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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April crow in the snow

April 2, 2018: it’s snowing outside, at least four inches’ accumulation by 9 a.m., no April Fool’s trick here. Yesterday a woodpecker caught me by surprise, a beautiful bird despite the damage it can do. Winter storms had blown away the strips of foil pinned to the column of wood that rat-tat-tatting bird has a taste for and which actually deter it, so I went looking for them in the yard—only to discover more miner bees than last year making nests in the soil. Otherwise known as ground nesting bees, you see them hovering near the little mounds of dirt that mark the entrances to their underground nests (no hives) and several females may nest in the same vicinity. They’re docile and they do lots of good pollinating and they don’t stay around for too long. But I can be forgiven for fearing an imaginary sting.

Today it’s the solitary crow in the snow demanding my attention.

A Yahrtzeit candle burns on my window sill. Lit at sundown last night, it’s a memorial candle marking my mother’s death according to the Jewish calendar, 17 Nissan, the second day of Passover.  A gorgeous full moon, a blue one this year, lit up the sky during Saturday night’s seder.

Well maybe not a full-scale seder since I opted to make it simpler this year.  I try, really I do, to keep the spirit of the Jewish holidays, not to mention my mother, alive, and I’m grateful for the friends and family who gather around the table each year.

 Even without a traditional seder, I need to mark what brings us together by reading from some Haggadah recalling the wonderful story of freedom from slavery in all its Cecil B. DeMille splendor.  This year’s choice was the New American Haggadah, translated by Nathan Englander and edited by Jonathan Safran Foer. It was a gift from friends who come every year. They know I’m a sucker for a beautiful book with a literary duo at the helm.  Here are some random passages that we read:

We live in a broken world . . . Exile—another name for brokenness—is not just the current condition of the Jewish people, according to the Kabbalah, it is the fundamental condition of the universe and of God.

Kafka once wrote in his journal: “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world. That is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”

Passover is a journey, and like most journeys, it is taking much longer than it ought to take, no matter how many times we stop and ask for directions.

By no small coincidence, the fiction I’m caught up in right now is Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. The novel casts a spell mostly in its reimagining of the heroes at the heart of the Trojan War.   There are slaves here, too, women taken in raids by the Greeks as a prelude to the war and it’s hard not to be taken with the humanity of Achilles and Patroclus in doing what they can for the few in their charge. Then there’s the war itself, as epic and classic as it gets, with its reminder that there’s no escaping the appetites of men for glory and greed, not to mention revenge. We get our archetypes from myths. We get some understanding of human foibles and the way gods have played with them. There may never again be a war of a thousand ships waged in the name of a beautiful woman. But there will, alas, always be wars, more often than not in the name of nameless things.