Late Night Melodies


Links to People, Places, and Priorities through the music of our youth.

My life has two dimensions - the potential and excitement of the future and the deep-rooted realities and powerful memories of the past. If you are under 60 years old this piece is probably not for you. My life at 66 years old combines a rich history with a hopeful future. It struck me today that the majority of my thoughts however, dip into a rich memory bank that is triggered by powerful stimulants like music, cyber-based access to old friends, and unending reminders of the past in the form of reunions, anniversaries, and life transitions, not to mention the occasional obituary of friends and acquaintances. In each case, memories are precious resources that sustain me as I face today’s challenges.

For me, one of the most powerful stimulants is the music of my teens, 20s, and 30s. There is hardly a night that goes by that I don’t crank-up a playlist, open a bottle of wine, and let the melodies, words and power of this music take me back to such wonderful, meaningful, and memorable times in my life. I realize that the poignant lyrics and beautiful music of Marvin Gaye in What’s Going On is as relevant today as it was in 1972. Who can argue that the protests, pleas for social justice, and humanity of the women of the ‘60s and ‘70s (Judy Collins, Joni Mitchel, Nina Simone, Joan Baez, Aretha Franklin, and many more) didn’t lead to reform and massive change? And the lasting impact of innovators like James Brown, Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan and many more, influenced millions of wet-behind-the-ears teenagers like me. Music was a critical part of my life.

I listened to Marvin Gaye sing Abraham, Martin and John the other night and I literally was speechless at the relevance of that song to today’s political realities. And what about Sam Cooke’s version of Change is Going to Come? I used to be moved by religious songs, especially the camp meeting songs and the hymns popularized and commercialized by the Gather Homecoming crowd. When I grew up in an evangelistic church community I thought there was something special in those songs. Not so much anymore. The overseeing, benevolent, all-powerful God is a rather tired concept that has devolved to prosperity Christianity and politically motivated, self-serving extremists. I have a nostalgic link to those songs but not a life-sustaining link.

I am moved when Marvin Gaye sings Save the Children because it asks significant questions that challenges us to make a difference today. Or the music of activists like Guthrie, Prine, Baez, Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. I draw on the memories of the songs and the artists that helped make me the person I am today. And it wasn’t just political. What about the love songs of Roberta Flake, Carole King, Barry White, Teddy Pendergrass, and many more. There are too many to mention. The abundance of unforgettable talent is my point.

My point is not to point you to a particular artist or style of music. The ones I have mentioned come from my time in life. Your music memories are special to you. Our experience, however, is the same.

I often retreat to the music of my early adult life to reenergize my soul. I think of the people with whom I experienced that music. They covered the essential intellectual, emotional, and political parts of my life. When I think of my friends of 20, 30, and 40 years I almost without exception link those memories to the music that we experienced together.

I can tie a moment in our lives to a particular song, melody or artist. Each night I go to a place that generates a special memory with a special friend. I never reveal that to the person. I just remember the times gone by and am thankful for those special times. I feel like a very rich man with a bank account of memories that no one can deplete.

So, when I retreat to my music and the wonderful memories that the music generates, I energize tomorrow by tapping the power of the past. Music is an experience that is personal, powerful, and long lasting. Not long ago I watched a video of catatonic Alzheimer’s and dementia patients who had literally no response to their surroundings or the people trying to engage with them. A therapist slipped and set of headphones on them and played some of the music that was most important to them in earlier stages of their lives. The response was almost instantaneous. Their eyes widen. Smiles crossed their face. And in almost every case they began to sing along with the music, tapping their feet to the beat and swaying to the life giving energy of the music. They left the darkness imposed on them by their illness and for a brief moment returned to the reality of times gone by; recollections of people, places and priorities rekindled by the genius and power of music.

In these most difficult times of political, racial, and economic upheaval I have a safe place to go even if it is just for a few moments where I can draw on the power of past experiences, relationships, and virtual reconnections that give me hope for the future. Late night melodies are a refueling station. I wake up in the morning eager to see how life will unfold. Thank you to all of you who are a part of that energy, part of my memories, and an influence in my life.

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