“I see friends shaking hands, saying, How do you do? / They’re really saying, I love you.” Louis Armstrong made a good point in the great song, “What a Wonderful World,” which resonates with his own happy heart and the eloquence of songwriters George David Weiss and Bob Thiele.
The point is that people often say two things at once. Along with their actual words, such as “How do you do,” there’s a spirit of something bigger to which we’re giving voice. It can be inferred from the words we’ve chosen to say or the way in which we say them. Let’s set aside the times this double meaning can be negative, perhaps because of sarcasm or a sly phraseology; I propose to meditate for a minute on the times when the meaning is positive and uplifting, and going further, I’d like to meditate on the words we sing and the songs we play.
This is timely for me because, for some months now, I’ve been privileged to be performing songs along with a group called the Music Village “Jammers.” Our South Bend-based group plays on instruments like guitar and bass violin and ukulele—and I join in on my accordion—in all sorts of community venues, in a rather casual but purposeful mood. Our intent is always to lift up people’s spirits and foster a sense of community and friendship among diverse people, using a wide range of songs that bring back fond memories or evoke smiles for all.
I’ve become aware that that a lot of what we perform conveys an upbeat double meaning, frequently based on great lyrics (thank you, songwriters!) but also based on the song selections we’ve made and the joy we visibly share with our audiences.
We’ve recently brought out our repertoire of Christmas songs; these tunes, whether they contain direct references to religious beliefs or are more secular in nature, can carry listeners (especially kids and families) aloft on their lyrics into a happy world of double meanings. Through these deeper themes—like expectancy and hope, or gratitude for tangible gifts and amazing graces, or beloved memories as the lens through which we choose to see the present—we’re able to generate a holiday spirit bringing folks together, regardless of any specific faith affiliations among performers or audiences.
Here’s what I’m meditating about: This phenomenon need not be tied strictly to Christmas songs; it can help to remind musicians and a range of audiences that this power to unify and uplift resides in us all year round, if we choose to play music that will enrich people’s hearts and if our community audiences set themselves free to listen and respond. We’re fortunate to continually revive a legacy of songs that tap into the brightest themes of just about every holiday, and we also enjoy an even broader legacy of songs that are neither seasonal nor time-bound. Because “Jammers” performances throughout the year have reminded me of “standards” for all occasions, I’m inclined to say what might seem corny: We musicians and listeners are able to help make every day a holiday (or at least a chance to cultivate hope, love and nostalgia) if we’ll just take certain songs—and the smiles they bring—more seriously.
So I close my meditation with a thought exercise in which I invite you to participate. Without in any way downplaying music designed specially to hit home for the holidays (see what I did there?), what are some non-Christmas songs that we could play during this season whose lyrics also express brilliantly the sentiments we need to sustain us through all four seasons, over and over again?
Here’s a very preliminary list of timeless, always-timely songs to ponder, subject to addition or subtraction by you:
For epiphanies (with a small “e”) in which we discover the “good stuff” in the world:
- “What a Wonderful World” – already mentioned
- “Till There Was You”—from “The Music Man” and The Beatles!
- “You’re My Home”—from Billy Joel
- “On a Clear Day”—from Barbara Streisand
For appreciation of our significant others, families and friends:
- “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”—from The Hollies
- “I Just Called to Say I Love You”—from Stevie Wonder
- “Love Makes the World Go Round”—Deon Jackson’s song or the song from “Carnival”
- “Shower the People You Love with Love”—from James Taylor
- “You’ve Got a Friend”—from Carole King
For anticipation/pursuit of peace, happiness and better times:
- “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”—from Bob Dylan
- “The Impossible Dream”—from “Man of LaMancha”
- “Turn, Turn, Turn”—from The Byrds
- “Over the Rainbow”—from Judy Garland
- “To Life”—from “Fiddler on the Roof”
- “We Are the World”—from Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie
(Thanks to the Music Village Jammers, some of whom you see gathered in the photo above. Thiss was a free public concert in downtown South Bend on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017.)