Shaped by song

My mother had a modest collection of 33 rpm albums of broadway soundtracks. I grew up listening to Rodgers and Hammerstein: Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and The King and I. There were other musical soundtracks as well. As I entered my teens, I obtained a few more soundtracks, some of which I played over and over in my own room on a tiny cassette player before the days of portable stereo devices.

The lyrics became embedded in my memory and I have the ability to amuse, and sometimes annoy, my family by recalling lyrics at different times. Many events or activities inspire short bursts of song from me.

It is a tradition that I have, in part, passed down to our children. I remember days, when our daughter was a teenager, driving to the lake to paddle with her in the right hand seat of our car and both of us singing songs from “The Muppets Treasure Island” together:

“Hey, ho, ho
You’ll cruise to foreign shores (Ha ha ha! Sing it, lads!)
And you’ll keep your mind and body sound
By working out of doors
True friendship and adventure are what we can’t live without
And when you’re a professional pirate
That’s what the job’s about!”

As the ancients knew, songs are an excellent teaching and learning tool. When you learn a song, you learn its contents and meanings and they become part of your identity. Think of reciting the alphabet. There are a few folks, my age and older who memorized the alphabet as a monotone recitation, but most folks any younger learned it as a song made popular by the public TV show Sesame Street. They sing the alphabet when they recite it. And when they try to say the letters without the song, the rhythm of the music remains. It is the way they learned the order of the letters and it is the way they recall that order.

Sometimes, when a song comes to my head, it helps me figure out what is going on in my emotions. I understand that is a relatively backwards way of self-understanding, but it seems to work for me.

Lately, I have caught myself several times with the words and tune of “I, Don Quixote” in my head. You probably know at least part of the song:

“I am I, Don Quixote
The Lord of la Mancha,
My destiny calls and I go,
And the wild winds of fortune
Will carry me onward,
Oh whithersoever they blow!”

In the musical, before the song, Cervantes sets the stage: Alonso Quijana is a no-longer-young country squire who is retired and spends much of his time with books. His late-night and all night long study sessions impress him with the evil of the ways people treat others. He comes up with the plan of becoming a knight-errant going forth into the world to right all wrongs.

The musical hit broadway in the mid 1960’s. I can still remember the yellow album cover with simple black line drawings of the major characters. I was growing up in small town Montana with more than a few ideas and thoughts that distinguished me from my peers. I was often in the minority when discussing political candidates and elections. I was more interested in speech and debate than in athletics. I loved band and chorus more than any academic subjects. I dreamed of getting out of that town and going out into the world to find people who thought more the way that I did:

“To dream the impossible dream,
To fight the unbeatable foe,
To bear with unbearable sorrow
Tu run where the brave dare not go;
To right the unrightable wrong.
To love, pure and chase, from afar,
To try, when your arms are too weary,
To reach the unreachable star!”

The music inspired me before I had a clear sense of direction for my life - before I settled on my vocation - before I moved not only from that town, but also from the state of my birth.

But I haven’t thought of those songs for years. They hardly are the theme songs of my life. I’m not sure what the theme song of my life is, but it probably is a hymn that has been around the church for a long time. I haven’t lived my life as a rebel outsider. I have been enmeshed and nurtured by the institution of the church. I’ve been an insider and am, I suspect, seen by most people younger than I as a representative of mainstream institutions.

I’m no Don Quixote.

But I am an idealist. I do believe in the best in others. I do believe that we are capable of treating each other better than we have in the past. I generally am hopeful about the future and our role in leaving a better world for our children. And those believes and that hope is sometimes idealistic - even extremely idealistic.

I’ve lived long enough and witnessed enough suffering and pain to know that bad things happen to good people. I know that wishing for the best doesn’t make it come true. I know that people with good intentions sometimes hurt those who are closest to them. I know that starting swordplay with windmills doesn’t build a brighter future.

It takes more than a good theme song to accomplish good in this world.

I also know that the future of the world does not hinge on me, my life, my actions or my decisions. As important as my choices are to me, I am not the center of the world’s action and there are many things far more important and influential than my life. Maybe, like the character in the musical, what I seek most is peace - the inner peace of knowing that I’ve done my best:

“This is any quest to follow that star,
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far,
To fight for the right
Without question or pause,
To be willing to march into hell
For a heavenly cause!”

“And I know, if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m lad to my rest.”

“And the world will be better for this,
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach the unreachable stars!”

Some of the songs that I learned way back when still inspire me.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!