Tag Archives: Pete Seeger

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A Last Musical Wish

Few would probably want to listen to a full requiem as their last act, nor would they want to put their mourners through the extended storms of sound that most contain.  What works? 

One wag once offered the view that death was God’s way of telling you to slow down. It’s probably a better joke only for people who have lived a full and busy life. Yet it is an interesting thought experiment to inquire about the kind of music that might be requested from a person about to depart this world. What might they want to hear, if anything? What might we suggest?

So much music is written to acknowledge death, or to celebrate a person’s life. Brahms, Verdi, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Fauré, and others have written full requiems, or music intended to memorialize the dead. It’s perhaps the least they could do for their mostly private benefactors. The rest of us—if we have such wishes at all—might muse about something closer to home: a piece of music that serves as a kind of summarizing farewell.

This query has some interesting science behind it.  We have evidence that hearing is durable to the very end of life, and maybe even a little further. It is one of the last functions to shut down. Even in dying patients, the brain apparently continues to receive sounds through the auditory nerve.

In the film The Big Chill college friends reunite at the funeral of one of the group who took his life in his 30s. Another helpfully pounds out a version of the Rolling Stones “You Don’t Always Get What You Want” on the church organ. The knowing smiles of the rest suggests a building middle-aged angst that director Lawrence Kasdan used as the film’s theme.

Music as the  Embodiment of a Life

More optimistically, folk legend Pete Seeger seemed to know exactly what he wanted to say in a piece he wrote for a deceased friend. It is a simple ballad that also represents the grace of Seeger himself. The musical tribute he and a choir offer seems just right: a suitable requiem for the Hudson Valley troubadour who died in 2014.

Few would probably want to listen to a full requiem as their last act. One exception might be Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. The last portion, In Paradisum, is the essence of a musical promise of something better that is yet to come.  It is the sonic equivalent of weightless levitation; anyone should feel renewed by its invitation to let the woes of the world to fall away.

There’s clearly no single right choice for all. My regret about those reaching the natural end of a full life is that health care in this period usually won’t allow a last musical denouement. The sounds of hospitals and medical machinery often dominate. Helpful though they are, they often preclude the sonics of what could be a “good death.”

Though I don’t plan to need it soon, right now I’d select the Sussex Carol by the Choir of Women and Girls of England’s Canterbury Cathedral for sustained listening. Young voices put to the service of familiar music can make magic. Next week the choice will probably be something else.

Folks creating films, dramas and operas often find the right mix of musical elements. Composers have to be good at finding musical benedictions that pull off the miraculous task of converting feelings into sound.

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Perfect Titles

Often a good title is an ironic play on words, like John Sayles perfectly named “At the Anarchist’s Convention.”

Working out titles for books, a film, a song or various shorter pieces is one of the pleasures of writing.  A title is a kind of flag.  It identifies a specific effort to capture a subject or the attitude of its author.  It ought to be suggestive of what a reader or listener can expect to find. And it is sometimes meant to be a hook, baiting a reticent audience  to take a chance.

A conventional view among some writers and publishers is that a good title is approximately three words.  Think of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Odd Couple, The Grapes of WrathThe Cherry Orchard, Angels in America, East of Eden, or Rebel Without a Cause. The three-word rule was on my mind in choosing The Perfect Response.  It seemed like a good fit for my humble book on public rhetoric, and later, this blog.  And then there are the gentle ironies of titles that suggest pages promising insights created by unusual alignments. For example, there’s John Berendt’s Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil or Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceIdeas that appear to be alien to each other often make interesting titles, though I was surely too pleased with myself for using “Case Studies in Constructive Confrontation” as a book’s subtitle.  But my mother–probably the lone reader of the book–liked it.

Often a good title is an ironic and funny play on words, perhaps a non-sequitur like the title of a John Sayles short story, At the Anarchist’s Convention. Book titles don’t get any better than this. Can anarchists pull off an organized event?  Jerry Stiller’s humorous reading below leaves no doubts; the can’t.


The names of hair salons have mastered this playful kind of humor. Apparently there’s a Sunny and Shears and a Hey, I’m Dyeing Over Here sitting somewhere among shops with more prosaic names.

Some titles have a grace that matches their essence, like John Hartford’s Gentle on my Mind, which is now usually sung as a tribute to Glen Campbell.  There’s also Pete Seeger’s beautiful tribute, To the Old Brown Earth, sung at memorial service of a friend, and below, by young singers from Milwaukee.

In a very different genre, but creating a broader smile, is Mark Chesnutt’s country ditty, Bubba Shot the Jukebox, which can be heard in his album Longnecks & Short Stories. (1992).

Titles are almost always interesting welcome mats, inviting us in.  They are reminders of how much we owe to the playfulness and associations created through language.