I first discovered the joy of making music when I was eight years old, during my weekly elementary school music class. The teacher was an overweight, bespectacled woman of about 30 who seemed to dress exclusively in knit fabrics. I cannot remember her name, and given what I now know about school budgets in poor states like Arkansas, I would wager that her employment at Pinewood Elementary School was marginal at best. I imagine her as a reluctantly celibate Baptist church organist who taught elementary school music on a part-time contract.
Though my memory of her is vague, I am thankful that she was there at all. I do not come from a musical family, and I’m sure that many kids, then and now, receive no musical education at all. I am thankful that I had a chance to feel the music at a young age.
The music room at Pinewood Elementary was a special place — a weekly change of scenery, and a welcome break from the rigors imposed by my regular academic teacher, mean old butch-haired, no-makeup-wearing Ms. Greenberg, for whom I am also now thankful. The music room was also a break from the general cruelty of being a sensitive, unpopular nine year old who preferred magic tricks and ventriloquist dolls over football and video games.
I remember plastic flutes, an autoharp, an upright piano, and an assortment of percussion instruments. I remember cinder block walls, painted diarrhea yellow. I remember Ms. SoAndSo lining us up on a metal choir platform that looked like a small, portable row of stadium benches, and I remember singing as though I was the only one she could hear.
There is one moment from one song that has stayed with me for all of these years. The lyric was along the lines of, “So I said to myself, I said ‘Self, don’t you see….’” and that’s all I could remember about it. That moment has stayed in my mind for three decades as nothing more than a flicker.
That flicker has remained in my mind while so much has faded away, because that exact lyric, and something about the movement of the chords in that precise part of the song, gave me goosebumps and a sense of gratitude for being alive.
The flicker re-entered my mind late one night during my 30’s, and I decided to Google the half-remembered lyric. Within less than two minutes, I was listening to a recording by a massively popular 70's pop band called Three Dog Night. I had heard of them, but I had no idea what they were best known for aside from moustaches and bell bottoms.
I now know that the song is called Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues), and it was written by Allen Touissant, a legendary New Orleans rhythm and blues singer and pianist. It was recorded by a number of artists during the 70’s, but the Three Dog Night version was the most popular.
The lyrics seem to describe an encounter between a male musician and a woman who is bored of attending his performances. She says, “Man, that’s the same thing I’ve heard before, and I’m too tired to go to your show again and again.” She then says, “Play something sweet. Play something mellow. Play something I can sink my teeth in like Jello. Play something I can understand. Play me some brickyard blues.”
The line that has stuck with me since childhood is a piece of the song in which the male character tries to recover his self-esteem after hearing such pointed criticism. The full line goes like this:
“So I said to myself, I said, “Self can’t you see what is sailing through my soul? And I’ve gotta have some more, don’t ya know.”
I took a moment to figure out the chord progression behind these lines, just to see where the magic resides. It’s a simple progression of major chords: F, G, E, A, C, G (again), and D. There are a couple of places that seem to invite an optional chromatic or diatonic “step up” or “step down” into the next chord, and I’m pretty sure that’s what my eight year old limbic system liked the most.
Stepping up or down to the next chord feels almost like walking up or down a set of steps — like you’re sneaking up on something. There was also something very wonderful about all of those major chords in a row.
I remember how the chords seemed to ring out from Ms. SoAndSo’s upright piano in the most satisfying way. I now know to describe that satisfaction in terms of the special consonance between the tonic and the dominant, or in terms of the cheerful quality created by major thirds, or in terms of the “5, 4, 1” progression prominently featured in the chorus of the song, which capitalizes upon not only the dominant chord, but also the subdominant chord in relation to the tonic of the entire song.
Of course, none of this equates to the actual emotion I felt as I sang those lines at the tender age of eight. None of this really explains why that part of that song etched itself into my brain. Any attempt to break this down to basic physics, psychology, or even psycho-physiology — let alone to time signatures and modal theory — is just a feeble attempt to explain what is, ultimately, a theological matter.
The snippet of the lyric that I have recalled for all of these years remained with me because it invited me to speak to myself about what was moving through my soul — and about needing it more and more. Meanwhile, the mystical chords stepped upward from E major to A major, from one fundamental to the next, and so with it did I.
God, however conceptualized, was in the consonant vibrations emitting from the soundboard in Ms. SoAndSo’s beat-down upright. God was also in the occasional dissonance that made the consonance so wonderful. God was in the coils of the piano strings and in my vocal chords, which vibrated with the moving breath of my own little pipe organ — the sonic, moving breath that demonstrated beyond all pressing doubt that I was alive, and for a good reason.
That is the magic of music.