A note from Joe Molineaux: As a regular columnist in the paper and online, I have the opportunity to share information, ideas and more each week. For my weekly Listen Up! column, I have the pleasure of talking about one of my favorite subjects, music. I have met and continue to meet many people who enjoy music as much as I do. So with that in mind, I will be encouraging those people around me to share their thoughts and views on music from time to time on these pages and online. Here is the very first guest column for Listen Up! by Steve Boyd.
My good friend Joe often waxes lyrically and eloquently about the power of music. The point he makes is that music can change a mood, an emotion or an attitude unlike any other medium. The reason is that popular music is instant and immediate unlike, say a, book or a movie. I share Joe's view and was recently reminded of how I came to learn this lesson at a very early age.
I happened to hear for the first time in a long time Neil Diamond’s song "Beautiful Noise." This song, produced by the wondrous Robbie Robertson, is about Diamond changing everyday sounds into music and then that music changing his view of the world he’s in. It was because of Diamond that I learned the state-altering abilities of music.
Growing up in the UK I lived in a small market town called Hyde in Cheshire, England. There I shared a home with my mother, my father and my two siblings. Sunday mornings were always spent with my brother and sister in the small kitchen of our terraced house. Terraced house might be familiar to you if you ever saw any of those British "kitchen sink dramas" from the 1950s and '60s starring the likes of Albert Finney and Richard Harris. Anyway, the kitchen door was firmly closed, and we were ordered to keep the noise down as my father would have his "lay-in" on Sunday mornings following his week of work as a paintbrush maker.
The only allowance for sound was a small transistor radio that my mother had in the kitchen with her while she did her chores. The main function of the radio was for her to listen to her favorite radio show, "The Archers" — a daily radio soap opera that was about the lives and loves of everyday farming folk (and, no, not interesting to young people at all). "The Archers" is the longest running drama in the world and, though it played daily, on Sundays they would play the weekly "omnibus" edition. It was this she wanted to hear as she would miss the daily transmissions due to her own job.
While waiting for that, however, we children got to listen to Ed "Stewpot" Stewart and his weekly children's radio show, "Junior Choice." The staple of the show was music that would appeal to younger listeners: comedy songs, nonsense songs or tunes we could sing along to. Most weeks we would hear "Hello Mother, Hello Father" by Alan Sherman, "Going to The Zoo" by Raffi, "Puff the Magic Dragon" by Peter, Paul and Mary or other such records that they considered suitable for 5- to 9-year olds.
The favorite of our threesome was the Harry Belafonte classic "There’s a Hole in My Bucket," which we would immediately sing out loud. My brother and I would be Harry and my sister would take the female part. This resulted almost every single time in admonishment from my mother that we should keep the noise down and not to disturb our father.
A feature of the show was that, while it was mainly aimed at children, adults could write in, via a post card, and request a personal favorite. They could ask for a hit of the day for a relative if it was their birthday, their anniversary or some other kind of celebration. Stewpot would read out these requests and dedications and then play Donny Osmond, David Cassidy, the Jacksons or another hit of the day or one that suited the occasion being noted.
It was during these requests that we would occasionally hear a song by Diamond. Diamond was my mother's personal favorite. While she loved all of Diamond’s music, the one that had the most telling impact was his "Song Sung Blue." When that came on the radio, any pretense at keeping the noise down disappeared instantly. The volume on the radio would go up, my mother would stop whatever she was doing, and she’d hum loudly along. During the song she would get a look on her face that despite 45 years of marriage, 3 children, 8 grandchildren and many great grandchildren, I never saw at any other time. As the song finished, she would be looking out the window, but she seemed to be drifting in another dimension.
I liked seeing my mother like that, and it occurred to me almost immediately that it was the music that had made her feel and sound and look that way — a way we children didn't see her at any other time. I frequently sent my own postcards to Stewart, and on one occasion was lucky enough to have him play the song for her birthday. From then on, I was determined to find music that would have such a dramatic impact on me.
Some years later I asked her about those times and how she responded. At first her answers were a little defensive but then she admitted that Diamond’s music in general, but that song in particular, gave her a sense of joy and wonder that she couldn't explain.
As time went by my relationship with my parents deteriorated. Though I myself became a huge fan of Diamond, I could never listen to "Song Sung Blue" without feeling some anger and bitterness because I believed my mother had shown more affection for that one song than she had for me and my siblings. When she passed away, however, my sister explained this story at her funeral and then played the song. My immediate reaction was the usual ambivalence but by the end of the song I had been transported back to that kitchen, to those Sunday mornings and the wistfulness and joy my mother was obviously feeling.
What I’ll always be grateful for, however, is the desire my mother gave me to seek out music that could create in me a feeling or change, in an instant, a mood. Thanks to her I’ve listened to lots of music — experienced lots of emotions due to the songs I’ve heard.
Songs that impact me? Well, the list is long, very long, but a few examples would include how I can’t listen to "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and The Waves without suddenly feeling energetic and needing to dance. A song that hits me deeply every time is "The Hurricane" by Bob Dylan and when I hear "Takin’ Care of Business" by Bachman Turner Overdrive I’m immediately transported to former commutes to the office. But if one song is guaranteed to brighten me when I’m down, raise my spirits on a gloomy day, its "Lean On Me" by Bill Withers, a truly great song from a great songwriter.
I hope the journey into music, inspired by those Sunday mornings and my mother never ends.