If you were going to make a movie of your life story, it would be a challenge to select the right scenes, but it would be much harder to choose songs for the soundtrack. That’s because the choice of scenes would be dictated by the need to develop characters and to move the narrative along—all in under 150 minutes. The difficulty with music is that it must complement the visuals without calling attention to itself. Songs add texture and nuance, but they must have significance of their own as a part of the overall story. They must also have sufficient appeal to cause the audience to wait for the last of the credits to read who was singing what.
My friend Bronson Davis has begun a family-memoir project by giving the music primacy. He calls it The Songs of My Life. Instead of having a chronological basis, his memoir uses songs that “evoke a moment, a place, a person or an event” as its foundation. Here are excerpts, brutally edited:
“The Great Pretender,” The Platters
Growing up in the 1950s meant I was there at the beginning of rock & roll. What I find fascinating is that both elementary schools I attended featured social dancing class as an after-school activity. This means that the powers that be felt it was important for young people to know how to fox trot and waltz and do the Lindy. I remember carefully studying the couples dancing on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand so I could learn the proper Jitterbug steps.
“The Twist,” Chubby Checker
This new, basically simple, dance provided a second chance, particularly for males, who found the intricacies of the Jitterbug too difficult. It was the beginning of freelance and individual innovation on the dance floor. This song is connected with one of the best New Year’s Eves I have experienced. The dance floor was filled with people frenetically swinging from side to side. There was a pleasant hilarity. This was made easier by the expectations for the evening and the alcoholic punch I was drinking for the first time.
“The Times They Are A-Changin,’” Bob Dylan
I reached the nadir of my college career in my junior year. I studied night and day, and I shared my monastic existence with Jim, who became the most influential figure of my college years. I encountered him when he was entering his radical period. His wardrobe at the time consisted of five pairs of olive-green chino pants, seven yellow button-down shirts and hush puppies. He decided that it was vanity to make choices in the morning. He would go through five newspapers in the library every day, and he basically challenged almost everything I believed. When he studied in his room, he would often listen to music. He introduced me to Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Odetta, Buffy St. Marie, Joan Baez and so many others. I cannot hear an early Dylan recording without thinking of Jim, and this song is so emblematic of the period. We thought we were part of a revolution.
“Urge for Going,” Tom Rush
Fort Devens was the home of the Army Security Agency; being there was being in the Army once again. I had not worn a uniform while [at language school] in Washington, and suddenly I was back spit-shining shoes, bouncing quarters on my bed to test its tightness, and marching to meals and classes. I slept in a large room with 40 guys, four to a cubicle. The weather was no more congenial. It was a classic New England winter with lots of snow and bitter temperatures. What kept me from despair was the city of Boston. Every weekend, I would get on the bus and motor to freedom, release and the chance to explore the city. I distinctly remember going to a coffee shop in Cambridge where I could hear “Urge for Going” on a jukebox. It is a beautiful song that has been special to me through the years. It symbolized for me at the time that I was finally beginning to satisfy the urge to see the world. I had lived in Washington, Boston and would soon be in Africa. I wasn’t a free agent, but every day seemed to bring new experiences, and this song is identified with that quest.
As you might imagine, a “songs of my life” project appeals to Baby Boomers like me. We have lots of stories to tell and the urge to tell them. Without a soundtrack, however, many would be two-dimensional. I recently heard a young woman, not yet 20, declare herself a member of the Technology Generation. (Others have called hers the Wired Generation.) She and her cohort have grown up taking the Internet for granted. My generation, now into its sixth decade, could just as well be called the Music Generation because we did not take music for granted. We valorized it. Our social media were anthems written by Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Music fueled the social justice and antiwar movements. Bars had jukeboxes, not television screens. Music was playing when joints were passed around.
I am tempted to assemble my own history of evocative songs, but I am not sure I am up to it. Getting started would be easy enough: When I was 12, I won a prize in an AM-radio call-in contest with Marty Robbins’ “White Sport Coat & a Pink Carnation.” But finding my way through thousands of songs to arrive at the point where the fat lady sings and the credits roll—that effort is daunting indeed.