Published in the May 13, 2020 issue of Princeton Alumni Weekly.
At midnight on March 27, Bob Dylan released a previously unknown 17-minute song about the assassination of JFK. We don’t know when he wrote it, but its release is apropos. In recalling a past national trauma amid the present pandemic, Dylan offers us the opportunity to make meaning and take solace in appealing melodies combined with simple harmonies. “Murder Most Foul” invokes a singular event as part of a sweeping epic exploring the American experience, including the scourge of racism and struggle of the Civil Rights movement. References to Charlie Parker, Patsy Cline, and Stevie Nicks mingle with Irving Berlin’s 1920s hit “Blue Skies” in a stream-of-consciousness-style survey of American popular music. It’s the soundtrack of 20th-century history. Echoes of Americana include parlor sounds (old-time fiddle, piano, randomized drums, and cymbals) that drone on in the background while electronic swirls point to the dreams and nightmares ahead. Critic Peter Simek hears the words “Parkland hospital only six more miles” not in relation to Kennedy’s murder, but to COVID-19.
Like Dylan, composer Charles Ives catalogued the music around him — patriotic marches, hymn tunes, Beethoven sonatas, early-20th-century popular songs — and filled his compositions with quotations and borrowings, hoping to capture both the sounds of everyday life and the ideals of a transcendental unity achieved through music. On May 7, 1915, Ives climbed the stairs to the elevated train platform on his way uptown. The train was delayed; people piled up, their faces grim from the day’s news: The Lusitania had been torpedoed by the Germans with more than 1,100 souls lost at sea. Ives heard a melody: “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.” “Some workmen sitting on the side of the tracks began to whistle the tune,” Ives recalled, “and others began to sing or hum the refrain.” Dapperly dressed bankers joined in with the laborers, “and finally it seemed to be that everybody was singing this tune [not] for fun, but as a natural outlet for what their feelings had been going through all day long.” Eventually “the chorus sounded out as though every man in New York must be joining in it.”
Songs of solace flow through the American tradition. The hymn “My Life Flows On in Endless Song,” whose music is attributed to the Baptist minister Robert Wadsworth Lowry, contains the lines “Thro’ all the tumult and the strife / I hear the music ringing / It finds an echo in my soul / How can I keep from singing?” Megan Sarno *16, a musicologist at the University of Texas at Arlington, recorded the song with her husband and posted it on Facebook in March.
After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, his body (along with the exhumed remains of his son Willie, who had died at age 11 in Washington, D.C.) was carried by rail back to Springfield, Illinois. All along the way crowds gathered; military and amateur marching bands came out to play. Composer Alfred B. Sedgwick quickly set to music Lincoln’s favorite poem, “Oh, Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud,” by William Knox. The humble piano accompaniment and straightforward, declarative melody meant that the song found its way into many American parlors, sung by families grieving the loss of Lincoln.
Perhaps the most profound songs of suffering — and of hope — in American music come to us as a legacy of enslaved African Americans. W.E.B. DuBois dubbed them “sorrow songs.” They are more often today known as black spirituals. After Emancipation, these songs of sorrow, hope, spirit, and resilience found a new place in the concert hall as the concert spiritual, and the music built halls of hope. The Fisk Jubilee Singers earned enough during their arduous performance tours to fund the construction of Jubilee Hall at Fisk University. “To me,” DuBois wrote, “Jubilee Hall seemed ever made of the songs themselves, and its bricks were red with the blood and toil. Out of them rose for me morning, noon, and night, bursts of wonderful melody, full of the voices of my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past.” The novels of Princeton Professor Emerita Toni Morrison overflow with musicality and musical references to the spiritual as well as to blues and jazz.
An 1867 collection titled Slave Songs of the United States introduced African American spirituals in the oral tradition to white audiences in transcription. Among the best known spirituals in that anthology are “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” and “Rock o’ My Soul.” First published about a decade later, “Deep River” ranks among the most famous and most transformed spirituals, likened by musicologist Wayne Shirley to the beloved Christmas carol “Silent Night.” “Deep River” was subsequently arranged and rearranged in a fashion that estranged the tune from its original cultural and historical context, prompting the NAACP, in a 1922 statement, to complain about the pollution of the spiritual tradition. The earliest known, unaccompanied transcription involves a refrain that repeats the line “I want to cross over into the campground,” referring to a Christian gathering or revival meeting. It also refers to paradise, lending a double meaning to the description of hope in the midst of despair.
White and black Christian musical traditions come together in the folk hymn “Amazing Grace,” penned in 1772 by a rogue sailor involved in the Atlantic slave trade turned Anglican minister. The most familiar tune attached to the lyric is by the Southern Baptist preacher William Walker, a lifelong resident of Spartanburg, South Carolina. In Charleston, nine people were shot and killed at Mother Bethel AME Church in 2015. President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. “I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace,” he mused before breaking into the strains of “Amazing Grace.” Those gathered behind him on the dais and before him in the pews joined in, the audience transformed into a congregation and a chorus.
“Amazing Grace” speaks of joyful transformation, of finding faith, yet the sense of having been lost still lingers. Likewise, while major chords sound happy in Western music and minor ones sad, acousticians remind us that the major after the minor can sound all the sadder. Writer Sophie Roberts traces the biography of Vera Lotar-Shevchenko, a pianist who survived eight years of the Stalinist Gulag. Her husband, a violinist, did not; he was either shot, or lost his mind, or died of dystrophy. In the labor camp, Lotar-Shevchenko practiced in silence, tapping the wood of her bunk, into which the outlines of a keyboard had been carved. In these terrible tales, music is a means of survival. Even at the end of life, when the lullaby eases our passage not to sleep but to death, the life of this ineffable art prevails. Anthropologist Georgina Born, a visiting lecturer at Princeton, has recounted the memories of music — Schubert, to be specific — that her mother kept with her after Alzheimer’s had erased all else. Is the connection primal or spiritual? Certainly both.
At the intersection of our two nervous systems — the automatic, like the heartbeat or digestion, and the somatic, including conscious movement — lies the lungs. That’s why so many spiritual traditions from around the world ask us first to concentrate on our breathing as a portal to awareness and self-control. Coughing is instinctive and involuntary, yet we can control our breathing. Music turns breath into song and puts bodies in motion.
My sugar-fueled 9-year-old loves Dua Lipa’s new single, “Don’t Start Now,” from an album called Future Nostalgia. It comes and goes in a flash, with a beat calibrated to sound good on all our devices, the goal of music production today. You’ve heard Lipa’s combination of electronic dance music, hip-hop, and synth pop before, with a muscular “alpha female” groove its signature. “Don’t show up / don’t come out,” she tells us, enforcing the strictures of self-quarantine, and then to dance, dance, dance as a way to prevent climbing the walls.
But by all means dance, and sing, and listen online. Music is viral — in a good way. There might be much to dislike about social media of late: the fractiousness, the alienation, the gossip, the spying, the trolling. But let us at least praise the platforms that allow us to come together to make music. Solace as well as strength is found in numbers and in sound.