I’ve been listening to Allison Krause, Neil and Peggy Young and Celine Dion today. Songs, good songs, cast a spell. I feel them more than hear them, in my heart instead of with my ears. Sometimes the melody matters most and sometimes the lyrics dominate. The best songs, the ones that seem to live forever as classics, have both working together to create an indescribable feeling and deliver the song’s message.
Most songs, by virtue of their poetic structure, are thematic. Each verse is usually a component message or subtheme of the overall theme that gets repeated in the chorus. As in good interpretation, the strongest, most provocative themes make us think.
John Medina talks about meaning making in his book, Brain Rules. He suggests that we have to make meaning every ten minutes to keep people engaged. Songs are rarely even five minutes in length so their theme repetition must be frequent. In determining messages for communities, parks, zoos and museums, we might remember what a great song does. It becomes a kind of idea prayer wheel spinning in our brains. Some never fully go away, keeping the ideas in the forefront of our minds, allowing our thought process to evolve.
In the late 1960s I remember the songs of the Vietnam War era best. Often they had a meaningful theme that drove at the heart of the conflict and our diverse feelings about it. Country Joe and the Fish performing their Vietnam Song at Woodstock sang, “it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me. I don’t give a damn. The next stop is Vietnam.” It wasn’t great melody or song, but it stuck with you as an idea. The Weavers, a classic folk group, beautifully sang an Ed McCurdy song, “Last night I had the strangest dream I’d ever dreamed before. I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war.” I remember well the ache that went with hearing the lyrics as I thought of my friends who did not return or those who returned with life changing emotional or physical damage.
Songs reflect the times, giving us an ongoing journal of the human condition. Somewhere a songwriter is trying to explain global climate change in a manner that doesn’t sound like a physics lecture, a worthy challenge indeed. We need a young Mark Russell to play piano and explain this election to us with humor. The messages in current political ads are wearing the best of us down.
In Malawi, Mike Gondwe and Aaron Maluwa, museum educators, go out into villages to do HIV and malaria programs to encourage people toward more safe practices. About 18% of the people in that gentle but poor nation are HIV positive and more than a million orphans have lost their parents mostly to the scourge of HIV. Aaron and Mike embed their HIV messages in the traditional songs and dances of their culture. They want to preserve the rich cultural traditions of their nation, but recognize that people are dying and the traditional messages must change. The songs have a job to do culturally. The music endures in the minds and bodies of their people. The ideas live on and hopefully become a part of their cultural practices – “take only one wife and husband, be true to them, protect your children from HIV.”
As interpreters, we are often challenged to find ways to help people understand their world, their lives and the issues they face. Great interpretation must include powerful themes, the messages that can provoke further thought or action. Songs can sometimes provide the way to ask deep and probing questions. And where will we find the answers? “The answers, my friend, are blowing in the wind. The answers are blowing in the wind.”
– Tim Merriman