While driving this past week, Johnny Nash once again serenaded me with his hit single from 1972, I Can See Clearly Now. And once again I felt literally lifted up by music. It’s one of those songs that is difficult to sing or even listen to without smiling. A feel-good musical achievement if ever there was one.
This got me thinking about the healing power of music. Surely we all have our own songs that soothe our souls, tap our toes, compel us to perform drumrolls on our dash boards at stoplights. But there are some songs that seem to have this effect on a broader segment of the population. What makes a song so? A story or experience within the song that is universally understood? (…all of the bad feelings have disappeared…) Simplicity of lyrics? (It’s gonna be a bright, bright, bright, bright sunshiny day?) A melody that is repetitive and reasonable for the average shower-soloist to master or music that requires a vocal range of a mere octave to sing?
I suppose it is all that, but the critical ingredient I think is that the music and words connect universally to hearts. Somehow, when Johnny Nash sings this song of hope we all go to that place in our own story in which we came through a dark time and found at last–and to our surprise–the rain really was gone. So without direction, we rejoice in the way this song holds our experience to the light. We have a sense of unity with Johnny and a whole host of people we know and love who have come through unspeakable pain. I think of Janet, who lost both breasts to cancer ten years ago but never lost her endless sense of humor, to the point of wearing pasties on the outside of her shirt, on her padded bra, just weeks after her surgery, to go see Cher in concert.
I think of friends who were dragged through a lawsuit of epic proportions suffering intense media scrutiny, humiliation, and nearly losing the farm, and lived to see the day when the verdict set them free.
I think of couples whose lives were ripped apart and spent years sifting through the wreckage to establish separate accounts and houses and photo albums, who now have found peace and are humbler, wiser, and more loving because they have learned to forgive one another and themselves.
I think of children who have lost parents and gone from being lost, stricken, fragile babies to determined, compassionate, strong young adults engaged in the game of life even as they silently hit one out of the park or work to raise funds for cancer, becoming a person whose parent surely is singing with joy from another realm.
Last spring, the Men’s Chorus at my son’s high school performed Brown Eyed Girl a capella. Another feel good song to which most anyone can sing along. But the one they performed that connected to my very heart was Sweet Caroline, made famous by Neil Diamond. The concert was outside and these Boys To Men sang with gusto and boyish choreography extending their arms as they belted out, Touching You….Touching Meeeeeeeee!
I think the definitive question an artist addresses when composing songs we love best, was best posed by Hank Williams Jr. in his song, The Ride: “Boy, can you make folks feel what you feel inside?”
That seems to be the difference between songs we like, and songs we love. When an artist can make us feel what they feel inside, every single time we hear them sing a particular song, we are connected once again to something beyond ourselves.
And we are reminded that our story is part of a larger narrative. And the space between us is shortened. And something we cannot touch lifts up our hearts and fills us with endless hope.