By Tom Robotham

Music…is not simply a distraction or a pastime, but a core element of our identity. – Daniel Levitin, The World in Six Songs

The other day, I pulled from one of my bookshelves a volume that I’ve revisited often over the last few years: Daniel Levitin’s The World in Six Songs, a marvelous study of the ways in which early music shaped human nature and facilitated the social bonding that was necessary for the development of civilization. 

The book is also a meditation on the enormously important role that music plays in our own lives—which got me thinking: What songs have both shaped and reflected my own personal development? 

I could fill an entire book with meditations on pieces of music that have significant meaning for me. I’ve written many times, for example, about Glenn Gould’s second recording of The Goldberg Variations, which has been my single favorite album for the last 30 years—my desert-island disc: the one record I’d take with me if I were exiled and could never hear any other record again.

Were I to write that book, I would also include examinations of many other pieces from the classical canon, as well as jazz favorites and music of other genres.  

For now, though, I’m thinking only about songs in the specific sense of that word—short pieces of music with lyrics—and only about those songs that represent key moments of my life. They are not necessarily my favorites, nor do I necessarily regard them all as “great.” They are simply songs that had an enormous impact on me when I first encountered them, and in some way or another represent my desires and my perceptions of the world.

Limiting these reflections to lyrical songs, of course, still presents an enormous challenge. Levitin says it has been estimated that more than 10 million songs have been recorded since the invention of recording technology. I have no idea how many songs I’ve heard in my lifetime, but it certainly has to be in the thousands. The Beatles alone recorded more than 200, and I love virtually every one of them. 

The first song that comes to mind, though, was never recorded by anyone and certainly wouldn’t have become a hit if it had been. It sticks in my mind because it is the first song I learned to play on the piano, when, at the age of 5, my mother—a music teacher—sat me down and began walking me through the “Green Book,” as the first volume in the John W. Schaum piano course was called. It is the simplest of melodies set to even simpler lyrics, next to a picture of a puppy: “Bone Sweet Bone! (C-D-E)  / “Bone Sweet Bone! (C-B-A) / “That’s my favorite song” (C-D-E-C-D).” The melody and lyrics are then repeated, ending with, “Sing it Loud and Strong!” 

A mere eight measures—and yet it awakened in me the joy of playing melodies on the piano, and singing along as I struck the notes. 

I’d been primed to fall in love with the beauty of simple melodies. In addition to teaching piano and voice, my mother sang constantly around the house while doing chores and once told me that she used to sing to me while I was still in the womb, having read that a fetus can hear music. (Scientific studies support this.) The tunes she favored were standards from the American Songbook—the great body of music that emerged from Broadway and Hollywood musicals of the 1930s through the ‘50s—and in time I would grow to love them every bit as much as I loved the popular songs of my generation. When I was a child, though, they were just there in the background. 

By the time I was 10, I had about 20 45s in my collection, and many of them were Beatles records. And yet, one stands out perhaps even more strongly than those of the Fab Four: “Secret Agent Man,” by Johnny Rivers. (“There’s a man who lives a life of danger.”) The lyrics captured my imagination because I was already a huge James Bond fan, having seen Thunderball in my local movie theater a year earlier. But what I loved even more than the lyrics was the electric-guitar intro, and when I got my own guitar that Christmas, I played those opening notes endlessly, while imagining that I was a rock-and-roll star.

Deep down, though, I don’t think I really wanted to be grown up and oh-so-cool. I still longed for the nurturing comforts of childhood, and I found them—around the same time I was discovering Johnny Rivers and the Beatles—in The Sound of Music, which my mom took me to see when it came out in 1965. I already adored Julie Andrews, having seen Mary Poppins, and when she sang the title song, (“The hills are alive with the sound of music”) while whirling across a mountaintop, it struck deep chords within me, evoking the freedom of a childhood spent outdoors, and the primal desire to sing at the top of my lungs. 

And yet, early on, I also developed a melancholy streak, especially when I hit adolescence and began to experience the ecstasy and agony of falling in love. Middle school was an especially difficult time, as it is for many people, but it ended on a high note when, at the school graduation party, I slow danced with a girl I’d had a crush on all year. The sound track of that magic moment was “Reflections of My Life,” by a now forgotten band called Marmalade. It had already become one of my favorites—which is odd, given the lyrics: “I’m changing, I’m changing everything / Ah, everything around me / The world is a bad place / A bad place, a terrible place to live/ Oh, but I don’t wanna die.”) 

And yet, maybe not so odd. Early adolescence, after all, is a time of wrenching change—at once terrifying and exhilarating—and when the group sings the chorus in glorious harmonies that move me to this day—“All my sorrow / Sad tomorrow / Take me back to my old home”—it feels both wistful and hopeful. I can safely say that no other song reminds me more vividly of that period in my life.

During my high school years, my musical imagination was captured mainly by the great progressive-rock groups of the era—especially Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I liked those groups, however, for their instrumental virtuosity more so than their songs. The one song that stands out from high school is “Fresh Air,” by Quicksilver Messenger Service. They were the second band I ever saw live, which made the song all the more vivid for me, and as a budding (no pun intended) pot head, I got an endless kick out of the notion that the lyric “have another hit of sweet air” was a reference to smoking weed. Marijuana, in fact, had become extremely important to me, bonding me with a group of friends in a way that I hadn’t experienced in middle school. The song symbolized this for me—so much so that when it came time to choose a quote to go under my yearbook picture, I chose that lyric. It didn’t hurt that I also thought I was pulling a fast one on school authorities by speaking in thinly veiled code. 

In college, I grew even less song-oriented and more interested in instrumental music—especially jazz, which I began to explore with fervor while working as a deejay at the college radio station. And yet, if I were to choose one song that represents my college years, it would have to be Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” which became the soundtrack for a road trip I took to Fort Lauderdale with three friends during spring break of junior year. Memories of listening to that album—and that song, in particular—as we drove along a dark North Carolina highway in the wee hours, remain as vivid as if the trip had happened yesterday. Thankfully, I’m still close with one of those friends. Alas, our friend Ed—whose car we took on the trip—died a few years after we graduated. Meanwhile, our friend John—who was my closest friend from the age of 13, my college roommate, the best man at my wedding, and my son’s godfather—simply vanished about 20 years ago. I’ve heard rumors that he lives in Vermont, and all of us who are still in touch from those years have tried to find him, but to no avail—a fact that makes the title of the song all the more poignant. 

My musical tastes in the years after college were more and more dominated by jazz as well as the jazzy arrangements of the great American-Songbook interpreters: Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, and, especially, Frank Sinatra. I’ve always been an incurable romantic, and these singers spoke to that aspect of my personality. But the great thing about Sinatra is that he combined romance with swagger. And man, could he swing. As a result, it’s awfully hard to choose one song from this period. “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and “The Way You Look Tonight” are certainly contenders. But I’d have to go with “Fly Me to the Moon,” which I’ve sung during countless car rides, cocktail hours and karaoke nights. I even used to sing it a cappella to my kids at bedtime when they were very young. One of the categories of song that Levitin discusses in his book is songs of joy—and “Fly Me to the Moon” surely fits that description. 

In my 50s, I became more interested in contemporary singer-songwriters, Dar Williams in particular. The opening lines of her song “Mercy of the Fallen,” seemed to sum up my circumstances: “Oh my fair North Star / I have held to you dearly / I had asked you to steer me, / Till one cloud-scattered night, / I got lost in my travels…” The friend who turned me on to Williams’ music also got me interested in Dante, and there seemed to be a parallel to the opening lines of The Inferno: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost.” 

Newly divorced, I felt that I’d lost my way. Everything I’d built my life around seemed to be crumbling—all the more so when my 10-year stint as the editor of Port Folio Weekly came to an abrupt end a year after the dissolution of my marriage. As I stared at the fragments of my life, I realized I had to find new meaning in them—and to embrace ambiguity. To this day, many of the lyrics in Williams’ song remain a mystery to me. And yet, I think that is precisely why the song was so resonant at the time: “There’s the wind and the rain/ And the mercy of the fallen, / Who say they have no claim to know what’s right. / There’s the weak and the strong and the beds that have no answer, / And that’s where I may rest my head tonight.” 

Which brings me to the last song on my list: “My Back Pages,” by Bob Dylan. The song came out in 1964 when I was way to young to appreciate it. It only began to speak to me about 10 years ago—especially the paradoxical line, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Dylan is said to have written it after growing disenchanted with the moral arrogance and intellectual naivety that, in his mind, had defined his earlier songs. He could easily have written the line in reverse, equating youth with naivety and age with wisdom. One of the things that makes Dylan great, however, is his knack for unusual turns of phrase, and this one makes sense to me. The simplistic ideas we tend to embrace in our teens and 20s often make us rigid. We’re certain that we’re right, and we see the world, as Dylan puts it, “in black and white.” With each passing year, I think, I’ve become younger in the sense that I’ve become more flexible, more open to gray areas and nuance, and more willing to question my own assumptions—more open, in short, to what Zen masters call “beginners mind.” 

And so it is with my love of music, which has come full circle, encompassing 65 years of memories associated with song, along with a deepening appreciation of the new possibilities that music can bring. When I listen to any of these songs, which I’ve heard a thousand times, the memories come flooding back, and suddenly I am 6 again, or 12 or 22. At the same time, I hear them in new ways, filtered through a lifetime of experience and reflection. I am old and young simultaneously. Even playing those three ascending notes that open “Bone Sweet Bone” takes on a magical quality, in some ways similar to the way it did when I was 5, but in many ways embellished and deepened by six decades of gratitude for the soundtrack of my life. I look forward to hearing about yours.