Elwayville: The Music of Words

The personal lyrics and narratives we write stay with us—and sometimes they even come back around.

The personal lyrics and narratives we write stay with us—and sometimes they even come back around.

I remember reading how jazz legend Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker used to love country music. He would play it on the jukebox at his favorite bars. When his friends asked him how he could listen to something so corny, he said something along the lines of, “I like the stories the songs tell.”

I feel the same way about country—especially when I’m driving on a highway late at night—and also about blues, soul and rock and roll. If you play me Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” or Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” I will fall into a kind of trance, as if the story contained in the music and lyrics were something I had never felt before yet had always known.

Or more appropriately, remembering how it felt so good it to hear the song the first time, I wanted to keep hearing more.

In college, I wrote a two-page love letter based on The Grateful Dead’s version of Wilson Pickett’s timeless late-night love anthem, “The Midnight Hour.” It felt really good to make an essay out of a song, making music into words.

There were also some lyrics I started writing around the same time. I put them in a big black book that said “Notes,” on the cover. I thought someday I might pair them to chords, but no one needs to hear me sing, and even fewer need to hear me play guitar.

A Love of Letters

The fascination with notebooks, journals and scribbled scraps of paper has stood the test of time for me, however. Other than dogs, fresh snow and kind people, nothing makes me happier than sitting down with a blank page and a pen, stringing sentences together.

It’s a family thing (like our clan’s unceasing fascination with sweet, naughty English Labradors). My Mom’s younger sister, Harriet, has recently begun sharing the letters and speeches of my great grandfather, nicknamed “Skipper” for his love of boats, who lived to be 101, and who was an accomplished guitarist.

In a speech to his surviving Cornell Class of 1899 classmates, delivered in April of 1957, he said, “I look upon the years since 1899 as one long postgraduate course, majoring in human relations and the study of mankind. Being something of an extrovert, I have found that the yield has been substantial.”

After sharing one of the letters, Harriet recounted how every night he said to his wife, “I love you, Eva.” To which she always replied, “And isn’t that a good thing?” They were married for 65 years.

One of my cousins is a successful author. And I personally have Moleskines filled with manifesto-like notes scribbled down while riding sunlit chairlifts, watching out the windows of planes, or sitting on an après-stool at the bar.

I take notes of the funny things my wife says, such as how someone is as interesting “as an unsalted potato chip.” Or at the clinic for a recent ski injury, when she said, “If there are sick people in there, I’ll just go wait in the car.”

What people say to each other fascinates me. As Bird said, I love the stories that we tell.

A Thousand Words

In an antique store in Little Falls, New York, my grandfather found a photo of his own grandparents and his mother on horseback in front of the house he grew up in, and bought it without telling the salesman a word.

I have a copy of it on my office windowsill. Right next to it is a photo of my wife basking in the late September light on the Arno River in Florence, Italy, with Sophia Loren-like sunglasses she bought at an open-air market. Wherever we have gone, Edinburgh, Lake Como or even Mazatlan, the locals speak to her in their own language, because of the mystery in her eyes I think, and her long red hair.

In the photo is a notebook with a cover like a Navajo rug at her elbow, and together she and that book and the open-ended pathway of that river winding through town create a perfect mix of European sun-stroked coolness and her own personal American savoir faire.

I left that book on a plane coming back from Las Vegas after a snow sports industry trade show. With it, I lost the details of Assisi and the Basilica of St. Francis, the rolling fields on the morning flight into Munich, a draft of a short story about “Europa,” and Catherine’s own lists of the styles she saw, and the addresses and phone numbers of our hotels.

That same notebook was returned to me more than a year later, by a Southwest employee named Brooks, with a four stanza poem that began: “It’s always sad when something’s lost when what was yours is gone, and the hope that it will be found is what keeps us going on.”

He didn’t want me to share my gratitude with his bosses. He joked, “They might start to expect it of me.”

But I always think of him when I pull that notebook off the shelf, and all those memories come flooding back like a favorite song on the radio.