That deeper thing called Voice

Today had me hankering for a dose of Bob Dylan. Not the ‘Freewheelin’ Bob reminding me there ain’t no use in wondering why or the Rainy Day Bob inviting me to toke up, get stoned.  Either of those classic Dylan songs would certainly take me back, maybe even reassure me of the power of protest, musically and otherwise. Both would affirm the hold he has always had on me, what with the lyrics that seem to trip off his tongue and the way he binds them to music in his inimitable way. It’s called genius.

The hankering I had was for a song from his homage to Sinatra album, Shadows in the Night. I’m a fool to want you, he sings. And the ache in his voice has me tearing up. Not that I need any reason to cry these days.

When the album came out a few years ago, some friends thought Dylan had really gone over the edge. Not the first time it’s been said of him.

Maybe I hear something they don’t hear.

Maybe they hear something I don’t hear.

“When you fall ill, people often send you CDs,” wrote Christopher Hitchens in a Vanity Fair essay that appeared early in the year  he died of a cancer that destroyed his speaking voice. “Very often, in my experience, these are by Leonard Cohen. So I have recently learned a song, entitled “If It Be Your Will.” It’s a tiny bit saccharine, but it’s beautifully rendered and it opens like this:

If it be your will,
That I speak no more:
And my voice be still,
As it was before . . .

I find it’s best not to listen to this late at night. Leonard Cohen is unimaginable without, and indissoluble from, his voice.”

Leonard Cohen had no illusions about how he sounded. He was a master of self-mockery.  In concert, he could anticipate the audience’s laugher when he sang “Tower of Song” and came to these lines:

I was born like this
I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice.

He was no stranger to irony.  And there is indeed some irony for a woman who loves the sound of music as much as I do to have Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen at the top of my singer/songwriter heroes list.

It’s not about voice.  And yet it always boils down to Voice.

It was the loss of his physical voice that got Christopher Hitchens writing so eloquently about “Unspoken Truths,” and the deeper meaning of voice.

Like it or not, Siri knows the music that moves me the most.

Eric Clapton. Bruce Springsteen. Buddy Guy. Roy Orbison.

Neil Young. Willie Nelson. Smokey Robinson.

Frank Sinatra.

Pavarotti.

Billie Holiday and Etta James.

Aretha.

Adele.

Rhiannon Giddens.

If there’s an evolutionary component to music, in the way it’s produced and performed, I can’t help but hear harshness and anger in so much of what younger generations listen to. All of which finds me yearning for more melodic voices of protest—

Joni Mitchell. Judy Collins.  Joan Baez.

Linda Rondstadt.  Bonnie Raitt.  —

not to mention those voices that are as pure as it gets,

Sweet Honey in the Rock

And, yet, for all the voices that move me (and the list goes on and on), it’s that deeper thing called Voice that moves me most.

Some dreams stay with you, instant recall, doesn’t matter whether a year or two or three has passed. Here’s one:

I’m onstage, apparently getting ready to sing. I belt out a song. My voice, strong and resonant, surprises me.

Ironic (or not), a passage early in Madeline Miller’s new novel struck a deep chord. For her dabbling in witchcraft, the mythological Circe is banned to a deserted island where, as it turns out, she learns to refine her skills. Those early days are very lonely.

“I burned cedar in the fireplace and its dark smoke kept me company. I sang, which had never been allowed before, since my mother said I had the voice of a drowning gull.”

My own singing voice isn’t that bad but certainly not as powerful and pleasing as it was in the dream. More to the point, there can be no magical spells without a voice to conjure them.

Cliché, cliché, and more cliché: we need to lift our voices more than ever in these distressing times.

We need to sing. We need to write. We need to listen.

As it turns out, when Circe is visited by the god Hermès, she learns something about her voice. You are no gull, he tells her. You sound like a mortal.

Aha! A god with a mortal’s voice—a voice that sweetens with each note of the lyre Hermes plays, the one stolen from Apollo.

Gods’ voices are, in contrast, like thunder and rocks.

 

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Torch Songs

A few weeks ago I had dream in which I was onstage, getting ready to sing. Maybe a little nervous, maybe not, I launched into a song. I surprised myself at how good I sounded.

This is not my ego speaking. It’s my unconscious playing with me. Yes, I love to sing (who doesn’t?). But being able to carry a tune is not going to turn me into Mariah Carey, never mind Adele. I love to dance, too. And in my dream, I could feel the bodily sensation of belting out a song. Good for the heart. Good for the soul.

Then I wake up and see the metaphor for what it is. For a writer there’s skill and competence, but nothing matters as much as voice.

“If I had been robbed of my voice earlier, I doubt that I could ever have achieved much on the page,” notes Christopher Hitchens in a Vanity Fair piece he wrote during his “year of living dyingly.” Moving, and filled with Hitchens-style intelligence and wit, “Unspoken Truths” gives voice to a newfound awareness re: the connection between what is said and what is written. Among other things and people he touches on is Leonard Cohen singing “If It Be Your Will,” a song he acknowledges should not be listened to late at night and one he cannot imagine anyone else bringing what LC brings to it.

Leonard Cohen would be among the last singers I’d listen to for a good torch song, all of which makes his cover of Always something to smile about.

Speaking of torch songs, I’m in my car (otherwise known as my mobile sound machine), an easy listening moment, a voice as inimitable as it gets, with or without the distinctive quaver.

Even before the song comes to an end, Billie Holiday pops into my head. Sirius Radio is reading my mind. The ache in her voice brings tears to my eyes.

From there the playlist is less torch song, more soulful. Joe Simon has me Drowning in the Sea of Love though Peaches & Herb bring me right back, slow dancing/make-out music at its best. The sound is tinny, a reminder of transistor radio days on the beach, or better yet, those 45s stacked on my record player, one by one dropping to the turntable, with a click, as I cry myself to sleep with longing or heartbreak, sometimes both.

Leonard Cohen says there ain’t no cure for love.  Eddie Cochran says there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues. Bob Dylan tells me summer days, summer nights are gone.

Here’s what I say: Take a walk, let the chorus of birds or that single one trilling a song surprise you with their reminder that nothing keeps them from coming back. Yesterday brought the added joy of watching a Duck Tolling Retriever climb up the steps of a playground slide, then run down the slide itself. All to retrieve a ball. It’s summertime, after all, and the living may (or may not be) easy but it’s easier than winter. Barbecues. Long days. Outdoor concerts. Emmylou Harris will be in my neck of the woods this summer. And Rhiannon Giddens. Last year it was Cecile McLorin Salvant. If you’ve been lucky enough to hear/see her even once (twice for me), you’d be hard put not to agree with Wynton Marsalis: “You get a singer like this once in a generation or two.” To learn that becoming a singer wasn’t even what she set out to do is beside the point. This is an artist who does more than interpret songs. Trust me when I say you’ll never hear a cover of Wives and Lovers like hers.