Musical Meditations


Feeling feverish and incoherent today. I suspect COVID, which complicates my reservation for a booster shot. I guess that’s not happening. Real life sucks.

Unable to sleep last night, I began playing my favourites list of YouTube music videos. Not necessarily my favourite songs: this is a category reserved for music I love that does not fit under some broader classification.

First up. Elvis Presley, “His Latest Flame,” with a selection of shuffle-dancing babes. I love rhythm. Early rock and roll is great for rhythm; later rock lost it, and lost my interest. I also cannot get enough of watching beautiful girls shuffle dance. “His Latest Flame” is based around a simple endless two-note riff. I could listen to it forever. My brother Gerry used to scorn rock and roll as too simple. That’s just what I like about it.

Next up, Madonna singing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” Rather the opposite. The Webber melody is no doubt complex enough to satisfy my brother. The lyrics, too, are dense, and there’s not much rhythm. Tim Rice is clearly influenced by W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan. But he uses erudition not for comic effect but, here, to express a philosophical world-view in verse. This strikes me as a fantastically hard thing to do, and deserves some kind of award. He also deserves an award for making Madonna relatable. I’m impressed at a rhyme of “existence” with “distance,” “illusions” with “solutions,” or the line. “All dressed to the nines/ At sixes and sevens with you.’ 

 “The Sidewalks of New York” – three versions; none of them quite hits the mark. My grandmother used to sing this to me, and it can sometimes evoke tears. The lost world of childhood—hers more than mine.

W.C. Handy, “St. Louis Blues.” This is a purely instrumental version performed by the composer himself. I love the tone of world-weariness. Sad music is cathartic. The blues is eternal.

Playing for Change, “Guantanamera.” I’m crazy for rhythm. I love Latin rhythms. I love the format of Playing for Change, picking up participants across the world. The words do not make much sense, and are in Spanish, but there is great strength in that simple refrain, 

“Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera

Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera.”

Guantanamo girl. Guantanamo country girl.

I know what he means.

A simple cry of aching appreciation for random beauty. This is not a love song; he does not know her name. The verses make sense as a spontaneous meditation on what he could possibly say to this girl, knowing nothing of her. 

“I am an honest man from the land of palms…”

“My thoughts are light green, yet burning incarnadine.”

She is his muse. Perhaps she is everyone’s muse; beauty itself.

Norah Jones, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” I do not like modern jazz. I find it pretentious, emotionally superficial, and self-indulgent. Yet I love the vocal stylings of Norah Jones, Willie Nelson, or Diana Krall. When their jazz cool is used on a song with deep emotional tones, the counterpoint is painfully beautiful.

Yo-Yo Ma, Kathryn Stott, “Over the Rainbow.” I’m not big on show tunes as a rule, because they usually seem canned and artificial. But this one speaks of a deep universal yearning. It is in the end the yearning for heaven that each of us is born with. This version is instrumental, and seems even better for it, given that the words are in my head. The imagined song is more perfect tha the song heard with the ear.

Emmylou Harris, “Spanish is a Loving Tongue.” The lyrics are the main attraction here. They started out as a stand-alone cowboy poem, and it is a fine example of the genre. Harris, being a woman, must sing it in the third person. But that seems worth it for the sake of her beautiful country voice.

The Highwaymen, “City of New Orleans.” Willie Nelson is singing on this one, and the others strumming. The lyrics are finely crafted. But this is another rhythm song. It is the rhythm of the rails; you can almost feel them rumbling ‘neath the floor.

I have no connection with this part of the world—the American Midwest, and down the Mississippi. I don’t have wide experience with trains, other than watching them pass by for hours without me on them. But I can almost feel I am there. A perfect slice of Americana.

Willie Nelson with Paula Nelson, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” A beautiful black-and-white atmospheric video. I love the song in its apocalyptic simplicity. I think it was the plainness of Creedence Clearwater in particular over which my jazz-loving sibling and I differed. Willie’s cool voice feels like the cool rain falling. 

Jordan Bickhart, “Brownsville Girl.” Dylan’s songs are usually better performed by someone else. It is not that he has a bad voice, so much as that he abuses it and goofs around. I think it is because he finds the songs too emotionally meaningful, too revealing.

“Brownsville Girl” has almost no melody; it is a tone poem. Not a rhyming poem either; blank verse. There is a narrative, but disjointed. A lot of it is just Western atmospherics. There ought to be little to hang your hat on here, but not so—Dylan deserved his Nobel Prize for Literature. He knows the trick of associating images, the same trick that made Yeats’s later poems so great.

The Brownsville girl makes the narrator think of Western movies, which fade in and out of his own remembered life. This is what she was to him: some promise of heroic perfection, somewhere over the rainbow, or across the Mexican line.

Like “Guantanamera,” it is mostly a coyote howl at the moon of beauty, always visible but just out of reach: 

“Brownsville girl

with your Brownsville curls, 

teeth like pearls 

shining like the moon above

Brownsville girl

Show me all around the world, 

Brownsville girl, 

you’re my honey love.”

Deliberately not polished poetry. Just one man trying to express the universal feeling in his heart. The incoherence is part of the point. We are here, and do not understand. Man is in love, and loves what vanishes.

That’s the way I feel today.

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