These days, I’m feeling fatigued by what seems to be an ever-widening belief gap and alienation among countries, neighbors and even some close friends. I’d like to feel more connected, I’d like to build more bridges over divisive issues like climate change and health care, but I don’t know how. My failed attempts at, or more often avoidance of, conversations that could spark connection seem to only spark controversy. And so, sometimes I find myself running and hiding from responsibility and into places of pleasure, which for me is music — both the listening to, and the writing and playing of music. Recently, I’ve been studying songwriting and at least when I attempt to write a bridge to a song, I don’t feel so discouraged.
A song has a few key parts — verse, chorus or refrain, and sometimes a bridge — and each has a specific function. A song’s bridge provides musical contrast and the lyrical insight needed to link verses and the chorus. Pat Pattison, professor at Berklee College of Music, said in an online songwriting course the function of a bridge is to move you from one land mass to another. He also says a song’s chorus should be simple, easy to sing and memorable and a chorus should “call a lion off its kill.”
When Pattison says “call a lion off its kill” he’s referring to a theory in the book called, “Why Do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution” by Jikuridze and Jordania. These authors suggest before language, when man was barely hominid and more ape-like, we would join together in a chorus of voices to drive the lion off the dead antelope so we could eat it for ourselves. A choir became a way for man to unify in a “battlefield heightened consciousness” where pain and fear disappeared, where group survival overrode the individual, and where everyone felt virtually immortal. This altered state of mind was caused and supported by a cascade of endorphins and oxytocin. A chorus was, and should aim to be, powerful stuff.
As should entire songs. In 1956, Harry Belafonte recorded a version of the Jamaican folk song “Day-O” (aka, “The Banana Boat Song”), a turn of the century call-and-response work song. The “Day-O” chorus is simple and memorable, suffused with joy and pathos: “Come Mr. Tally Man, tally me banana. Daylight come and me wan’ go home.” (Yep, some days, that’s just how I feel — me wan’ go home).)Though Belafonte took this song to No. 5 on the charts, he would become powerful and instrumental within the Civil Rights movement as an adviser and confidante of Martin Luther King’s. How did social movement leaders like Belafonte and MLK find such fortitude?
Amanda Petrusich in “Harry Belafonte and the Social Power of Song” (The New Yorker, February 22, 2017) said, “Belafonte found his power in songs of protest, and sorrow, and hope — that they enabled his activism. The music he loved (the field hollers and chain-gang songs of the prewar South, the work laments of Jamaica) stressed the mutual or shared experience. Anger can be crippling when it festers in isolation. Belafonte figured out how to push anger outward by bringing others close.”
That’s it! I’ll throw a party! I’ll invite all my neighbors. I’ll serve Chex Mix and after a few pink Zinfandel wine coolers, my guitar playing neighbor and I will start jamming on “Day-O.” Hips will be swinging, voices will be wailing and cracking, and then, just before the word “Trump” gets spoken, we’ll all go home. The next morning, though hungover, I’ll be primed with the right antidote cocktail in my blood stream (one part battlefield consciousness to numb the pain and the other part all feel-good dopamine and oxytocin) to call Congressman Mark Amodei’s office and say, “Hey, it’s universal and affordable health care or bust.” And when I hang up, I’ll realize though I didn’t finish writing the bridge to my song, I’m feeling much more connected than if I did.
Kathy Walters is the mother of a teenage boy. She works for Kirkwood Mountain Realty and lives in Gardnerville.