“What we play is life.”
Louie Armstrong – trumpeter
Cruising home yesterday, in one of my typical melancholic moods despite a sunny and warmer than usual Buffalo afternoon, I scanned my radio searching for sonic riffs to complement my sad reflections about everything and nothing.
Lo and behold, I tuned on B.B. King – the king of the blues – playing, “Nobody Loves Me But my Mother and She Might be Jiving Too” – an old favorite that I hadn’t heard in eons.
This number wasn’t inspired by depression – but the pain of being lonely in the world. Blues belter Mahalia Jackson said it best: “Anybody singing the blues is in a deep pit yelling for help.”
We all respond to and resonate with music before we’re even able to speak; even in the womb. Primal and outside the constriction of words, sentences and periods, music captures something elemental about our lives. It can be celebratory, tragic or comical – sometimes all at the same time.
They’re are a couple ways to think about our relationship any music, but especially woebegone music. In it, we can find a sort of companionship and communion — a way to express our sorrow or despair. When we’re alone, jumping on a blues train can remind us that we’re not alone.
But there’s a caveat about any sulking vibrations. When in a sliding mood, tuning into lugubrious music can drag our mood yet further down into a well of despair. I think this is so because our low moods can and often do have a dramatic flair about them; something akin to the Greek’s tragedy plays or some of Shakespeare’s biggest theatrical downers. When such sullen moods are mixed and stirred with, say, the song “Save Me” by Aimee Mann, you’ve got one glum saga stirring in your head – even though I love this song for its quirky intimacy.
A songwriter’s layered lamentations about loss can make us ruminate, perhaps too much, about our losses in life — and everyone has them.
Depressed denizens need counterweights to balance out their negatively skewed thinking process. This is difficult because they have a tendency to wrap themselves around a depressive identity – “I am my depression.” In this blue world, why wouldn’t one gravitate towards somber songs?
The point isn’t that we need only listen to sweet lullabies ala “You are the sunshine of my life” to improve our mood. I’m not being a killjoy who believes you have to turn off sad music to steel yourself against depression. Rather, what I’m preaching is a greater sensitivity to what we choose to do when feeling low – in this case what music we listen to. Just be careful that the music gives you solace and not cause to fall into a deeper depressive funk.
Flying by the off ramp lost in my midlife musings, another car speeds up alongside me in a black Volkswagen Jetta. I turn up the volume and B.B. King is belting it out to reach the back row. My windows are open and I look to my right. The other driver, a young woman, looks at me with a quizzical expression. I can’t tell if she is irritated by my choice in music or whether she finds it, well, quaint and amusing.
She is blasting a new hip-hop tune from the Black Eyed Peas, “Imma Bee.”
She smiles coyly, perhaps a suggestion that I evolved not from the era which she inhabits, but from a forgotten epoch in time given my choice of music from . . . the Jurassic era.