In the early 1970s, in high school, my boyfriend was in a rock band and I was a groupie. My best friend, Hunter, and I planned our afternoons around band practice in the garage at the red-headed drummer’s house in suburban Memphis. When the band played a gig — at a bar mitzvah, a birthday party, a dance in the Moose Club hall — we came along and carried long spooled cords, microphone stands and portable lighting from the car to the stage. Our reward was a Coke, a long night at a back table in a darkened room, and the thrill of hearing our boys’ voices and instruments come together in ear-splitting, adrenaline-pumping power and noise.
Forty years later, at our high school reunion, five of those same boys, now middle-aged men with varied degrees of pot bellies and thinning hair, came together and played their southern rock anthems to a standing crowd, including Hunter and myself, screaming and stomping and begging for more. Their music had lost none of its power over time and age and vast distances.
At one point in my forties, I noticed that of the men who worked in the same office as me, all but one were in a band. Some never performed but practiced regularly in a member’s basement. Some played an occasional gig, but for most of them it was continuing the act of making music together that mattered more than performing for an audience.
Years later, approaching the back end of my middle years, I finally understand why they kept playing. I have become what neurologist and author Oliver Sacks might call a musicophile, someone who celebrates the power of music to draw humans together in common experience.
Music always mattered in my life. I grew up in a household that sang and spun records. I sang in choirs and in musical theater productions. I worshipped a handful of musicians. But unlike the boys in their bands, I didn’t comprehend the community-building effect of music, the bonds forged by shared chords and lyrics.
A few years back, I wrote a book about an American singing tradition and the communities across the country that continue to keep it alive. I loved being among Sacred Harp singers as much as I had loved being in a standing throng of singers in the Southern Baptist church of my childhood. Singing Sacred Harp was challenging, invigorating, worshipful, and a whole lot of fun. I saw the music build and come alive, sharpening the minds of older singers, vibrating assurance into the bodies of tiny babies, comforting the wounded and celebrating the lives of all who contributed to its joyful blast.
At the darkest time of my life so far, in recent years when over a three-year period, four beloved family members died in quick succession, music came to me again in a new form — three-part harmonies sung by trios of women at the bedsides of people in transition, most of them actively dying. I responded to a sign in a coffee shop posted by strangers: Do you like to sing? I said I did and I still do, every week for three years now. We call ourselves Threshold Singers.
Our songs are designed to offer comfort through their words and softly weaving harmonies. Sometimes we enter a room filled with family members, shell-shocked and exhausted, and the minute we open our mouths and begin singing, their defenses against sorrow and loss are dropped and they silently begin to weep. Sometimes they are lifted by a song to clap and sing along. Sometimes a person who hasn’t spoken in a day will lift an eyelid at the sound of a song and whisper thank you.
“Music is the most direct and mysterious way of conveying and evoking feeling,” says Oliver Sacks. “I think the nearest thing to telepathy is making music together.” Sacks measured his brain’s responses to music, interviewed patients in his neurology practice, and gathered scientific data to come to that conclusion.
I opened my mouth, exposed my bruised heart, let out a simple sound, absorbed the harmonies around me and concluded the same thing.
Nobody has to think about it. Just as a baby hears its mother’s voice singing a lullaby and knows to relax, just as the head-bangers of my youth knew how to raise the pulse of a crowd with their screaming guitars and voices, we know those we sing for will hear our songs and our voices and receive a simple message: All is well. Be at peace. You are loved.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.