Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hallelujah for The City of New Orleans

Music affects me, sometimes unexpectedly. I clearly remember the first time I was aware of the moto perpetuo section of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The familiar work was playing on our stereo and I was doing something I can’t remember now, when that passage just grabbed me. I began to really listen to it and to feel it. I suppose it was partly, at least, the regularity of the tempo, but even after fifty years it still demands my attention when it appears. The wiring of my brain carries its traces as indelibly as my own name.

A couple of decades later, Arlo Guthrie’s “The City of New Orleans” played as a video on the San Francisco public television station, and it grabbed me the same way. Suddenly, I was immersed in the music. A pop music piece by Steve Goodman that went along with all the nouveau-folk music of the Sixties, its lyrics and tune melded into something powerful for me—the rhythm of the train ride, even the mournful sounds suggesting a distant horn/whistle—amounted to a nostalgia for a passing part of American culture. And an emotional hook that has never left me.

Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” actually written thirty years ago, didn’t really come to my attention until just a couple of years ago when somehow I got a free copy of K D Lang’s version at the Vancouver Winter Olympics stored into my iTunes library. Her haunting delivery grabbed me the same way—I couldn’t experience anything else while she sang. That led me to a lot of Internet searching for the lyrics and for the stories behind it. Cohen’s emotional depths sometimes leave me scratching my head, but that tune and his equally suggestive “Suzanne” always stop me to listen and feel. And play over and over in my head.

Music bypasses our cognitive apparatus, even as we sometimes analyze what it is that we’re feeling, and perhaps dig out the details so that we can try to understand it. I happened to play Guthrie’s song the other day, and I keep waking up in the morning with it going on of its own accord in my head. Usually more given to analyzing than to feeling, I had to sit down and write about it. In the process, of course, I opened iTunes and listened again to it and to K D Lang, and in a moment will open Beethoven for another fix.

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