It’s been one of those days. I’ve managed to paint the two bathrooms, and the ceilings, though I need to put another coat of paint on the ceiling in the front bathroom.
I am now packing up more stuff from my room. Well, some of it is packed. Some of it is simply stuffed in bags and shoved into any spare place in the living room. I have to get as much of that done tonight as possible, since tomorrow I think they’re putting the new vinyl flooring in my room. They’ll have to move the heavy stuff.
As I’ve worked today, I’ve done so to various Lyle Lovett CDs. The bouncy, jazzy, country tunes keep me going on a day where all I really want to do is go to bed and sleep. Can’t do that. Not yet.
Music keeps me going many times. In the truck yesterday I was wondering why the local NPR station wasn’t on, and then realized that it’s set in my Mini Cooper, not in Dad’s truck. There I seem to listen to various country and western stations. Yesterday, though, I traveled to some Cajun music, and then found an oldies station that was playing swamp pop music — the Boogie Kings and Rod Bernard and other groups I grew up listening to. Today, though, it was Lyle. Long before he was nationally known, I remember him as the kid with really big hair who played at some pizza parlor in College Station when I was in graduate school there in the late 1970s and early 80s. In fact, after I left, he was a grad student in the same department I’d been in, English.
I don’t remember a time without music. Mother and Dad always had music around the house. Mother played big band music; Dad liked classic country and western. They also sang around the house, often together. Dad’s baritone and Mother’s alto harmonized on hymns but also on other songs. At church, Mother often sang in Latin. When I went to church with Dad, he sang shape-note harmonies with no musical instruments accompanying the congregation. Even today, I am equally comfortable with both very different traditions of religious music.
At night, Dad often sang us to sleep, with country songs of Jimmy Rogers or more hymns. We thought nothing of singing together around the house, or on car trips to Texas. We had our own version of “California, Here I Come”: “Egan, Egan, here I come, / Right back where I started from.”
My mother’s mother, Ella, loved music too. She had a stereo and 78s from the 1940s, but kept up with popular music of the 1950s and 60s. She also loved to dance, and it was she who trained me to clean house while dancing around to music. In fact, she taught me to dance to the Cajun songs she’d grown up with — by putting me on her feet and having my feet simply learn the steps by her own feet moving in time and in step. I still love to crank up music and clean house (or frankly just crank up music and dance around the floor pretending to clean house). Maybe I’m channeling her spirit when I do that.
At odd (and embarrassing moments for a teenager sometimes) she would simply break into song and dance. Almost anywhere. Now I’m a little more forgiving of that — maybe even understanding it.
Once, when I was living in Beaumont and teaching at Lamar University in 1975, I was out at a local honky-tonk on a Friday night. And I mean a honky-tonk: Club 88. Somewhere in the Golden Triangle. From our table, friends saw me out on the dance floor, bumping into someone, and then we hugged, and kept dancing. When I returned to our table, a friend asked who the old lady was I’d bumped into and hugged. I told him to be careful how he talked about my grandmother. He said something like, “No, really, who was it?” And I said “No, really, that was my grandmother.” Red hair in an upswept style, with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, she came to our table and met everyone. They had the full Ella experience. She loved to dance, and dance she did. One of her favorite brothers, in fact, even died of a heart attack on the dance floor. In the 1940s, she was friends with Harry James’s father, who taught band at the high school my mother attended. Ella and her husband loved to go to Pleasure Pier with the Jameses and dance. After Mother and Dad married in 1948, they’d go along too, though Dad’s paycheck didn’t always quite stretch far enough.
One thing that Texas and Louisiana have in common: good music of many different cultures. I mean, I grew up listening to the Neville Brothers music on local radio and watching Saturday dance shows with Cajun music; I also watched American Bandstand, even when it was in Philadelphia and a daily show (I was a precocious 4-year-old). In Texas, in the 1970s, I somehow missed most of disco and fit right in to what was known as progressive country music: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Augie Meyers, Kinky Friedman, Nanci Griffith, or The Texas Tornados, or Townes Van Zandt.
Music has just been part of my life as long as I can remember. Growing up here in Egan, I listened to the radio a lot. It connected me to the larger music world of the 1960s, to the Beatles and the Stones and the Kinks. Now on my car radio, I sometimes catch different stations, or sometimes plug in the iPod.
Around the house, I catch my dad humming at times, just as his dad did.
Me? I’m more likely to turn up the volume and sing along. Especially when I drive.
Which is what I will do tonight, when I finally hit the road back to Lake Charles. Selecting appropriate road music is crucial for a successful road trip, no matter how far the drive.
If I’m headed to Texas, I’ll pick some Texas songwriters. For tonight, I’ll want something you could dance to, so I can bop along in the driver’s seat as I make the 45-mile drive. I’ll be tired and the beat will keep me awake and paying attention.
Music has always charted my life. It reminds me where I’ve been. Listening to Lyle Lovett’s “Bohemia” brought me back to the mid-70s in Texas and a Texas group called Kiwi, who sang it as well; in fact, I’ve got a cassette tape of them singing it. In this house, I hear the music of my teenage years at times, certainly since I found some of the albums I left at Egan — the Monkees, the Dave Clark Five, the Beatles. High school music.
Yes, music reminds me who I am and where I’ve been. It comforts me at times. At others, it feeds my blue moods and fosters a melancholy streak. And then again it can elevate me out of the very blue mood other music might foster.
At times I even think about what I might want played at my own memorial service — and there’s a long, long list. On smart-ass days (and there are a lot of those), I swear that John Prine’s “Please Don’t Bury Me” will be the first song played, if for nothing other than the line “And kiss my ass goodbye.” Yet John Lennon’s “Imagine” is high on the list too.
Music fills the house today, and I can sing and paint, or sit and sing, as I wish. My computer’s iTunes is full of music, diverse and never boring. It has Adelle and The Dixie Chicks, Leonard Cohen and Johann Sebastian Bach, Beethoven and Robert Johnson. I might pick the Neville Brothers, or I might choose to listen to the soundtrack to Phantom of the Opera or Mamma Mia.
Whatever I select will work with my spirits, taking me places in time and space.
I must have music with me, even if I don’t always play it. I know it’s there when I need it.
For bedtime tonight, I could plug in some Sondheim, “A Little Night Music.” But I think I’d rather remember my father singing one song in particular: “Goodnight, Irene.” I think he does see Irene (my mother) in his dreams.
Tonight, music will take me to dreams, relaxing me after a long day, allowing me to rest for tomorrow, for a new day.