On our CD player now: Bruce Springsteen's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Ben Harper's Both Sides of the Gun and the Gotan Project's Lunatico. The Gotan Project released their first album La Revancha del Tango five years ago, to worldwide success. The Paris-based group is originally from Argentina.
Music is the writing prompt for this week's Sunday Scribblings. Music's harmonious melodies have infused my life with meaning - like a pied piper, following me along all the winding roads I've traveled.
Walking along 33rd Street near Madison Square Garden in New York, I once heard music piped over outdoor loudspeakers. For a moment, I entertained the notion of how magical it would be if life were set to music - and one's subconscious automatically could select the music for every big occasion! Of course sometimes the sweetest music can be invoked in silence.
I love the universal language of music: how it can heighten or even alter a mood; how it punctuates big moments and special celebrations; how it can move one to tears or prompt a smile. From earliest recorded history, music's power to enchant its listeners is legendary.
During the American Depression, my great-grandfather, "Papa" was widowed and raising a son. Every Saturday morning he played the fiddle, in between giving free haircuts. Papa wasn't a barber, but in those days talent was incidental to need. Undoubtedly, Papa's fiddle playing and persistent good humour helped raise the spirits of men going through hard times. In those dark days they helped each other in whatever way they could.
A few years ago I was thrilled to meet a cousin in Northern California, who produced a cassette tape of my great-grandfather playing the fiddle. When I was a little girl, Papa could sometimes be coaxed into playing the fiddle, although arthritis probably made it difficult. Long after Papa passed away, I was proud that my daughter seemed to have inherited his talent, as she learned to played the violin beautifully.
When I was growing up in the South, we heard Pete Seeger (his songs recently performed admirably by Bruce Springsteen) and other folk music. A few times a year we attended gospel "singings" in little country churches, fanning ourselves with cardboard advertising fans, in futile attempts to diffuse the unbearable heat.
At lunchtime, the singers and their admirers rested long enough to enjoy potluck picnics, heaping plastic plates with fried chicken, salads and later pies and cakes from long tables spread with giant cotton tablecloths. Even under the trees' shade, the heat was too much, making anything containing mayonnaise quickly spoil. More than the music from these "singings," I remember getting sick from eating potato salad!
For a while my family attended a Southern Baptist Church, singing such traditional hymns as How Great Thou Art and Amazing Grace. In Sunday school and Bible school classes, we learned many children's songs, most memorably:
"Jesus Loves the Little Children
All the little children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white
They are precious in His sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world."
Other highlights included This Little Light of Mine (I'm Gonna Let It Shine) and Jesus Loves Me, This I Know. When I was about 10, my mother tired of all the "hellfire and brimstone" sermons and we began attending the Presbyterian Church. That came as a big relief to me - no one was shouting! The Presbyterian Church was a calming soothing atmosphere in which one could actually focus on what the minister was saying and not be scared by fiery warnings from the pulpit about "the Russians are coming and will destroy all the Bibles," thus it was every American's duty to memorize Bible verses.
I had a good soprano singing voice and sang in church choir, where we sang classical works such as The Seven Last Words of Christ and George Frederick Handel's Messiah. I was also involved in the school choir and "glee club." But my voice was never loud enough to pursue early dreams of being a singer. My speaking voice is similar to the actress Melanie Griffith - soft and little-girl like. In the US, long after I moved away from home, on more than one occasion a caller phoned asking to speak to my mother.
My mother helped instill my love of music. She taught public school music and paid for piano lessons. My first teacher was Miss Jessie Mae Harley. Crippled by polio, her career as a concert pianist had been cut short. It was a constant battle, as she tried to transfer her exacting standards to her young pupils. Miss Jessie was impatient and would rap me across the knuckles with her baton when I made a mistake.
A difficult taskmaster, she believed in the carrot-and-stick approach. If I worked hard and played my pieces well, she would occasionally give me a miniature music box from her private collection. Sometimes, she'd let me take home a pair of glamourous purple leather wedgie shoes in which to play dress-up. But just as often, she'd make me cry with her criticism, constructive or not.
Thankfully, my mother forced me to perservere. Several successful concerts, music guild and piano competitions later, I was allowed to switch piano teachers and begin organ lessons. Marilyn Hill was much more relaxed in her approach to learning. She let me play music other than Johann Sebastian Bach. While I still played Mozart and Beethoven's sonatas, I also learned George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and more contemporary pieces.
I joined the school marching and concert band and began learning clarinet, but my fingers proved too small to completely cover the keys. After switching to alto clarinet and later bass clarinet, my skills improved until I became "first chair."
Our band director, Curry Martin was an inspirational leader, again with high standards. Mr. Martin borne an uncanny physical resemblance to the American actor Humphrey Bogart and loved music with a passion. Each year we had to pass a series of tests to keep our places in the band and participate in numerous competitions. Our marching band won 22 straight first divisions in competition. When the inevitable happened and judges at one contest awarded us second place, we all broke down and cried - not because we were dismayed by our performance; because we thought we'd let Mr. Martin down.
We missed one contest, because en route we were involved in an accident. Mr. Martin was driving the bus when the brakes failed at an intersection. Trying to avoid a more serious accident, he swung the bus sharply to the right and we flipped over three times, eventually landing in a ditch next to a petrol station. The local newspaper editor wrote that "one young lady in my Sunday School class looked like she'd been hit in the face with a baseball bat." He was referring to my cuts, bruises and swollen lip, but we were all lucky we weren't hurt worse, thanks to Mr. Martin's quick thinking.
At age 16 I began teaching piano lessons to beginning pupils, including an adult. Eventually, my musical talent earned me a scholarship to university - where I promptly switched my major to journalism!
In junior high and high school, I listened to The Monkees, Jackson Browne, Rod Stewart, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Young, Carole King, Sly and the Family Stone and Jefferson Airplane, later Jefferson Starship. Van Morrison's Tupelo Honey was a particular favourite, along with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel's Bridge over Troubled Waters and the Grassroots's Midnight Confessions.
In college I listened to Bruce Springsteen and Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine (When She's Gone) and Rufus and Chaka Khan's Tell Me Something Good. I liked Earth Wind and Fire and Nights in White Satin and Led Zepplin's Stairway to Heaven and the Doobie Brothers and Michael McDonald, as well as Olivia Newton-John's I Honestly Love You. Other favourites were Billy Joel's Piano Man and New York State of Mind.
I listened to Elton John and Lionel Ritchie and the Commodores. I heard Eric Clapton singing Tears in Heaven at the Pyramid in Memphis. Even though I haven't listened to the song in years, my heart remembers Chicago and Peter Cetera's rendition of So long, Dixie - "...lazy moon, Magnolia bloom perfume." To this day, when I'm upset or bothered by something I play Earth, Wind and Fire's That's the Way of the World and Kenny Loggins and Jimmy Messina's Peace of Mind.
In college I remember the bass drum pounding as though my heart would burst through my chest at rock concerts - heightened emotions and the joy of being young and free.
In New York, my musical tastes became more sophisticated. I saw the great Nina Simone perform Ella Fitzgerald's Someone to Watch Over Me in an intimate club. I saw Joe Williams sing jazz at the Playboy Club and spent many an evening in local jazz clubs. I danced the samba at the Brazilian nightclub Cachaca and to Barry Manilow's music on top of a table New Year's Eve at the Copacabana.
And I saw the Village People perform in - where else - a Greenwich Village dive. I've already written about how Christopher Cross's song Sailing followed my friend and me everywhere we went.
Those were the heady days of disco - Studio 54 and New York, New York, dancing to Eye-to-Eye Contact and I believe in miracles, where you from, you sexy thing? and the much overplayed Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive and Donna Summer's Last Dance. And Prince's energetic 1999 was the tape in my Walkman when I waltzed around the city, a small town girl giddy with excitement of the big city.
In New York I discovered Bryan Ferry, Nils Lofgren and Richard Marx and the exotic refrains of international music at concerts at the United Nations and private parties in New York and Washington, D.C. I saw a flamenco guitarist perform in New York and later lapped up the lilting sounds of acoustic guitarists in Seville and in Madrid, Spain. In Seville, a taxi driver was playing a Creedence Clearwater Revival CD and was thrilled that I recognised the group.
I also indulged my appreciation for musical theatre, getting to see A Chorus Line , Pippen, A Little Night Music and other great Broadway productions of the day. When I was growing up, my mother encouraged my interest, taking me to see productions of South Pacific and Oklahoma at a nearby college. We had a friend who sang opera and another who taught opera at that same university. As a college student, I saw the versatile French composer Michel Legrand play piano for actress and entertainer Carol Lawrence in Chicago.
When traveling to the Middle East on extended assignments, I carried cassette tapes ranging from Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA to Hank Williams, Jr.; from Kenny Loggins to Gloria Estefan; from Annie Lennox to Quincy Jones to Linda Rondstadt.
In Amman, Jordan two companies waged a friendly rivalry in producing customised cassette tapes of popular Western music. A reporter from Zambia introduced me to Bruce Hornsby and the Range, That's Just the Way It Is.
I also became enamoured with Arabic music and the sounds of the oud. Later I discovered Lorena McKennitt's haunting Celtic tunes, with a nod to Arabic music.
On one restless Ides of March night in Bahrain, I danced with Jamie to George Michael's Father Figure, having fallen in love at first sight with the intriguing advertising executive from Holland. Our mutual attraction was so obvious our host asked the DJ to dedicate Frank Sinatra's Strangers in the Night to us.
Bruce Springsteen was a perennial favourite. I saw him in concert twice in Paris and my daughter sang his love song, If I Should Fall Behind when I married my British husband. An acoustic guitarist also played Sting's Fields of Gold at our wedding in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Somewhere along the way, I discovered Mark Knopfler's post- Dire Straits music. When Knopfler recorded an album in Nashville with the legendary Chet Atkins, I was happy. I'd had a 30-minute phone conversation with Chet Atkins and years later, met him when he performed at The Warwick in San Francisco. Chet was the mentor of my friend country music star Steve Wariner. In 1985-86 Steve was riding high with success of his Life's Highway album. I flew to his concerts in Dallas, Houston and Oklahoma and wrote about his life on the road. Twenty years later, my daughter's wearing the t-shirt from that tour.
My friend Garry Phelps, a teacher and musician with his own band won a Nashville songwriting contest for his tune, From Where I Sit, I Can See Where I Stand. Garry told me that every song needs a "hook;" the first 20 seconds determine whether the listener is drawn in or tunes out.
In New Orleans, I attended jazz festivals featuring trumpeteer Al Hirt and Aaron Neville and the Neville Brothers. Post-Hurricane Katrina, I was introduced to the lively music of Louisiana musician Marc Broussard.
In San Francisco I enjoyed attending the annual Blues Festival, featuring blues stylists including B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Dr. John. And I saw The Eagles in their Hell Freezes Over tour. Later I saw Don Henley in concert in Paris, both with the Eagles and his solo tour. Henley is my favourite perfomer for songs ranging from soulful and romantic to political messages. I appreciate his social conscience and concern for the environment, raising money to conserve Walden Woods of Henry David Thoreau fame.
In San Francisco I was privileged to see the French-born Gypsie Kings in concert at Bill Graham Auditorium and South Africa's Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba at the Warwick. Makeba, who was over 60 at the time, talked about how happy she was to be able to vote for the first time in her life. She reminded the audience that voting was a responsibility, not a privilege.
The San Francisco artist Chris Isaak helped me get over a bad breakup with his CD Forever Blue. Later, one of the most romantic evenings of my life was spent listening to edgy jazz at the Redwood Room of the Clift Hotel. I was thrilled to see the Spanish opera singer Jose Carerras in concert in San Francisco. And I was just as happy to listen to an amazing group from the Andes performing at Ghiradelli Square.
In Blackheath, London, one day my hairdresser Sheila played a tape of her 18-year-old son's unrecorded music. When the song If You Come Back began playing, chills ran up and down my spine. I knew I was hearing a phenomenal talent - a stop in your tracks and listen kind of talent. Her son Lee Ryan and his buddies Simon Webbe, Duncan James and Anthony LaCosta later released that song in their debut album All Rise on Virgin Records' Innocent label. Blue became a huge success in Britain, appearing on Top of the Pops, with their hit songs shooting to the top of the charts. The band went on a national tour, then recorded a second album.
When Blue's first album was released, I'd be in the grocery store in Paris and hear their song All Rise and send Sheila a card telling her I'd heard Lee's music. It was hard to believe that at such a young age, he'd found almost instant success. Then I started hearing Blue on television and in the background of the soap opera Eastenders. The movie Love Actually even has a very funny skit involving London television presenters Ant and Dec and the boys from Blue. The group also has recorded a duet with Elton John and Lee has released a solo album.
And my daughter's reaction to Lee Ryan's success? "Mom, why didn't you introduce me??!!