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Music Takes Us Back and Moves Us Forward

by Joe Kennedy

When the earth moved last Tuesday afternoon,  I did what Americans do — I tried to  decide whom to blame. I’ve been watching and listening to a lot of news shows lately, so the top two choices came easily to mind: Barack Obama and global warming.

 I was glad I thought of them so quickly. It gave me time to ponder their possible roles while I continued to work on the column I’d started to write. I called it,  “The Sound of Music.”

Since having my stroke in February 2009, I’ve contemplated putting together a photo essay called “After My Stroke.”

It would show Kathy, my caregiver, arriving at work here, at my house. It would show  medical staffers greeting me when I arrived for my doctors’ appointments. It would show my acupuncturist standing by her sign; my fishing  boat, idle since Stroke Day; the TV I  bought to accommodate my visual impairment and my weekly pill box, worth its weight in gold, at current prices.

It would show my checkbook, as  wrinkled and worn as a cowboy’s face on his 100th  birthday, and it would show my box of CDs covered with dust to indicate how far I have wandered from music, one of my loves.

How did music affect my recovery?  For starters, it brought back memories of the friends  and parties of my youth and young adulthood. I met my wife at such an event, in the party room at Roanoke’s Pebble Creek Apartments.

Her death more than a decade ago turned much of that beloved old music into steely  blades pressing against my  heart. As  a consequence,  I turned away from the tear-starters and lost myself in books and even TV, which would have been unthinkable a dozen years ago.

I once had a different caregiver who would ask why I never played music. My answer,  I’m sure, was brief. I didn’t want to talk about music, listen to it or think about it. No longer did the Beatles, Otis Redding, Joanie Mitchell  or Merle Haggard have the power to lift my spirits. They could only lower them.

The silent household made me sad. I grew up in a house full of music, with my father and sister playing the piano and my brother Jim singing and playing the guitar.

A few months ago, I put on an Otis Redding CD. The simple music, heard so many times, barely caused a stir in me. Then I played some other stuff: jazz and blues, a pinch of Sinatra. My spirits started to lift. Several weeks later, a kind friend invited me to the recent Gillian Welch concert at Roanoke’s Jefferson Center. The show was terrific and my music appreciation was redlining. I loved it.

Lately I’ve  been listening to a cast  recording of “Stonewall Country,” the historical drama that ran for so many glorious summers at Lime Kiln Theatre in Lexington. I marveled again at the cleverness of the composers, Robin and Linda Williams, and I yearned for the time when Sharon and I returned season after season with picnic dinners and our children in tow, knowing they’d learn history and love the music and the pageantry. It was a perfect arrangement of the parental goals of learning and having fun.

The other day, I rooted around and found an album full of emotions of several kinds: It is “American Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster” with baritone Thomas Hampson, accompanied by Jay Ungar, Molly Mason and David Alpher. I learned about  Hampson years  ago, when I sang in local choruses, chamber groups and the like and I loved the work of Mason and Ungar on Ken  Burns’ PBS series, “The Civil War.” I’d enjoyed chatting with the duo years ago when they came to town with Garrison Keillor’s, “A Prairie Home Companion.”

The CD includes a song that was featured, to great effect, at Sharon’s memorial service. Marianne Sandborg, the gifted Roanoke soprano, sang it. It is, “Ah, May the Red Rose Live Always,” and it contains these lines: “Why should the beautiful  ever weep, why should the beautiful die.”

That’s a verse to pulverize any heart, and it certainly does a number on mine. But that’s the magic of music: It can pull us back to staggering emotions and helps us to reflect on and accept our losses, however huge they may be.

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