Last Sunday was rainy around here. So rainy in fact that before the downpour was done there was significant flooding in the area. I had some places to go in the morning and spent a while in the car, headlights on, wipers wiping, and music on the radio.
I was unhappy with the selections on the classic rock station that morning, so I switched to classical. They were playing Baroque music, which is pleasing sometimes, but not that morning. I switched to the jazz station and found a tune by a combo featuring sax and trumpet, my favorite kind of jazz, and settled into it. The music filled the confined air of the car, the rain continued unabated, and I ate up the miles towards my destination.
Often in human life, especially human life in the seasonal climes, we find ourselves locked inside because of the weather. Snowy days, rainy days, even too hot days. In these times, for many of us, music is our companion. We always listen to music. I sometimes wonder if its very ubiquity on radio, computer, and various digital devices doesn’t devalue its ancient wonder.
For most of time, if you wanted to hear music, you had to make music, or know someone who would make it for you. Sometimes it was just singing, or singing to the accompaniment of drums, pipes, or the simplest of string instruments. Everyone has heard about the origin of folk music and blues music in the work songs of field hands and slaves. For a long time, any family that could afford it had a piano in the house, and someone who could play it at least competently. The sale of sheet music used to be big business.
Much changed with the coming of recorded music. The number of people who could make music declined while the number who could listen to music increased. The quality of the music listened to also declined rapidly. (We’ll argue about this some other time.) But the important point is, now almost anybody can take music inside with them when the weather dictates a retreat from the elements.
Music is solace on a rainy day. It is comfort amid a snowy afternoon. The weather changes what we listen to. There is time and space to listen. In the raucous comings and goings of a summer afternoon I enjoy pop songs and rock ballads. When I know I am confined for a while I am more interested in putting on a long Mahler symphony, Beethoven concerto, or Bach chorale. I have the mental space to listen.
When I reached my first destination last Sunday morning, the Ethical Society’s Sunday morning platform, there were two musicians to entertain us, a folk guitarist and a brilliant young fiddle player. They led off with a rousing traditional reel. It was an unexpected delight in the otherwise somber air of the rainy morning chamber, and it seems everyone sat up a little straighter after the bright chords died away. I know I did.
I have read a few times the theory that in the ancient years of human prehistory, the time of hunter-gatherers, we would gather in caves or other enclosures during the coldest winter months, huddling together, doing little, conserving energy in a kind of semi-hibernation. I wonder how we stood it. We’re human beings, after all, not given, like bears or skunks, to sleeping long stretches or staring at cave walls for weeks on end. I like to imagine someone in the family band would at one point or another burst into song, or what would turn out to be the prototype of song, our earliest music, filling the dank echoing darkness with sound, expressing frustration, or expectation, or even joy at the thought of the eventual advent of spring and sunny weather. I know I would.