospel. I haven’t had much experience with Hip Hop, except in Africa, but I surely do understand its power.
In short, If it reaches into your heart, makes you want to dance, or weep, or praise the lord, I love it.
In the aftermath of my first dance with the black dog, in the early 1990s, my Video tapes of The Color Purple and Terminator II (the one where Linda Hamilton, playing Sarah Connor, goes all gansta on a psychiatric ward), and my Wynona, Willie Nelson, Francine Reed, Lyle Lovett, Gypsy Kings, R.E.M., and k. d. Lang CDs kept me going through many a dark night.
Eventually, the clouds lifted and for the next two decades or so, I collected more and more wonderful music to love from places like Bali, Senegal, Ghana, Kenya, and New Zealand. Maori music gives me goosebumps. The Maori musician I heard playing guitar and singing “Born on the Bayou” at the Riverbank Market on Easter Saturday made me stand still and say, out loud, like a prayer, “God, I love this country!” And then I put some coin in his guitar case.
Depression is a thief. And somewhere along the line, depression stole my music. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened. It probably came on in stages. My father died and I couldn’t bear to listen to Bach. Organ music sent me into gales of tears. Normal grief? Probably.
Then, sometime after Simon and I got married, I changed divisions at the company where I worked. My new office was in the SCIF — the Special and Compartmented Information Facility, basically, a safe in which highly classified materials, discussions, and people are housed out of the reach of prying electronic eyes. Being effectively locked in my office all day, with no windows (technically, there were windows, but we weren’t allowed to open the blinds), and no access to personal electronics, meaning no iPods and no music CDs, felt like a daily flashback to the psych ward. I was in a sustained panic attack for two years.
Suddenly, music wasn’t soothing, it was searing. I quite literally couldn’t bear it. Looking back, I realise the black dog had been slowly, quietly, shadowing me just waiting for the opportunity to knock me over. We moved to New Zealand, my anxiety shot to previously unknown levels, I stopped sleeping and, eventually, my psyche crumbled under the pressure. Again, for the second time, I had to find a way to want to live.
But I didn’t, I couldn’t, turn to music. I had hundreds of CDs of music I love, and I couldn’t face them. It was as though sound, especially music, might make my head explode. Anhedonia — the inability to derive happiness from things you love — is a well known symptom of depression. But this was something else. It was as though the part of my brain that processed music had somehow been disconnected from my pleasure centres and grafted onto my fight or flight centres.
Of all the cruel things depression has ever inflicted on me, this was the worst. Even when I lost the ability to enjoy eating — and I did — I could, at least, get a positive sense of achievement by cooking for others. I find giving dinner parties is actually an excellent depression coping mechanism. Provided I could get myself to the grocery store (which wasn’t always easy because I had also developed a grocery store phobia), I knew I could chop, sauté, boil, and bake and beautiful food would ensue that my friends would happily come eat. I didn’t have to talk. They’d do the talking. I just had to provide the raw material — food, music — and a party would happen.
But no music? How do you heal in silence? I read loads of books. I worked with a wonderful, caring therapist. I took my crazy pills. I cooked. And eventually, I started this blog.
Then, one day while I was back in the states, I got it in my head that I would learn to play the accordion. The idea had been floating around in my head since I heard a local group, The Wellington Sea Shanty Society, on Radio NZ on International Talk Like a Pirate Day. I could play the accordion. After all, the accordion isn’t really music, right? My friends keep telling me that. But I’ve always loved the accordion. I even enjoyed watching Lawrence Welk with my Grandparents! So I bought a used accordion on Trade-Me for about $300.00. It was waiting for me when I got home. And I went online to find an accordion teacher.
I’m not, and probably never will be, a great accordionist. But Katie is a great teacher. One day, no so long ago, she was explaining the Circle of Fifths, or maybe it was chord progressions, and something flashed in my head. It was . . . joy! Katie gave me my music back. I think I laughed out loud. I’m sure she thought I was crazy. But then, I am.
JOY! Music and joy! I have my music back! Our “box room” now looks like the Big One has hit, with CDs strewn all over the floor, sorted into piles that mean something only to me. I found myself wanting to share my music, with Katie, with Simon, with the chickens, with anyone who will listen.
Don’t be surprised if I run up to you one day, waving a CD, or my iPod, and saying “You have to listen to this music!”
And CJ loves it when I sing! I promise you, he’s the only one who will ever love to hear me sing. My music is giving him joy.
It is as though I have five years of backed up music clamouring to be let out. My accordion has turned out to have seasonal affective disorder and all the keys have gone sticky. So until I can get a newer, less temperamental one, I’m learning on a digital piano. I’ve ordered a music journal and music staff paper. I’m not talented, but I’m most certainly enthusiastic. I have been, to quote C.S. Lewis, surprised by joy.
A few days ago, I got Vegan Soul Kitchen by Bryant Terry. Terry describes himself as “Alice Waters meets Melvin Van Peebles.” For each (marvellous) recipe, he includes a “suggested soundtrack” — a song or an album “to be enjoyed while cooking and eating.” He wants to “bring the culture back in agriculture.”
I’m down with that!
Music goes with food, and food goes with music. There is music I love to cook to, music I love to eat to. Music for warm summer picnics, and music for cold, windy Wellington winter nights. I want to tell you all about it!
I have my music back. I want to dance. I want to sing. I want to cook. I want to eat.
I want to listen to the music.