Poster Still Life With Musical Instruments
Food and music mingle in Pieter Claesz's 'Still Life With Musical Instruments' from 1623.
Wikimedia Commons

Reflecting on music and thankfulness

Ward Jacobson
Ward Jacobson

Because I don’t live in either Hawaii or Arizona, the sun now sets about an hour and a half after lunch. Don’t laugh, Texas. Wait too long for a grilled cheese and tomato soup in the Twin Cities, and that big hunk o’ burnin’ love in the west is sayonara for the night — before Jeopardy even comes on.

Oh, but there's more to November.

As in no more baseball. The World Series ends — this year rather abruptly after just five games — and one is left with Titans vs. Steelers on Thursday Night Football. And that's only if you get Amazon Prime.

All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray — quite literally.

October! Did I say you could leave?

But then one day not long ago, my middle-school kid came striding through the kitchen belting out “Don't Pull Your Love,” by Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds — a song that was a hit exactly 60 years before he was born — and I realize what November is truly all about.

Giving thanks.

It actually makes me a little giddy that the youngest human in the house can accurately drop down a random song like that, and (not to brag!) quite a few others from the Stone Age. Meanwhile, along the way he's also awakened me to the world of BTS, Bad Bunny, BoyWithUke and a few others. So let's turn this into a positive.

Hello, November. Good to see you! Time to be thankful for many things, but I'll focus on music here.

Linda Ronstadt
Linda Ronstadt recorded “When Will I Be Loved” in 1975.
Henry Diltz

I'm thankful for Linda Ronstadt, in general, but specifically for her mid-’70s cover of “When Will I Be Loved.” Those two bass notes kick in at the beginning and, instantly, I become Mr. Fun. President Ford is in charge now. Our long, national nightmare is over, and all is right with the world. Phil and Don Everly were great, but c'mon. Linda's version is a cheeseburger, fries and a shake to be devoured! Barely two minutes later, it's over and I want to hear the whole thing again, which often happens.

I'm thankful for childhood memories of lyrics I perhaps didn't fully grasp. There was John Denver's “Rocky Mountain High,” where 10-year-old me would longingly ponder just how great it would be way up there — so tall in the sky. You know, friends around the campfire and everybody's high. I mean, at least 12,000 feet. Way up there. Right? Sooooooo high. You could see Omaha from there! Yes, I was fully on board with Denver, who always insisted the song was about experiencing the euphoria of nature. I couldn't wait to get to Colorado.

I'm thankful for the thrill I had every four years between 1972 and 1980, watching the Olympics on ABC, with the late, great Jim McKay as host. The primary rush came from Leo Arnaud's “Bugler's Dream,” which opened every telecast — I would hear that fanfare and immediately lock in to whatever was about to unfold on the screen.

There was Dutch speedskater Ard Schenk plugging one nostril and blowing snot out of the other openly onto the ice in Sapporo. Splat! Back then, you didn't see that every day on network television. Munich had Dave Wottel winning the 800 meters in that beat-up, old golf cap. At Innsbruck, there was the sheer terror of watching Austrian skier Franz Klammer and his electrifying downhill run, followed by chill time gawking at the Queen of Cute, figure skating champ Dorothy Hamill. Now that was a major middle school crush. Montreal gave us Bruce Jenner's record-breaking decathlon win. What ever happened to him? And four years later, my senior year in high school — the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid with the U.S. hockey team knocking off the Soviet Union.

Those events were all accompanied by that regal, solitary soundtrack — Arnaud's “Bugler's Dream,” the ABC version — a recording from the late ‘50s with the Military Band and Felix Slatkin (as heard below).

The piece comes from within Arnaud's larger work, The Charge Suite. I adore John Williams, but several years later, his arrangement of Arnaud's classic for NBC's Olympics coverage cut the up-tempo second part of the theme, and it just wasn't the same.

I'm thankful for a haunting performance that resulted from a middle-of-the-night phone call in Los Angeles in 1969. Mick Jagger needed some female help on a backup vocal for the Rolling Stones' quintessential tune “Gimme Shelter.” The call was made to Merry Clayton, who was very pregnant and asleep in bed. After some prodding from her husband to take the gig, she hustled into the studio, barely out of her pajamas, with curlers still in her hair. In a couple of takes in less than an hour, this sleep-deprived singer delivered the goods — exactly what Mick and Co. needed.

Rape. Murder. It's just a shot away.

Without Clayton, “Gimme Shelter” is a good, hard jab to the body. You absorb it and move on. With Clayton, “Gimme Shelter” is a right cross to the head that puts you on the canvas, and demands your undivided attention. Sadly, Clayton suffered a miscarriage the next day. Speculation was the emotional strain and intensity from the previous night's brief recording session played a part in that tragedy. Understandably, for many years Clayton couldn't listen to the song that featured her gritty and stirring vocal — a vocal that to this day, still stops me in my tracks.

I'm thankful for Leonard Bernstein, the New York Philharmonic, CBS and YouTube, not necessarily in that order.

Bernstein conducted 53 Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic between 1958 and 1972. CBS televised them, mostly on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, but some also in prime time. Exactly how they got all those musicians to show up for all those shows is kind of remarkable when you think about it. It's doubtful that could ever happen today. I was too young and don't remember a thing about those shows when they originally aired. But today you can see them all on YouTube, and they are fantastic. Bernstein is a natural, completely in his element. I will readily admit that on more than a few occasions over the years, I've used the Young People's Concerts footage on YouTube as show prep for my own classical music hosting.

Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts
Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts ran from 1958 to 1972.
CBS/New York Philharmonic

The first show was Jan. 18, 1958, and the question was asked: "What does music mean?"

Bernstein's response: It's about notes. E-flats and F-sharps. No matter how many times people tell you stories about what music means, forget them. Stories aren't what music means at all. Music is never about anything. Music just is. Music is notes — beautiful notes and sounds put together in such a way that we get the pleasure out of listening to them. That's all there is to it.

There's a lot to pick apart there, but he's Bernstein and I'm not, so I'll decline. You can take your best shot. But go check out Lenny and company on YouTube. I might not qualify for the "young people" demographic anymore, but you're never too old to learn.

I'm thankful to have decent pitch. Usually when I'm in the car and music is playing on the radio, I will sing along. By myself, I'm at full volume and pitch is never an issue. But if there are passengers, the singing will be pianissimo, almost under my breath. The radio will be at a lower volume, too, so there might be more external noises distracting my ear. (Hmm — it appears the writer is beginning to make excuses.) It pains me to say it, but often when the volume of the music increases or my ear abruptly hears it clearer, without the external noise, I can be a half step high or low! Oh, the humanity! With cheetahlike speed, however, I will gallantly adjust to match pitch, at which point I'll attempt a quick glance around the car to make sure the gruesome tone fail was heard only by me.

I'm thankful for the final, glorious C-major chord, sustained by the organ, at the end of the opening fanfare of Richard Strauss' tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I wonder how many people don't realize there's still another 30-plus minutes left in the work? But it doesn't really matter. That's how the sun should rise everyday. And when the organ continues on briefly at the end, all by itself, oy — goosebumps!

By the way, Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic dealt with this work on a 1971 Young People's Concert. Again with the YouTube. You can thank me later.

I'm thankful for Aaron Copland and pretty much everything that came from his fertile, musical mind. As we approach Thanksgiving, it occurs to me that perhaps we should have more Thanksgiving-specific music, instead of trotting out all the Christmas fluff the day after Halloween. Sure, “Over the River and Through the Woods” is fine and has some nice history attached to it. But you can go to Grandmother's house any time. I certainly would never discredit the hymns “We Gather Together” or “Now Thank We All Our God.” They're two of my favorites. But why not ramp up the Copland a bit during November? It's an American no-brainer — raking leaves to Rodeo, playing football to Billy the Kid, game night by the fire accompanied by the Clarinet Concerto, baking pumpkin pie to The Tender Land Suite.

Oh, and Appalachian Spring? I'll trot that out every day of the month and beyond!

I'm thankful for minor musical moments, too. Some might call them frivolous, but I savor my beloved 3Ms.

On a recent day, I was listening to Apple Tunes on shuffle. It randomly took me from Boston's “Don't Look Back” (ending on A-major) to Wings' “Mull of Kintyre” (beginning on A-major). Two vastly different songs joined together for a respectful handshake by a single note. I must say, though, the A-major at the end of “Don't Look Back” seemed exhausted after all that big-haired, late ‘70s power-pop rock, while the A-major to begin “Mull of Kintyre” seemed pleasantly buzzed, anticipating a second pint of Tennent's. But it was a perfectly matched pitch when they converged, courtesy of the Apple Tunes shuffle.

I like to think there's a tiny robot inside my iPhone that totally gets my nerdish music sensibility. Did Apple do that on purpose or was that just one of those delicious musical coincidences? Whatever it was, it made me happy.

Bill Withers photo from Getty Images
Bill Withers speaks at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2015.
Mike Coppola/Getty Images

I'm thankful for the one and only time I correctly sang all the “I know, I know, I know”s in Bill Withers' 1971 hit “Ain't No Sunshine.” When that day finally happened, I considered it a walk-off win. These days, I no longer make the attempt. Been there. Done that. You can laugh all you want, but there are 26 of those “I know”s (with subtle changes in cadence and pitch) and my accomplishment was met with considerable inner joy and celebration.

I'm thankful for 1960s-’70s James Taylor. In my mind (and those words are important), the voice of early JT is the ideal vocal range for me to comfortably sing along. And I'm quite certain I sound just like him! (Again, remember, "in my mind.") “Something in the Way She Moves,” from Taylor's 1968 debut album, is my locked-down, go-to pick. It's the one where I never have to worry about a single note. Plus, it's a damn good song. Just ask George Harrison, who liked it so much that he kind of came up with his own concept of the song a year later. Remember that one?

Which leads me to a final note of thanks — breaking away now from the minor musical moments.

The Beatles.

Everyone should be thankful for the Beatles. In January 1968, composer Ned Rorem penned a piece for the New York Review of Books simply titled, "The Beatles."

In it, he wrote: “Most of the literary copy devoted to the Beatles extols the timely daring of the group's lyrics while skirting the essential, the music.”

He concluded: “If music at its most healthy is the creative reaction of, and stimulation for, the body, and at its most decadent is the creative reaction of and stimulation for the intellect — if, indeed, health is a desirable feature of art, and if, as I believe, the Beatles exemplify this feature, then we have reached (strange though it may seem as coincidence with our planet's final years) a new and golden renaissance of song.”

Rorem died a year ago this month — November 2022. I'm thankful for his words.

As our friend Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, "Without music, life would be a mistake."

So, November, thanks for reminding me that you're not such a bad month — and to be thankful for the music.

Love the music?

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