The Meaning(s) of Music:

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There’s music and there’s music.  I started out being a big fan of classical music as a preteen, most notably Mozart’s  Symphony No. #41, and Brahm’s First Symphony, both of which I’d listen to over and over again, whenever I had the opportunity.  Another favorite record of mine was The Red Army, which were a whole bunch of sad songs, sung in Russian, which I’ve never understood, but I loved the tunes and voices nonetheless, while failing to understand the meaning of the songs. That record, too, was another record that I’d play over and over again.  When my mom and I would drive somewhere, I’d always want her to put on the car radio, so that I could listen to the classical music coming over the radio.  Another record, called “Absolute Nonsense” by Oscar Brand, was another favorite of mine, which I brought to school one day in the third grade and played it for my class, evoking much laughter from most of my classmates.   My dad was always a big fan of jazz, especially Dixieland, and the likes of Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman, which  he’d put on full blast on Sunday mornings.  Since I never liked jazz, I could never, ever get into it.  

Then came the late 1950’s and the early to mid 1960’s, when the rock-n-roll scene began to grip the country.  The first rock-n-roll I heard was back in the summer of 1962, when I attended day camp out west for six weeks.  The Four Season’s  “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, and the songs “Davy Crocket”,  “Johnny get Angry”, and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”, all of which I found moving.  In 1963,  folk singers such as Peter, Paul & Mary, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, along with Pete Seeger and the Weavers were also on the  general music scene, although the Weavers were a favorite thing to listen to in our household even before the other afore-mentioned folksingers came along.  Since the early to mid 1960’s also issued in the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement,  much of the folk music back then also had special meaning.  Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in  the Wind” also had an intense meaning–it was about the civil rights movement, which meant  “The answer is coming”.   I ‘ve always loved Peter, Paul & Mary’s rendition of that song, and still do.  The Weaver’s rendition of “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd”, also has a special meaning, as it is about African slaves attempting  escape to the North for freedom via t he Underground railroad.  This particular song tells a story about how slaves traveled by night en route tNorth, and the Drinking Gourd was the Big Dipper.  The phrase

“for the old man is awaiting’ for to carry you to freedom”

, meant the North Star, which was at top of the Big Dipper, or the drinking gourd, as it was slangily called, was pointing to the direction of freedom–North.  It was a fitting name–and necessary to protect the escaping slaves from torture by sadistic  Southern white plantation masters,  who, fortunately for the slaves,  were not aware of what they were singing.  Although I was still too young to really understand the meaning of much of this music when it was first out, I became more aware of it when I got older.

Fast forward to the spring of 1964, when my sister and I were visiting relatives  then residing in a neighboring town from the initial  skepticism as a young seventh-grader, I watched the Beatles along with everybody else, and was charmed and impressed by the music.  The Beatles were in vogue during those years, and everybody had Beatles Albums, wrote “The Beatles” on notebooks and clipboards, and sang their songs on the buses to and from school every day.   Despite warnings by my mom that the Beatles would corrupt my taste in music, I listened to the Beatles and other rock-n-roll anyway.  For a time, she may have been right, but when I was well into adulthood, I began to understand the meaning of songs and to expand my tastes a bit more. At the height of Beatlemania, there were even Beatles cards, Beatles wallpaper, and Beatle sneakers, but my younger sister created her own on a pair of white sneakers.  Beatlemania continued throughout the mid-1960’s, although other rock groups, such as Herman’s Hermits, Dave Clark Five, and many other rock groups began to edge their way in.  Elvis Presley, long a big 1950’s icon for teens during that period, began to evolve with a new style during the rock-n-roll era.    Then came t he late 1960’s, with the advent of more psychedelic music, often, though not always, related to LSD trips and experimenting with other drugs, and t he Flower Children era.  Scott McKenzie’s famous song “San Francisco” was a good example of what was beginning, and was clearly about the Summer of Love in San Francisco’s Height-Ashbury section in 1967.  Aretha Franklin also became prominent with her song,  “Respect”, which demanded, as the song said., respect.  The Seeker’s “Georgy Girl”, a theme song from the movie, was about an ugly, gawky-looking girl who  is constantly excluded from parties and datings, while her beautiful-looking roommate is always partying, dating and having an active social life.  Later, Georgie’s turn comes, after she shyly and slowly makes changes in her dress and appearance.

The Beach Boys were also cool, and still are–and, like much other music, I loved listening to it, and never really analyzed t he meaning or message of sings that I listened to.  I just loved the tempo, the tunes,and enjoyed listening to the words.  The same thing was true when I listened to the Rolling Stones, Doors, the Who, and other  rock-n-roll groups.  Lots of t hat music is great for dancing to.  Due to issues that won’t be discussed on this essay, I didn’t have the opportunity to dance to this great music, but listening to it gave me lots of satisfaction.  The “Endless Summer’, about surfing, was also cool, as was the movie, which I saw twice.  The rock-n-roll music of that period reached its peak in 1968, and, then a slow decline in rock music began, although by 1969 and even well into the 1970s, there was still good rock music to be had, despite the 1970’s disco scene, which I wasn’t crazy about. Despite the fact that rock music has been up and down over the years, it is still cemented in people’s lives, and young people are discovering rock music from the 60s and 70s which they are loving, it is even inspiring them to take up their own musical instrument. This love of older music can lead them onto trying to find the best instruments for them to learn with. Kids can click here to read reviews on such things as guitars so they can start.

I’ve never been a big fan of Country music generally, but even some of that had a special appeal to me.  Johnny Cash’s  “A Boy Named Sue”, although funny, was also clear that boys with different names from the norm also had to face some tough challenges t o their machismo, and therefore their very survival.   Glen Campbell, whose politics I’m not crazy about, also had some wonderful songs during that period.   “Gentle on My Mind”, which is clearly about a rambling man who misses his lady love and thinks about her a lot,  is a beautiful song.  Written by Jim Webb, Glen Campbell sings with this song with much gusto and emotion.  Although “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, a song about a guy who was leaving his longtime girl for the last time,  was also a big hit of Glen Campbell’s during that time, I could never bring myself to really get into that particular song.  I just didn’t like it so much,.  However, “Wichita Lineman”, about a lineman working the telephone lines for his county, missing his love and “hearing her singing through the wires”, was an intense song that I came to like a great deal, and was another Jim Webb Song sang with much emotion by Glen Campbell.  However, I believe that Glen Campbell’s best songs were as follows:  “Galveston”, another Jim Webb Song, is about a young man who goes off to war without knowing why, leaving his dark-eyed girlfriend and his hometown of Galveston behind.  Missing them, he often dreams of his girlfriend and of Galveston  The most intense part of this song is


“I still see her standing by the water

standing there lookin’ out to sea.

and she waiting there for me,

on the beach where we used to run”

“Galveston, oh Galveston,

I am so afraid of dying

Before I dry the tears she’s crying

Before I watch your seabirds flying

in the Galveston”

The song, Galveston, which came out in 1969, during our Indo China involvement, imo, has a very anti-war flavor to it, and is sung with much aplomb and emotion by Glen Campbell–very moving–even tear-jerking. Originally a Civil War song, it was made a hit by Glen Campbell in 1969, during our Viet Nam conflict, and sung by Glen with much emotion.

“True Grit”,  the theme song from the movie, which I saw during the summer of 1969, when it first came out, is also quite moving, and beautifully sung by Glen Campbell.  The movie “True Grit”, which is set during the late 1800’s in the American West, is about a 14-year-old girl who, determined to avenge her father’s death and to see his killer brought to justice, is helped by a drunken one-eyed marshall (John Wayne), and “La Boeuf”, a sheriff from Texas (Glen Campbell).

Two other hits of Glen Campbell’s, “Rhinestone Cowboy”,  and “Country Boy”, are also songs that’re are sung with aplomb and emotion.  “Rhinestone Cowboy” is about a guy who makes it bigtime in the big city–

“hustle’s the name of the game, and nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain”

and the hustling that one does in order to survive in the fast lane.   “Country Boy”, which is probably  written with Elvis Presley in mind, is about a country boy from Tennessee who goes to L. A., makes it in the fast lane, and yet keeps looking back to his roots, in Tennessee.  Both “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Country Boy” are also sung with great emotion by Glen Campbell.

Now, with more folksy music, one of my favorite folk-rock composers is Ontario, Canada-born Gordon Lightfoot, who I’ve seen in concert  and who I thought performed beautifully. .One of the songs he sang while in concert was “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, and he was excellent.  Although I’m a big fan of Gordon Lightfoot, his chilling, haunting song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, based on a true to life event, is my favorite Gordon Lightfoot song.    This song, about a great big freighter with an experienced crew of 29 men who met a horrible fate when their ship broke apart and sank  to the bottom of Lake Superior in one of its notorious November storms, often moves me a great deal, and seems to send a message that life can be snuffed out in a moment, at Mother Nature’s whims.  Lake Superior is said to have claimed even more lives than the Gulf of Mexico, and the words

“Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings, in the rooms of her ice-water mansion”

which mean that the lake is so cold that people who end up in Lake Superior, especially at that time of year, have no chance of survival unless help is obtained right away.  The words

“Superior, they say, never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early”

mean that the bodies are often never found again, because the water is much too cold to give rise to the kind of bacteria that cause dead bodies to become bloated and rise to the surface.  

The words  

“later that night, when the ship’s bell rang,

     could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?

     And  every man knew, as the captain did too,

      ‘Twas the witch of November come stealin””

clearly mean that one of the ultra-ferocious November gales that Lake Superior is known for, was eminent, and they could not avoid it.

Other songs about true to life events abounded during that period also.  Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Four Dead in Ohio”, also about the killing of four students at Kent State University by the National Guard at the height of an anti-war protest is also a good example of a song whose message must be listened to closely, as it, too,  points out that life can be snuffed out senselessly and without warning.

Barbara Streisand’s rendition of Laura Nyro’s “Stoney End”, is also movingly beautiful, and, although I’ve always had the impression that it’s about being stoned, it’s also about the ruefulness of  having engaged in a one-night stand, but probably being stoned in the process as well.  Barbara Streisand sings this song with great emotion and abandon, and seems to be at her finest in the process.  

There are many, many more songs that have a special meaning, but I just picked certain songs as examples of songs that really do carry a special meaning and message.  Although I always enjoyed listening to the above-mentioned songs and more (and still do), the meaning of many songs has never been considered until recently.  The older songs, imo,  are among the best and the strongest, although there was also much junk in those days, also.  Jeannie C. Riley’s  “Harper Valley PTA”, from 1968,  about a mother who takes the floor at a Harper Valley, Ohio PTA meeting one afternoon to blast them for their hypocrisy, is also a powerful, moving song, which engenders a “go get ’em” attitude,   still  a long way to go.  This song gives a feeling of strength.  Nancy Sinatra’s songs, “These Boots are Made for Walkin'”, and “Lightening’s Girl”, are also songs about the tough assertiveness of women warning friendly men not to mess around where they shouldn’t.   Both the above-mentioned songs of hers are sung with much aplomb, bite and heartfelt emotion, and her voice is rather cool, imo.

Other songs, such as Hensen Cargill’s  “Skip A Rope”, which also came out during that same period, point out the dangerous, destructive consequences of racism,  are also moving, but sobering, and the message is also worth listening closely too.  some of the songs during that period are about  the beauty of love at its height, and/or or love that has gone wrong,  or on the verge of going wrong,  Some songs of that period are just plain fun and fantasy.  Others, such as the above-mentioned songs in this essay, have special messages about the way life is in general, while others such as the Tremeloes’ “Here Comes My Baby“,  which, although about broken love, are also great for dancing to.

Some of the songs move me t o the point of wanting to dance, others are for listening closely to, others bring about a feeling of exuberance, and still others are tear-jerking.

One  song  “Let Her Go Down”, about a ship that sank due to t he captain’s arrogance and refusal to put his ship to port despite the threat of a raging storm off of England’s coast, and is made famous by the rock group, The Hollies, is clearly indicative of and sends a message about what’s going on today with our administration.  When I first listened to that song, I was immediately reminded of the arrogance of the people now in power in Washington, who seem  not to care  what happens to this country.  “Let her go Down”, imo is a rather fitting song for that, and, although I forget who it was originally written by,  the Hollies do it beautifully, with much emotion.  Since the list of my favorite songs would invariably go on forever, I only mentioned afew of them, and what I think they mean.

Regarding classical music,  my favorite classical music pieces are Tchaikovskiy’s “Nutcracker Suite”, ‘Swan Lake”, and Handel’s “The Messiah”, especially the Christmas part.  Christmas carols, even though Christmas issn’t my holilday, never cease to move me when they’re sung and/or played by a professional organist  and choir.  The schmaltzy renditions, however, that blare out of department stores and malls during the Christmas season, however, turn me off.  Until I was an adult, I always regarded Christmas carols as a special kind of music only to be played/sung at a certain time of the year, but never thought of them as having any religious connotations to them.  Now that I’m older and more aware., I still regard Christmas carols as beautiful, but yet many of them have a somewhat darker message mixed in, regarding religion.

Opera, for some reason, is something that I’ve never been able to get into, and the same thing is true of Jazz.  

The music from West Side Story also has meaning–it helps bind and package together a beautiful movie/musical classic that’s a well-loved golden-oldie-but goody classic that , for all the racial/ethnic tensions and urban gang warfare, provides a ray of hope, as well as  a concrete message about the destructive consequences of bigotry and hatred.  

Many of the older songs, I believe, reflect different aspects of life, the general, fast moving tempo of life and the desire to slow down and take a longer look around oneself, of great love at its peak, and of love gone wrong, or about to go wrong.   The song “Love is All Around” by the Troggs tells of love at its most beautiful and at its height.  Other  songs also tell of strength, emotions felt, and of vengeful acts  committed in the name of love.  They also tell about how life can never be taken for granted, because it can be lost or compromised in a moment.  

I believe that music takes many different forms, and many different meanings.


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    • mplo on September 11, 2010 at 15:57
    • Edger on September 11, 2010 at 20:22

  1. I suspect that song antedated speech. It has such a deep, internal resonance. Plato observed the power of song, especially when it was accompanied by music. In fact the poetry of some poets seem to call for musical arrangement, like many of the poems of Langston Hughes and Longfellow. Thanks for making me reflect on one of my old musical projects.  

    • Atticus on September 17, 2010 at 22:10

    Thanks for the reminder – this one always haunted me.  It’s been good to hear it again.

  2. … a Hawaiian number called Kaulana na pua.

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