It’s interesting how certain tunes and lyrics transport our minds from the present to another time and place. I can’t listen to “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog” without finding myself traveling backward through time to age fifteen when I rode shotgun up and down the main drag of a small Southwest Kansas town. With our windows rolled down, summer breezes riffled our hair until a comb could hardly pass through it. Oncoming drivers blared horns to greet one another as part of the nightly ritual. These discordant sounds disrupted KOMA tunes that set the rhythm of our popping bubble gum.
To this day, listening to oldies triggers an out of body experience for me. It’s impossible to believe nearly five decades have passed since those notes first burned their way into memory, making a recording more permanent than any 8- track tape or vinyl disc that spun round and round on a turntable. Every one of those songs is a treasure trove of almost forgotten sensory experience: sights, sounds, smells, and feelings.
Though I’ve been happily married for nearly forty years, I can’t listen to the Moody Blues sing “Nights in White Satin” without remembering every broken heart I survived. Oddly, I don’t think it’s the words that elicit those memories. That wavering, haunting melody plucks my emotions as if they were strings on a big old Irish harp, leaving me wrung out and raw as if a break up had just happened.
It isn’t just old rock songs that have this effect on me. Sitting in church on Sunday morning listening to “Rock of Ages” or “How Great Thou Art” carries me back to five- year-old me perched next to my Grandma in the pew. I feel the remembered warmth of morning sun coming through emerald, crimson, and amethyst stained glass that depicted Bible stories I was learning in Sunday school. I smell my Grandma’s floral scent and see her hands holding a worn hymnal. I hear her tremulous voice singing those beloved words. When I hear those hymns, she’s with me still.
A song that distances me from my own lifetime is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I can’t listen to its arresting rhythm without tears filling my eyes. As its notes wash over me, the stanzas send chills up my spine. I envision tent-lined camps filled with homesick, scared young men fighting for life and country. I see them sitting around flickering cook fires, running roughened fingers over pages in treasured Bibles, seeking comfort and strength for whatever was coming. I see lightning and hear trumpets. Juliet Ward Howe’s imagery turns me to jelly every time I hear it.
The same thing happens when I hear “Oh, Danny Boy.” The words and music capture the sorrow of every Irish mother and lover that sent her man into battle or off to America seeking a better life. I don’t know of a more poignant combination of lyrics and melody. If someone plays it on the bagpipes, I’m a goner. No one carries enough tissue to sop up my tears.
Music is a powerful force. It reminds us of who we were and inspires us to be more than we are.