American author and social critic Kurt Vonnegut was famous for his pessimistic view of the world, particularly its cruel absurdities which often defines it. But, the one thing which made him consider the possibility of God was music. He said:
“Let this be my epitaph; The only proof that he needed for the existence of God was music.” (more from the source of this quote here…)
It’s hard to argue with the fact nature of music, which seems to have a remarkable effect on people of all ages, cultures, religions, and genetic make-ups, has something of the divine about it. Of all the arts, music seems to be the most universal; not everyone can appreciate Van Gogh, Shakespeare, Rudolf Nureyev, or the Marx Brothers. But, everyone likes some form of music; some people even make their living at it. And among some of these, many have dedicated songs in tribute to music itself, or how certain music has inspired them.
So, here are 10 songs about music, the mysterious force that makes a few black dots on a page become a key to the meaning of life itself. Here are 10 tributes to organized sound, to words and melodies, to the voices of gods and goddesses, priests and priestesses, who evoke that life force to enrich the lives of everyone who has ears to hear it. Here’s to music!
Image courtesy of RossinaBossio
Sweet Soul Music – Arthur Conley
One of the things which makes music so vital is that it creates heroes out of those who deliver the best. Arthur Conley celebrates his contemporaries in this 1967 classic cut which immortalizes James Brown, Lou Rawls, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding and other proponents of sweet soul music. Conley was under the guidance of Redding when he cut this track along with the album Sweet Soul Music which shared the title of his hit. The song itself is an unadorned tribute to the music, acknowledging his heroes and the heroes of his own fans. There are few tunes to match the passion for one’s own contemporaries. It’s as if Conley knew that soul music was enjoying a golden age, with the best of the best at the heights of their powers.
Unfortunately, Otis Redding would die the year this song came out – a crushing blow to the southern soul sound which would mark the beginning of the end of this particular chapter in the history of soul. As always, the music would evolve and transform to a new era in the next decade. But, this song remains as a record to just how vital it was when soul giants like Sam Cooke and Redding ruled the roost.
Dance to the Music – Sly & The Family Stone
Music made up of important elements that make it greater than the sum of its parts. Sylvester Stewart, otherwise known as Sly Stone captured this idea in his 1968 anthem to the power of music “Dance to the Music”, with each voice and sound from his group The Family Stone throwing in to create the celebratory sound of a song dedicated to a groove. The tune is taken from the album of the same name, Dance to the Music, but has also appeared on their first Greatest Hits compilation as a centerpiece to the band’s very identity. This song was made at a time when interracial bands were still fairly rare, and definitely odd to see on national television. So, this mixture of sounds – the organ, the guitar, bassist Larry Graham‘s “bottom”, and the ever-present “voices” – was more than just the working parts to a song. The other level here is the idea the combinations of notes and sounds is a symbol for how people can work together, even if they’re from different sides of the tracks.
In this, music is a great social force, a binding force that has the potential to eradicate the unnecessary divisions between people and their communities. Sly & The Family Stone, and many others before them, had gathered an audience made up of black and white, and everyone in between. In this, music is more than just a pleasantry; it is a healing agent in a broken world.
Lady Day and John Coltrane – Gil Scott-Heron
Music is a means to provide if not an escape from life, then certainly as a force to inject a little perspective. There is something to be said for anything in one’s life that allows one to catch a glimpse of something inspiring and even therapeutic, and music for many is both. For Gil Scott-Heron, it was the sound of Billie Holiday‘s voice, and John Coltrane’s saxophone. A lot of Scott-Heron’s work is centred around social ills and the state of the inner city, and it’s clear that he is a songwriter with a certain weight on his shoulders. Yet this tune, taken from his album Pieces of a Man, and also featured on the compilation album Ghetto Style, Scott-Heron views music as a place of solace and comfort, and encourages us the listener to do the same.
Gil Scott-Heron has made no secret of his love for Coltrane, particularly A Love Supreme, which is looked upon by many as Coltrane’s masterpiece. Although Scott-Heron’s work emphasizes social justice and reform, this tune is an ode to the restorative powers of music in one’s life, a counterbalance to the efforts to transform the world in a political sense. In this way, the joy to be found in music is the engine to making joy a reality in the lives of others. And it helps us to give us balance so that we can continue in our efforts to push forward the things which are just as central to our identities. Music has a spiritual dimension. It is important, potent, and life-giving. It is not to be dismissed.
Sir Duke – Stevie Wonder
Another thing which music has the power to do is to tie people together with a sense of common history. In Stevie Wonder’s case, it was the jazz of the big band era, which was music he grew up with. In particular, this song is dedicated to the immortal Duke Ellington after which this song was named. Ellington had passed away in 1974, two years before this song, and the album off of which it comes – Songs in the Key of Life – was released. This is Stevie’s tribute to a man who added to the American experience, specifically the black American experience, by excelling in the form, and by taking talent and using it to create something communal and life-giving. In this, the song is also about how visceral music can be, that it affects people in a spiritual way, but also in a bodily way too – “they can feel all over” because “music is a world within itself/it’s a language we all understand”, says Stevie in this song which was a major hit for him in 1976 and one of many for which he is best known.
Between 1971 and 1976, Stevie Wonder enjoyed a purple patch of songwriting and performance which lifted him out of his role as a writer and singer on the Motown label into the sonic auteur that he was always meant to be. His run of albums from this period – from Where I’m Coming From onward to Songs in the Key of Life – is an incomparable burst of creativity that is at the top of the tree of any genre. This tune is as much a tribute to Wonder’s own talent and dedication to a form of expression of which he was a unique voice as it is to the masters of the past which he celebrating here.
Rock n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution – AC/DC
Bands like AC/DC were pretty self-aware all around. They know that the kind of music they were making was not well-loved by everyone, particularly the parents of their fans. How times have changed, when I can see a 14 year old kid today wearing an AC/DC T-shirt, knowing he may well have become a fan by flipping through his parents record collection. But, in 1980 when the breakthrough album Back in Black came out, rock n’ roll of this kind was still viewed through eyes narrowed by suspicion and contempt, at least from the point of view of the older generation. “Rock n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” is a reaction against its critics, revealing that the music is what it is, and with an affect that is undeniable on many whether one cares to admit it or not. Rock n’ roll is nothing if it isn’t a celebratory flip of the bird to anyone with a complaint. “If it’s too loud”, the proverb says, “you’re too old.”
The fact that this song is the closer to an album which is a tribute to a fallen comrade in former lead singer Bon Scott who died in the back of a London cab after effectively drinking himself to death makes it all the more celebratory and rebellious. It can be argued that the engine of the record, and of this song, is the giant ‘fuck you’ to death itself to which it owes its existence. And that is the kind of power that music brings, criticism or no; out of death comes new life, sometimes with a Gibson SG guitar in hand and wearing a schoolboy’s outfit.
When Smokey Sings – ABC
Music is a means of elevation. This can be in the sense that the experience of life is heightened when music is enjoyed, but it also means that those who do the best at bringing it to you gain the stature of hero and demigod – just like those listed in Arthur Conley’s song, although that tune was more about the admiration of his contemporaries. This song by Sheffield’s ABC is the voice of the worshipers to one such demigod of soul music; William “Smokey” Robinson, one of the key architects of Motown and a unique voice in pop music all in one package. While Motown became the Sound of Young America in the 60s, by the 70s and early 80s, Motown fans in Britain had formed bands of their own, utilizing the sounds associated with it for their own music, while venerating its key figures too, like Smokey.
ABC was one such group, known for the same approach to pop-soul music as crafted by Smokey Robinson and his contemporaries. And this song, taken from the group’s 1987 album Alphabet City, is a big “thank you” to those who came before them having made the music which inspired a generation to make music of their own. This is a pure expression of a love for the music, with plenty of affection left over for the man as well. Note the bona fide shrine depicted in the video – that may be a bit on the cheeky side, but there is an element of truth in there too.
Walking in Memphis – Marc Cohn
To continue with the idea of music as something associated with divine, music draws pilgrims to its sites of origin, just as many religions draw pilgrims to places like Mecca and Lourdes. One such place is Memphis, Tennessee which is the city where, many argue, rock n’ roll was born. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Rufus Thomas, B.B King, and many others found a base in Memphis, where the recording industry and popular venues were hungry for new sounds that had the potential to draw communities together. This was an area where steps were being taken to create something good during a time known for tensions, and often out and out violence, between said communities – all while making a little money too, of course. Marc Cohn’s 1991 song from his self-titled debut album Marc Cohn is a trace of that history and what it means to the narrator, the portrait of someone following the footsteps of history in the “ghost of Elvis” who takes him as far as the gates of Graceland before passing through them and disappearing.
One of my favourite parts of the song is when the narrator is talking about singing gospel songs at the piano, and being asked by one of the participants if he’s a Christian. The response is perfect: “I am tonight”. This speaks volumes of how moving music can be, that being connected to others by performing for and with those people, singing with them, or enjoying a performance, has transforming power which is undeniable. It becomes spiritual – a communion, in fact.
Music: Response – The Chemical Brothers
A lot of traditional music is centred around dance, possibly because it is the most communal thing one can do – let loose and move to music together. I think this is what is behind club culture, which replaces the religious rites of dancing together to evoke spirits. Now, we dance together to evoke a communal spirit between people – and for other reasons which have less to do with spirit, perhaps. Yet either way, music is at the centre of it all. And this is what the Chemical Brothers do so well – create an environment, a groove, a set of conditions to make the crowd move as one, to make each person feel as though they are a small yet important part of an unstoppable whole. This is what their track “Music:Response”, taken from the 1999 album Surrender captures best – music as a collective activity, enjoyed in community not unlike a religious ceremony.
In this tune, there is no need to explain the effect that music has to illicit a response. That truth is self-evident, and best experienced live. In this genre, the central figures are not the stars; they’re more like technicians or, to be more florid perhaps, midwives. What is born out of the mixing, the sequencing, the sampling is what counts. As such, for sheer experience, this is as pure as it gets when it comes to how visceral music can be, especially when experiencing it with a large crowd.
Heavy Metal Drummer – Wilco
Often, the music of our youth is remembered like the soundtrack to our time in the garden of Eden; memorable, joyous, and innocent. It’s when we’re young that our passions first take a hold of us, and that makes the passions themselves as much a part of our very identities as we get older. For the narrator in Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer”, taken from the band’s 2002 album (and arguably their masterpiece) yankee hotel foxtrot, the sound of paradise was the heavy metal bands he saw at summer festivals as they played KISS covers “beautiful and stoned”.
This is not just about the music itself. It’s where the music has the ability to take us – to places and times when we could appreciate the simplicity of things, the innocence, without all of the weight which often comes along with such things as we get older. What is missed in this song then is what the music evokes – a time when innocence reigned. And music has a keen quality to it which allows us to do this easily. There is something about it which connects us to the best part of our past, a force that lends life a cohesion, and a sense of continuity, which nothing else can do for us in the same way.
Hip Hop is Dead – Nas featuring Will.I.Am
It’s been established by now that the music we’ve come to hold dear, that is in fact ours, is more than just a pleasant diversion in our lives. For some, it means a basis for identity, and as such their is a certain loyalty placed in the music we love, and those who make it. For hip hop artist Nas, in this title track taken from the 2006 album Hip Hop Is Dead, there is a responsibility to the music which artists have to make it better, and to protect its place in our lives as something which it is supposed to be – a force for expression and transformation.
On this track, which is one of many on the record which looks at hip hop as more than just a genre and more like a cultural legacy, Nas and guest rapper Will.I.am look at a possible future without the music. The video in particular is an Orwellian vision of underground hip-hop fans, keeping the flame of the music alive. In the rap itself, the criticism is aimed at the artists who cowtow to the powers that be, or to their own egos, those who wish to water down the purity of expression that hip hop makes possible through commercialism and neutered imaging. The violence expressed in the track is about the frustration around the fact that this may be where things are going. Yet for me it’s the lines in the last verse that resonate most:
“…we here for life B/On my second marriage, hip hop’s my first wifey/And for that we not takin’ it lightly/If hip hop should die we die together”.
In this song, the music, identity, and life are intertwined. Whether one genre makes sense to you or not, surely this is a universal idea. We love our music because in many ways, it’s part of who we are and how we understand the world.
A bunch of sounds, sometimes with words attached. At some point, someone throws some little black dots on the page to represent it. And that’s a song. Oh, and there’s also the huge infusion of wonder, of spiritual energy, raw emotion, and some ineffable quality that makes certain songs in our lives mean everything, tying us to the threads of our lives. That’s not something to dismiss. And in my view, that means that those who bring the best in it, or are meant to, have charge over a vital aspect of the human experience.
5 thoughts on “10 Songs About Music”
Great topic. A few million words could be spent on it. Right now I’ll just add two to your list:
Are You Listening? — Dar Williams
Blind Willie McTell — Bob Dylan
The former is a pop/folk tune and recalls listening to the radio intently. Something I recall well from my own youth. The latter is as beautiful and powerful song as Dylan’s done, and that’s saying something! A true gem.
Excellent write-up on Rock n Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution and some of the meanings behind it.
Just to set the record straight, though, Bon didn’t die in a London cab.
The story goes that he was left to sleep it off during a below freezing night in an acquaintance’s Renault 5 car after a night of heavy drinking.
It’s unclear exactly how Bon died as accounts have differed over the years from choking on his own vomit to a possible asthmatic attack but, needless to say, the world lost a great rocker that day.
Thanks for including “Dance to the Music” on your list and sharing your eloquent words on the power this song had to unify and heal. I have similar thoughts about “Dance to the Music” and I write about this and more in my book about Sly. Check it out at http://www.lulu.com/content/1412956.
Shoulda been a drummer.
First song I thought of when I saw your title: This Kind of Music by Jonathan Richman (Jonathan Sings!).
Thanks one and all for your contributions!
Tom mentioned Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” – see what he means!
For Zaak, here’s some Jonathan Richman – not the one he mentioned, but another fun one – “Dancing in a Lesbian Bar“
To make up for my historical inaccuracy re: Bon Scott, I thought I’d better thank Jon, while at the same time mention my favourite Bon moment, “Rock n’ Roll Singer” taken from High Voltage
And for Eddie, here’s Sly & the Family Stone again with “Family Affair“, one of my favourites.