“Please don’t bury me,” the late John Prine sang way back in 1973, “down in the cold, cold, ground.” He was, of course, speaking humorously about his death, which did not occur until April of this year. COVID was the culprit.
I didn’t start thinking of dying that early in life, but I think about it now, at the age of 70. One of the things I think about is the music, what I call the soundtrack of my life.
It began at church and Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. “This Little Light of Mine” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Most of what we sang in Big Church I now know as Gospel Songs: “Amazing Grace”, “O Happy Day”, and “Almost Persuaded” (plus all those blood songs).
That changed when we moved. Our new church had what was called a “graded choir program”. The youth choir sang “Be Thou My Vision” and the congregation sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” I give Rudolph Howard credit for blessing my soul with this music. It lingers still, as do the Sousa sounds we played while marching down small town streets.
But when I went home, I pulled out the album that came from who knows where and listened to “The Battle of New Orleans” and “Sink the Bismarck”. The vocalist was Johnny Horton, and it was my introduction to world history!
My mother had higher musical aspirations for me, and I am sure it was she who introduced me to Van Cliburn. For decades I owned and played his album that included Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto and Rachmaninoff’s second. More than any other music before or since, these two pieces shaped my musical sensibilities. I regret not getting in my car at some point and driving to Ft. Worth and knocking on Van Cliburn’s door.
College came and so did the Christian musical. We sang them all, including “Good News”, “Tell It Like It Is” and “Celebrate Life”. The church songs that called me to discipleship were “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” and “Pass It On”. That same era was the high-water mark of the American folk song: “If I Had a Hammer”, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “This Land is Your Land”.
Then came the Broadway musical and Julie Andrews, with whom I was in love for most of my life. “The Sound of Music” dominated my imagination, along with Dr. Zhivago (“Laura’s Theme”). Later, I memorized “You Got Trouble” from “The Music Man” and performed with my daughter in “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Annie, Get Your Gun”. In more recent days, all the songs of “Les Miserables” were added to the soundtrack of my life, especially “Bring Him Home” (and many of you know why).
Woven in and around all the religious music were the wonderful vocals of Simon and Garfunkel (“Sounds of Silence” and “Scarborough Fair”) and the rock orchestra of Chicago (“Color My World” and “25 or 6 to 4”).
Many sounds I missed along the way: the Beatles and Michael Jackson, for instance, and most jazz, pop, and rock music, including such great female artists Adele, Madonna, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin (except that one great performance at the Kennedy Center Honors for Carole King when she strolled on stage and sang like the diva she was, “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman”).
Some things I didn’t miss: “Bad Moon Rising”, “Piano Man”, “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”, and the three classics of friendship: “He Ain’t Heavy”, “You’ve Got a Friend”, and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”. You can add them all to the soundtrack of my life.
About halfway through life, Doug and Teri Vancil came to Pittsburgh as visiting musicians and taught us the then-new anthem, “Majesty and Glory of Your Name”. It may still occupy first place in my musical catalog.
Late in life, two great collections were added. Country music was one, especially the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and, just this year, John Prine, especially his last, “I Remember Everything”. Not a day has gone by since June 12 when friend Todd Heifner introduced me to Mr. Prine that I have not listened to his music. I can only wonder why his mixture of country sense, social satire, and outright silliness has so ministered to my soul.
The other is the American Negro Spiritual. Yes, I had sung and played for years such songs as “Swing Low” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”. But when I met Everett McCorvey and was drawn into his artistic universe, my musical sensibilities exploded, taking me to the edge of opera and the epicenter of the spiritual. “Walk Together Children, Don’t You Get Weary, There’s a Great Camp Meeting in the Promised Land” has become my favorite and will be one of the songs sung when I come to the end of my way.
Speaking of the end, I hope when my family and friends gather to lay me in the cold, cold ground, somebody will play a few of the songs I’ve listed here. More than people, places, and publications, these sounds explain who I’ve been and why.
Maybe you need to put together the soundtrack of your life! Maybe it would do you good!