Josna Rege

140. Music Alone Shall Live

In 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories on February 18, 2012 at 3:27 pm

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.

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  1. dear josna, since i could be breaking out in song but you could not hear it, here is what will link us:

    i am sure you’ll remember. bine

    • Thank you for sharing this link, bine. I never got to see Joan Armatrading in concert but my friend Linda introduced me to her music in 1980 (the same year) and gave me cassette tapes of one or two of her albums. My favorite songs on them were “When You Kisses Me,” “Me Myself I” and—my favorite—”Water with the Wine.” x J

  2. Jo — once again, you’ve given voice to my musings. Why DO our children tell us not to sing, even if we have decent voices? And “hardening of the musical arteries” is a real danger, which I personally fight by listening to 92.5 FM The River, which plays a nice blend of oldies and “tasteful” new stuff. The round of your title took me back to Girl Scouts (which I hated, then I had two daughters and was a GS leader for eleven years…). It is a haunting piece and I loved when we sang it. Good luck with your prep for Eve’s birthday, and give her a big hug from me. Xxoo to all,

    • Dear McNance, thanks for your lovely comment. I passed on your love to Eve, and she was delighted. We had fun last night singing a couple of her old favorites (with adapted lyrics), and in the course of the evening listened to a number of new songs which demonstrated to me that neither she nor their band, Vaguely Familiar, are in any danger of hardening their musical arteries. Let’s insist on singing at our next get-together.
      (And I didn’t know that you were a Girl Scouts leader!)

  3. Were you on the choir trip to Calcutta in the 70s? I remember on the train, stopped at one station in rural Bengal with a background of a glorious re-monsoon sunset, singing the Hallelujah Chorus in 4 parts with that true MHS blend o ethnicities and faiths to a bemused audience of locals …

    • I wasn’t, Adrienne–I was in the batch of 1969 and, sadly, had to leave MH halfway through the school year in 1968. But what a terrific scene that must have been! I can picture it from your description. Of course your dear mother taught us Aberdie Musici. Please give her my love and very best wishes, and to your father as well. Your son and mine would have lots of notes to compare on the strange practices of their respective mothers! x J

  4. We used to sing this one at Arthur Morgan School, ca 1976. Where in India did you go to school? I discovered India on the Harvard Readcliffe Glee Club Asian Tour ,67, and was hooked. Went back and studied khyal with Kumar Gandharva, India’s Mozart and Bartok combined. Still singing, but not Hindustani khyal….

    • Hello Bob, greetings, thank you for your comment, and glad you’re still singing. I was in India when you first went on your Glee Club tour, at Mount Hermon School in Darjeeling. Came to the US and, by coincidence, attended H-R in the early 70s. I wish I had had the opportunity to study Indian classical or devotional music. Do you happen to know the American khyal singer Warren Senders or his music? Looked up the Arthur Morgan School and it looks idyllic. I’m still singing too, informally nowadays with a group called RUSH (Rise Up Singing in Harmony). You may know the Rise Up Singing songbook, which is our main source. Be well, J

      • Interesting about RUSH. I am friends with Loy McWhirter and Peter Blood, Rise Up’s editors. Went on a hike with Loy and others in idyllic snow in our mountains on Sunday.

        • Small world! Peter Blood was one of the co-hosts of the last Sunday’s singalong in celebration of Pete Seeger’s life and work, and spoke movingly about how whether you knew him personally or not, Pete was the same with everyone, at a concert speaking to thousands or in his living room conversing one on one: utterly transparent.

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