Five Songs

Ever since I posted the question this morning about the five songs that changed your life, I’ve been wondering what my five songs would be. And for my musician friends, let’s stipulate that when I say “song” I also mean “piece”, so we can cover instrumental music of all kinds without the annoying “song/piece” construct.

The difficulty for me is figuring out whether the music changed me, or if it just came from a time in my life where a lot of change was happening, so it feels like a song of change. As I search my playlists, I’m striving to find the music that actually caused change in me, made me see the world differently, or behave differently, or take action.

Limiting this to five songs is brutal, but I did it. They appear in chronological order. I’ve only included links for songs that are likely to be unfamiliar.

Led Zeppelin, Ramble On–Long before I discovered my intense love of travel, I found this song. It’s an anthem for knowing when it’s time to move on, when the season has come for us to change our circumstances. There’s an underlying itchiness in that song, a fidgeting quality in the pulsing guitar, a sound that says “okay, let’s go, come on, no more delays, I can only say goodbye so many times, I have to move…” It was the first time I pondered my own restlessness, the first time I considered that it might be okay that I’m not the type of person who puts down roots. The very idea of roots scares me. But that’s another song.

Aram Khatchaturian–Toccata

This was not my first 20th Century piano piece, as my teachers had assigned many a Copeland and Bartok prior to this. I’d discovered Bartok’s percussiveness years before, and enjoyed playing him, but the study of this Toccata gave me a completely different view of 20thC music, its abstractness, the beauty of dissonance, and the sheer power of movement. There’s a great deal of anger in this piece for me, a controlled expression of fury, and getting to the point where I could play that rage through a piano was absolutely theraputic. Knowing I could hold that energy in my hands and convey it safely was transformative.

Bruce Cockburn, Don’t Feel Your Touch–This is the song that is on the fence for me; is it a song that matched what I was going through? Or was it a song that pushed me to change? Tim gave me this song, the last item on a mix tape (yes! an actual tape!) he made for me just after we’d gotten back in touch as adults. It was the song that introduced me to Bruce Cockburn, and the lyrics became reality for me.

In front of a newborn moon pushing up its glistening dome
I kiss these departing companions – take the next step alone
I just said goodnight to the closest thing i have to home…

Not long after I first heard that song, I did kiss my dear friends in Carbondale goodbye, and took a really big step alone. Carbondale was, in fact, the closest thing I’d ever had to a home. The lyrics still give me a lump in my throat. and as I was in the throes of falling in love with my husband, the other lyrics:

To be held in the heart of a friend is to be a king
But the magic of a lover’s touch is what makes my spirit sing
When you’re caught up in this longing all the beauties of the earth don’t mean a thing

were also part of our story. The song is still among my all-time favorites.

Nina Simone, Love Me or Leave Me

Nina was a late discovery for me, and it took me a little while to get used to her unique voice. I was used to Ella, Billie, Diane Schur, but this was different.

I had heard of Nina Simone, but figured she was just another singer. A singer with a very odd voice. A singer whose appeal I did not understand. And then I found out that the pianist doing the elaborate, very skilled, fascinating solos behind the vocals was, in fact, Nina Simone. I was stunned. Having studied piano since I was a child, I thought I was familiar with the names, at least, of the great pianists, and certainly those of the great jazz pianists, and NO ONE had mentioned Nina Simone. Not once. I was, briefly, enraged. Then I started reading her story of having been denied for a scholarship (despite her awesome audition) because she was black, and how that turned her down a path, defiant and angry, that infused her music with a power that intrigued me. She incorporated classical technique and harmonies with gospel and jazz and blues, and it’s some of the richest, most complex music I enjoy. She just fascinates me. If I were to pursue an advanced degree in music, she’d be the subject of my thesis. (it’s not happening. stand down, army of encouragers.)

This song–and discovering Ms. Simone–inspires me to find my own voice, musically and artistically.

Gomez, See the World

When my daughter and I went on our first roadtrip to Oregon all those years ago (4?), this was our theme song. I have long known I wanted to travel, but this was the first time I got to set my own pace. It was really my first “solo” roadtrip, and at three weeks, was the longest time I’ve ever spent on the road. The feel of moving across this country a mile at a time, of experiencing the different environments of each state, of being overwhelmed by the grasslands and the mountains–it’s all captured in this song. It’s the celebration of travel, of movement, of change, of pulling out of the rut of the day-to-day and out into the world of experience.

Movement, travel, energy, activity; these are the elements of life that I value. These songs helped me uncover these things about myself, and move more confidently in the direction of being who I am, instead of who I’m expected to be.

So think about it: what are your five songs?


(See also Bruce Cockburn’s song The Gift for more exploration of the beauty of change and movement as part of life.)

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