I’ve loved music since I was a very little girl. My parents owned a record store before I was born; their music collection was spectacular, including every emblematic song of the 60s with rare gems thrown in. My earliest memories of their records are of the Beatles’ “All Together Now,” with its b-side of “Hey Bulldog,” a song so dark that it scared me. I can picture the green apple on the record label. I can picture the carpeted floor beneath me. I can remember the spot between the couch and the record cabinet where I sat and carefully edged the records out of their sleeves.
Like most people, my most powerful musical memories take me right back into the moment, bringing with them the smells and images and sensations that were present when the memories embedded themselves. In his fascinating book about music and the brain, the late neuroscientist Oliver Sachs wrote, “Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.”
These ten songs represent powerful piercings of my heart over the last twelve years of parenting my daughter Sammi, which was — as mothers of medically complicated children know — a more physical, spiritual, and emotional journey than the one I’ve shared with my older daughter. Of course there is powerful music to remember with her, too, but this music below served as survival tools in unique ways for Sammi and I. Perhaps these tools will help others, as well.
Pretty Saro by Iris Dement
Sammi is a baby in the back seat of the car. It is three a.m., and I am driving her up I94 in Chicago, toward the Wisconsin border, for no particular reason. The doctor has told us to keep her calm at all costs; crying and stress would increase her blood pressure. Increasing her blood pressure will force her aorta to pulse faster. If her aorta pulses faster, it will squeeze her airway and esophagus, which is dangerous. It will do this because we’ve just discovered that she has a double aortic arch. Surgery is in another week. We’ve been driving her around at night for two weeks already, just keeping her calm when she wakes in the night. This song stops her crying almost immediately. My husband and I play it on repeat.
Jenny Ran Away in the Mud in the Night by Rhys Jones and Christina Wheeler
Sammi is two and Ronni is five. I am in a string band called Nobody’s Darlings, and we practice once a week together. I’ve just learned about something called cross-tuning, making the bottom two strings the same notes as the top two strings on my fiddle, moving from GDAE to AEAE. It makes it much easier to get more sound, hitting multiple strings at once without contorting my fingers at the top to make a nice chord. My daughters dance in the dining room around the table as I practice at home. I look up, and they are holding both hands and skipping in a lopsided circle as I play. They’re friends, I realize. I play longer. At the music school while we wait for Ronni to finish her lessons, Sammi dances alone on the silent stage. She only needs the music in her head.
Riding With No Hands by Ralph Covert
In our new house, my older daughter and her best friend are playing dress-up. They are also dressing-up Sammi, putting a fairy dress and wings on her, holding her hands as she puts her tiny feet into dress-up shoes. She’s everyone’s little sister; every big six-year-old who comes to our house adopts her, rolls her into their games, brings her along. She’s the mascot. She’s the puppy. She’s everyone’s doll. She believes they are all her friends, too, and they are. She races to catch up, and they wait for her.
Leaving Brittany by Celtic Fiddle Festival
My friend Deborah calls me one Sunday morning and offers me a ticket to a concert that afternoon. I have a four year old and a seven year old; spontaneity is not my bag, these days, but for some reason, the stars align with my own motivation, and I go. The musicians are known as Celtic Fiddle Festival, a group of celtic superstars. Though I’ve been playing traditional fiddle tunes for years, I’ve never liked celtic music. I don’t know why I’m going, but when they strike the first note, I am transfixed. They play a tune called Leaving Brittany, a lamenting, loping, gorgeous meditation. I close my eyes and see tall ships leaving a port. I see women wrapped in shawls, holding babies, watching until the ships are gone. I feel the wind. I feel the tiny sparks of a story. I forget about my children, about the suspicious way Sammi is gagging these days. I forget my own name. I buy the CD. I learn to play the music of Quebec. I am in love.
The Mexican Hat Dance
Sammi is in kindergarten in a language immersion program for Spanish. For Dia de los Muertos, every class does a performance. Her class performs the Mexican Hat Dance. The version they used employs the word “la” in place of every note, and we sing it constantly, everywhere, all the time, until it forms the rhythm for everything we do: dishes, walks to school, climbing the stairs. It drives me mad. I will come to miss it.
Wash Away by Joe Purdy
At age six and seven, Sammi requests this song often in the car. We now all have musical tastes and not all of them compatible, so we devise a request process: everyone takes turns choosing a song on our drives out to our girls’ grandmother’s house or wherever else we’re driving for more than a few minutes. I am the DJ in charge of the MP3 player; each person can request a specific song or a “nice surprise.” I hear Sammi’s little-girl, out-of-tune, guileless voice belt out “I’m in trouble lord but not today,” and it melts me. I turn up the volume.
All of Me by John Legend
She’s going into the cardiac operating room again at age eight. In school chorus, they sing this song, and she practices it for months around the house before the concert and before the surgery she doesn’t know yet that she’s having. I excuse myself to the bathroom to cry every other day after school as she sits at the kitchen counter, eating raspberries and singing.
Naughty from the Broadway Soundtrack to Matilda
Sammi wants to see the Statue of Liberty, and so we plan a trip to New York while she recuperates in her hospital bed. I pick a Broadway show based solely on a friend’s recommendation, and, months later, I find myself awestruck at the perfection of it all. Sammi is a tiny newly-nine-year-old, and I sneak a peek at her face as she hears the lyrics. “Even if you’re little, you can do a lot. You mustn’t let a little thing like little stop you.” I hope she’s listening. I keep hoping.
Bright by Echosmith
The first time I hear this song, I am in the car after dropping Sammi off somewhere, a friends house, a rehearsal, a soccer practice. It stops me in the middle of everything else I was thinking.
It’s all true.
The Greatest by Sia
Sammi is twelve. We are waiting in the audience to watch her sister perform in a play, perhaps the fourth or fifth time we’ve seen this show. Music is playing as people take their seats. I’m looking at my program, zoned out, when I hear Sammi singing along to the beginning of this song. “Uh oh, running out of breath but I oh I, I got stamina.” I turn to watch her as she sings along. I’ve never heard the song before. It’s perfectly pitched for her voice, which has become lovely and clear. “Don’t give up, I won’t give up, don’t give up, no no no…” she sings, and I hear it. I really hear it.
I just hope she hears herself. I hope she always does.
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post. Each week, Kenya of Sporadically Yours and Kristi of Finding Ninee share a prompt and a theme. This week, they’ve added special guest host Jen Kehl of JenKehl.com, former goddess of Twisted Mix Tape Tuesdays (find her at the Stereo Sisters on Facebook). The prompt was “10 songs/pieces of music that changed me.”