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Memories in music

47

It’s common knowledge that aromas can evoke strong memories. Evergreens, cinnamon rolls, fresh-cut grass …

Music does the same for me. I love modern music (I check iTunes almost every Tuesday for new rock, pop and alternative releases), but occasionally I listen to some “oldies.” Just a snippet of an old song can transport me back in time, bringing memories so sharp, so clear that I can almost imagine I’m there again.

Music is a part of my very earliest memories. One of the first songs I remember hearing on the radio is “Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hank Williams. Written a couple of years before I was born, it was still played on country radio stations when I was old enough to pay attention. I couldn’t have been more than five or six in my memories of singing along with that song from Daddy’s radio (he was and still is a country music fan).

My mother’s father, my beloved “granddaddy,” loved music. I remember sitting with him on his living room sofa beneath a big print of a woman playing a harpsicord (I have that print now). Every day, he watched the Lawrence Welk Show and a local TV program starring Little Rock’s Venable Quartet. I specifically remember two songs that group sang — “This Old House” and “Scarlet Ribbons.” Granddaddy loved both those songs, and I remember him singing along. I would have been less than nine years old, because my grandmother passed away and he moved out of that house after that.

My mother and her three younger sisters all had beautiful voices. They sang together often while growing up, less often but still beautifully as adults. Mother had a strong, rich alto voice. She sang around the house all the time, and very frequently in church. Sometimes she performed  duets with our family friend, Bobby Messer. I can still hear them singing “In the Garden” and “Fill My Cup, Lord.” Hearing either of those songs now brings tears to my eyes. As does the song, “Stardust.” That was Mother’s favorite. She simply adored it. A few days before she slipped away, her youngest sister, my aunt Gerry, and I sang the song to her. I don’t know if she heard us, but I hope she did. I didn’t inherit Mother’s voice — I sing a decent alto, but nothing like hers — but she passed along her love of music to me and to my brothers, two of whom have sung in country and gospel groups.

I grew up in the Salem Baptist Church in a rural area outside Benton, Arkansas. Open the old Baptist Hymnal and turn to any page, and chances are I’ll know almost all the words to the song there. Music was a big part of the services in our church that had once been a dairy barn. There was still a big drain in the center of the concrete floor of the sanctuary. That old building has long since been replaced, but I loved that dairy barn church. I can still hear the slightly out-of-tune piano played with great enthusiasm by Jessie Thurman, my best friend’s mother,while music director Kenneth Floyd (a well-digger in his day job) led us in singing, “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus” and “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus (Sweetest Name I Know).”

Mother and Bobby Messer were the leaders of the youth group that was the center of my teen social life. We sang a lot. In the late sixties and early seventies, youth group musicals were very popular, and our group traveled to many other churches to perform. If ever I hear “The House of the Rising Sun” on an oldies station now, I remember how we sang “Amazing Grace” to that tune, and thought we were so cool for doing so. Mother led the song, very proud of herself for keeping our performances “hip.” I’m not sure she ever knew the tune came from a song about a house of ill repute.

I live nearly an hour away from that church now, and I have to confess that I don’t attend services every Sunday, even though I’m a long-time member of a church closer to where I live. Services aren’t the same now. We no longer sing the old songs from a worn hymnal, but newer choruses from a projector screen at the front of a modernized, sound-wired sanctuary. I miss those old dairy barn services that filled every Sunday of my childhood. Mother and Bobby are both gone now, but they’re still with me when I hear those old songs.

Like many teenagers, I spent hours in my room. I had a record player that never rested, playing the same LPs (look it up, kids) over and over until they were worn out. I had every album The Monkees released (Granddaddy bought several of them for me before he died in ’67, even though he hated their music, himself). I was deeply enamored with Mickey Dolenz, David Cassidy and Bobby Sherman. Even then I wrote stories, filling notebook after notebook with melodramatic fan fiction that I stashed under the bed where no one could read them. After I outgrew my childhood fantasy of growing up to be Carol Burnett (she could sing, she could act, she was funny and she seemed fearless to me), I concentrated on my dream of someday being a published writer like Mary Stewart, my all-time favorite. To this day, music and writing are intrinsically connected in my mind. I still write with music, though it comes from my computer rather than a record player.

When I hear anything by Bread, I’m swept back to sleepovers at LeeAnn’s house. James Taylor, Carly Simon and Carole King were the soundtrack to my summer jobs at the Sterling Department Stores home office and riding in my friend Jan Messer’s orange Pinto. Leigh and I listened to The Fifth Dimension. Ricky Caldwell introduced me to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven — I’m back in his family’s rec room whenever I hear it. My dear friend Henry Casey, a Beatles fanatic, used to play the guitar and sing “Norwegian Wood” — and I was so envious of his musical talent. The Beatles and Henry are always connected for me now.

I met my now-husband in my first college class in the fall of ’73, and we started dating at the end of that semester. I’ll admit it — we were huge Barry Manilow fans. Barry had just released “Could It Be Magic” and I guess that was “our song.” We saw him in concert at college in ’75, and to this day, Manilow equates to college and courtship for me.

I hear Styx or John Denver, and I’m back in a car with my brother Dennis, headed off for a day at the lake with my now-husband and his best friend, Bill. At my wedding, my aunt Gerry sang John Denver’s “Follow Me” and The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and my talented friend Henry played his guitar and sang “The Wedding Song.” Henry died much too young of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, yet I’m with him again whenever I hear that song or “Norwegian Wood.”

The eighties brought music videos, and I was fascinated by them. My husband and I spent  Christmas Eve night  of 1984 putting together an unexpectedly-complicated toy kitchen from Santa Claus. We wrestled with it until almost four in the morning while videos played on the TV to keep us awake — Bonnie Tyler, a-ha, Culture Club, The Eurythmics, Madonna. I still like music from the 80s, and seeing any of those old videos reminds me of that sleepless Christmas Eve night.

So many more songs. So many more memories. So many more connections to people I have loved.

I know of one song that will always remind my own children of their father. Though he, too, loves music (he’s got a weakness for “elevator music,” to our kids’ good-natured derision), he doesn’t sing. The one song he warbled for the kids when they were little was the chorus to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” He’d sing it very loudly in a broad country drawl, and they’d all groan and cover their ears. When we were driving our oldest daughter to college for the first time, that song came on the radio. Our kids were stunned.

“That’s a real song?” Courtney asked in disbelief. “We thought Daddy made it up!”

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Award-winning, best-selling author of women's romance fiction.

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