I became a grampa on the 25th of July. It’s a wonderful gift that my daughter and son-in-law have given, but it’s also an awesome responsibility. There are all sorts of things I’ve got to teach my grandson: how (and when) to cuss; how to spit; how to whittle.
And why Johnny Cash, Bob Seger, and Bruce Springsteen are totally awesome, but Billy Joel, not so much.
I am sure some of you want to make sure that Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and company are not left out. Fine, but I can’t take any role in that. That is not where I came from. I remember seeing something on public TV many years ago about how humans learn to speak. There are certain phonemes that one can only learn to distinguish among when one is very young. Before a certain age, you can tell the difference, and after a critical time, you cannot. That’s the way it’s been with me and classical music.
At least that’s my story, and I am sticking to it.
The first song I can ever remember hearing on the radio and know the name of is “Walking the Floor Over You” by Ernest Tubb. I was so young I didn’t understand what the lyrics meant. I thought that the singer lived on the second floor or something, or that it was like Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart” and someone was buried beneath the floorboards, but I digress.
No, I am forever separated from classical music by a gulf, like Dives is from the bosom of Abraham, but even with the kind of music I like there are levels.
The troubadour, the minstrel is on a journey. In the days of the modern rock band, this is literally so. They climb off the stage and onto a bus, but before that, they are on a journey through life. As people on a journey, they come from someplace which they carry as a part of themselves. They see the world and act as translators of it. They observe the world and they translate it into their native language. And the best, the very best can interpret the story so the rest of us can understand it, at least a little.
Acting as an interpreter is an important part of it. Johnny Cash, a great song writer, was also a great interpreter. Though his journey had never taken him to prison, he could interpret in such a way that those who had been there took him as one of their own. Such was his talent that those songwriters who were lucky enough for him to cover their songs, often paid the price of losing them forever.
There is also the importance of the craft. In his song “Turn the Page,” Bob Seger takes us through a day in the life of a rock star. This is a song in which every word has been carefully placed: “Here I am / Out on a road again.” It is “a” road, not “the” road. The selection of the indefinite article over the definite article is telling us something. “The road” is a place of romance and adventure; “a road” is just another road.
That particular song is also tied together very well. In the first stanza he says, “You can think about the woman or the girl you knew the night before;” he closes the last stanza with “You smoke the day’s last cigarette, remembering what she said.”
I’d never paid much attention to Bruce Springsteen until his song “The Rising” which came out of his experience of 9-11-2001. With maturity of his talents, he managed to take that tragedy and to find hope. After that, I’ve listened to some of his older stuff and have discovered he is a master. His talent as an interpreter is confirmed with his We Shall Overcome album wherein he pays tribute to Pete Seeger. If I had any doubt about his continuing talent, it was assuaged by “Girls in their Summer Clothes” which conveys a particular emotion made perfect in men older than 50.
In each of these artists, there is something that gets better with listening. There is depth.
This is the opposite of what I’ve found in Billy Joel. I know he has a lot of fans, and I apologize if I’ve offended you, but maybe you should stop reading now because this is going to get worse. I enjoyed his work for many years, but when I pressed it for the sorts of things I enjoyed from Cash, Seger, and Springsteen, it simply wasn’t there. There is a word I’ve heard others use for this collection of qualities: soul.
So I will let others teach grandson about Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. I will teach him about Cash, Seger, and Springsteen.
(Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, is Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at Pittsburg State University. He blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. We invite you to “like” the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. )