As a child, I noticed that the adults in my life seemed to break into song whenever someone used a word or a phrase that recalled one that they knew. Marveling at their massive repertoires, I conceived the idea that a grown-up was someone who knew a song corresponding with every single word in the language, and I longed to attain that enviable state.
As I grew older, I turned into that same kind of adult, who took every opportunity to break into song regardless of the setting, no doubt embarrassing members of the younger generation who, despite the fact that they had music piped into their heads 24/7, seemed to think that singing was an intensely private act that ought to be restricted to the shower. I sang a few lines of a song in class one day, purely to illustrate a point, and later that week a student of mine from another class asked, lowering her voice, whether the rumors circulating round campus were true.
Singing has always been the thread that has sewn together the disparate, far-flung fragments of my life. I’ll never forget an experience I had one summer back in the 1980s, while visiting my dear cousin Sue. Her friend Helena’s boyfriend, who had offered to drive us all over to my Auntie Bette’s house in his car, put the tape of Bob Marley’s Exodus into the cassette player. Six or seven of us, there were, from four to forty-something, jammed into the car singing Jammin’. As we all sang together, Exodus: movement of Jah People, we were united across differences of age, experience, ethnicity, and musical taste. For the duration of that short ride across North London I knew what it was to feel One Love.
Visiting London again in 1996, now in our forties, Andrew and I entered a quiz contest in a Hampstead pub with Sue and her then-twenty-year-old daughter Oleen, and won, acing every category because our collective musical knowledge ranged from the Fifties to the Nineties, and from pop to rock to reggae to house. Each of Sue’s three daughters and each of their five children in turn has different musical tastes, and Sue knows them all in addition to her own favorites from the Fifties and Sixties.
Unlike many other adults who define “their music” as the limited group of songs they came of age with, Sue has stayed young at heart by continuously refreshing and expanding her musical repertoire. In contrast, I realize that I have all the signs of hardening of the musical arteries. Where once I could recite the Top Twenty almost as easily as my ABCs, if I ask myself honestly when last I learned a new song I realize that I can hardly remember a single one less than five years old; to be honest, precious few less than ten, since Nikhil left high school almost a decade ago. It’s not that the new songs are necessarily any good, quite the contrary; it’s rather that every successive generation thinks music has gone downhill since they last had their fingers on the musical pulse of the times.
I’m thinking about music today as I look up the lyrics of songs to to adapt for my dear friend (and sister-in-law) Eve’s sixtieth birthday party, and realizing that although her musical repertoire is continuously growing as she learns new songs to perform in her band, my own knowledge of her favorite songs is sadly dated, ranging from Dominique (1963) to Sweet Black Angel (1972) to Mirror in the Bathroom (1981). For my part, the “new” songs I’ve found myself learning in the past decade have only been new to me, as I’ve been returning to folk, country, blues, old film songs, and bhajans, deepening my musical roots rather than trying to keep pace with what’s current.
By my childhood definition, I’ve almost achieved adulthood, since I can toss you back a few bars of a song for just about any word or phrase you pitch at me; but now I have a new formulation, this one of immortality. In the words of this round, which we sang at school in India in the Sixties:
In the original German:
Himmel und Erde müssen vergehn
Aber die musici, aber die musici
Aber die musici, bleiben bestehn.
and in English:
All things shall perish from under the sky
Music alone shall live, music alone shall live,
Music alone shall live, never to die.