Creating a “Soundtrack of My Life” can be a self-reflective exercise to explore one’s self through connections to specific pieces of music or songs that symbolize moments in a person’s life with an explanation of the connections. A person could just cobble together a list of songs that were memorable over the course of his or her life, but why were the songs significant? One way to begin is to create a timeline of one’s life by identifying each major event, important event, or just memorable event with a brief written description of that moment. Then, remember or find a song’s lyrics that connect to the event and explain the connection. I used this exercise in both middle school and high school classrooms. The results were often quite remarkable, particularly when young students found that contemporary, popular songs they liked did not connect to their important moments in their lives. The students had to explore older songs and a variety of genres to make the connections they felt were important. When I introduced the idea to adult friends, a frequent response was, “That’s a lot of work.” I agree there is some thought involved, but using a computer and iTunes makes the task enjoyable and fairly easy. The result can be a playlist that is enjoyable to hear once in a while when nostalgia tugs on one’s brain. I offer here a PowerPoint version of my soundtrack followed by the written version.
Although I was born in Boston, and was considered a Yankee during most of my early years, I spent my formative childhood on a ranch in rural, central Florida. So, the cowboy image has significance in that I grew up in an environment that celebrated the rodeo-Florida Cracker Cowboy way of life about which many present-day Floridians know little. The cowboy persona blurred and merged with a Gulf coast sailing/fishing “salt-water cowboy” mentality when I moved to Pinellas County and spent my teen-age years and young adulthood surrounded by a marine environment. The violence of the Vietnam War, the deaths by assignation of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, and the civil unrest of the entire country vividly colored my thoughts about who I was becoming and what I wanted to do with my life. Blue skies, clear water, and sailing adventures dominated several years spent wandering the country, going to college, and rocketing about listening to Elton John, James Taylor, and much great music of the 60’s and 70’s. While I explored paths open to me and thought few people really knew me, I have always concluded that the years spent with important people in my life was enjoyable, offered opportunities to grow, and foretold of more good years to come.
According to Robert Frost, “a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom,” and I think life and responses to songs should follow a similar course. Nature has delighted me from my formative years on a ranch in Manatee County through decades of exploring what Florida has to offer from the Keys to Pensacola, and, more recently, on a morning runs along Boca Ciega Bay in Gulfport that offered views of dolphins breaching, ospreys snatching fish, pelicans diving, and Great Blue Herons patiently waiting for a baitfish swirl. My life has been influenced by turbulent events in the Sixties, intellectual explorations in the Seventies, loving relationships through the years, and a focused career in teaching that ties many of the moments together. Music always presents a score for my most significant moments no matter whether the sounds come from live concerts, vinyl records, eight-track tapes, cassette tapes, cds, or Ipods. As the years have rolled by, singular songs or performances etch echoes that resonate and pull smiles on my lips, release sighs into the air, and coalesce memories into momentary consciousness that delight the senses and offer reflections to ponder.
As a boy growing up in a rural Florida cowboy environment, I knew more names of rodeo champions than those of Major League Baseball’s homerun hitters or the NFL’s leading quarterbacks. Although I did not hear Michael Martin Murphy’s voice until the early Seventies singing romantic ballads like “Wildfire” and “Carolina in the Pines,” his 1990 song, “Cowboy Logic,” captured a philosophy that I was not so much taught as shown though the actions of the everyday cowboys in my day-to-day boyhood life and though stories of the Western television shows and movies I watched and the paperback Westerns I read. When Murphy sang,
“If it’s a job, do it. Put your back in to it.
‘Cause a little bit of dirt’s gonna wash off in the rain.
If it’s a horse, ride it. If it hurts, hide it.
Dust yourself off and get back on again,”
I knew he telling the truth as both he and I saw the world. I fell off my share of horses, bicycles, and slippery decks, but I always got back up and tried again. My parents, coaches, and teachers grew up in an era of “if you’re hurt, just walk it off.” That cliché applied to many aspects of my life, including sports, education, and romance.
When he sang that a cowboy has “…got a simple solution to just about anything,” he captured a core philosophical note I have most often lived by: life should not be that complicated. He also argues
“If it’s a fence, mend it; If it’s a dollar bill, spend it
Before if burns a hole down in them jeans
If it’s a load, truck it. If it’s a punch, duck it.
If she’s a lady, treat her like a queen.”
I did actually learn to mend fences (literally) as a boy, but have not been so efficient at mending fences metaphorically with people in my life, as I tend to let people who cause problems drift from my life. I have also never been one to accumulate much in terms of monetary wealth and so have never had a pair of jeans that burned. I have driven pickup trucks most of my life; my favorite, a ’49 Ford, I drove until I tired of having only a hood vent for air conditioning. I have successfully ducked most punches thrown my way, but a couple have landed that delivered lessons both physical and emotional. And most of the women in my life I have tried to treat royally with varying degrees of success; those romantic actions call to mind a voice and a song I have listened to since I was a teenager.
In 1968, Lou Rawls released Soulin’, a recording I wore out after a few years, and after replacing the first record, I later replaced that one with tapes, both 8-track and then cassette. The song I most listened to that caught a romantic teenage mind was “It Was a Very Good Year.” In the song, images of a lifetime of romance is offered in simple vignettes for ages seventeen, twenty-one, thirty-five, and the autumn of one’s years. “When I was seventeen…small town girls…And soft summer nights” were my romantic focus, with those soft summer nights often spent on St. Pete Beach with a background chorus of waves rolling on the sand. Before “I was twenty-one,” I saw and heard Lou Rawls in person on a nightclub stage in Denver, Colorado. The melody came to life in a number of ways because there were plenty of “…city girls/Who lived up the stair” during the time I spent in the west and then wandered back east. Years later, “…girls/Of independent means” came and went “when I was thirty-five” or so, bringing this song sung by both Rawls and Frank Sinatra to life again and again.
Now that one could argue “I’m in the autumn of the year,” I do think most of my years have been “very good” and will continue to be so. Each year I have viewed as an example of “…vintage wine/From fine old kegs” which have been enjoyed “from the brim to the dregs.” Life should be lived in this way: savoring each moment one can while accepting tasty sips along with the bitter lessons that do seem to have to come from time to time. Some of those moments can be personal, while others are shared within the culture or nation.
Too many shared bitter moments happened in the 1960’s, and three of them were captured in a historical retrospective through Dion’s 1968 “Abraham, Martin And John” written by Richard Holler that reached number four on the Billboard hits list. When I first heard him sing,
“Anybody here seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
I just looked around and he’s gone,”
I felt a palpable wave move through me as I vividly recalled the events of John F. Kennedy’s assignation five years earlier, his funeral, his three-year old son’s salute as his father’s coffin passed, and the effects on the entire nation. I, like many others, thought Kennedy, the first national figure I admired, would lead this nation in positive directions.
The losses of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in subsequent years, emotional body punches to the nation and to those of us who perceived the renewed hope they offered, profoundly altered my view of the world. Dion struck powerful notes when he linked Abraham Lincoln, King, and the Kennedys, described them as friends, and painted the image of seeing Bobby “walk up over the hill,/With Abraham, Martin and John.” In a seventeen-year old’s mind, Dion’s soulful, doo-wop voice became very reverent in this song and expressed a shared veneration of those leaders that so many felt.
One of the ways to recover from tragic events is to look in new directions; often songs can offer inspiration for those directions. In 1969, “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells reached number two on the Billboard charts, and although years later Tommy James and co-writers, Eddie Gray and Mike Vale, explained that they wrote a “a sort of semi-religious poetic song,” the message suggested to me, clearly, if someone was open to new ideas, “peace and good brotherhood” could be achieved. Those ideas resonated with me, and, as much as any other single message, got me to examine what I wanted to do with my life, helped inspire me to choose a career in teaching, and look at the world in a more positive light rather than a cynical one the experiences of the 1960’s could have produced. Over the years I have seen that “people are changing,” and, in my limited influential role as a teacher, I have tried to help students understand possibilities of “a new day…coming.”
The beginning of a romance often signifies a metaphorical new day in one’s life; that new love focus gives someone a redefined hope for a positive future that may last. Nat King Cole’s romantic ballad, “Red Sails in the Sunset,” first captured such a possibility for me. Although I am not aware of consciously hearing the song when Cole took the tune up the charts to number twenty-four the year I was born, when I did begin listening to the singer’s ““unforgettable” voice, with its honeyed velvet tones in a rich, easy draw,” I was hooked. Having “Red sails in the sunset,…carry my loved one home safely to me” created an image that sent a young heart racing whenever Cole’s voice floated out of stereo speakers. In St. Croix’s Christiansted Harbor years later with a camera at sunset, I happened to photograph a small sailboat with red sails maneuvering to the dock and knew I had to return to the States to find someone I had left behind. I “went sailing no more” for quite a few years.
Although I never had an interest in becoming an astronaut, a friend in the early 70’s nicknamed me “Rocketman” because I traveled about the country from one end to the other in either a tiny Volkswagen Beetle or by hitchhiking and seemed to be zooming off in some direction for the slightest reason. “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long Long Time),” a song composed by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, reached number one on the charts in 1972. There were times when, halfway across the continent from friends, I was “lonely out in space,” and was “not the man they think I am at home.”
Many of the Elton John/Bernie Taupin songs like “Your Song,” “I’m Still Standing,” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” connected to specific moments in my life. In one romantic moment, I can remember saying, “I don’t have much money but boy if I did/I’d buy a big house where we both could live.” Of course, I never did have enough money to buy a big house. In another moment after a relationship breakup that ended badly, I realized I was “still standing better than I ever did/Looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid/…Picking up the pieces of my life without you on my mind.” There are times when anyone wonders if he will regain stability to stand on his own again after a major disappointment. After having a number of romances that failed to blossom as desired, singing the blues took on a more realistic meaning, and I could understand “why they call it the blues” because “Time on my hands could be time spent” in more enjoyable ways if I could solve the gender differences dynamic more successfully.
No matter what the relationship dynamic, parts of one’s self can be kept hidden from others. I have been well aware of a reluctance to reveal my innermost self at times or well aware of the consequences that have resulted when I did. The song which best explored that emotional response, “You Don’t Know Me,” a song written by Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold in 1955 and sung by Arnold that year, reached number 10 on the country charts. Although at age four, I did not likely hear the song, I did hear Arnold’s version on country stations in the car as a child since my parents turned the dial to country music on any trip. A more contemporary version by Kenny Loggins (1977) on his Celebrate Me Home album offers a vibrant soulful version of the moment when
“You give your hand to me
And then you say, “Hello.”
And I can hardly speak,
My heart is beating so.
And anyone can tell
You think you know me well.
Well, you don’t know me.”
My friends and associates today may not see me as “afraid and shy” or someone who would “let my chance go by,” but those moments have occurred and probably will again.
Perhaps a soundtrack to one’s life reveals that inner self that other communication vehicles do not. My foundation in old western or country values has directed a large portion of my life. I know a solution exists for every problem. Each year, even those visited with traumatic events, became a “very good year,” and the years have segued into the beginning of a very enjoyable autumn. Although too many bitter moments through the years have been endured by me and the nation as a whole, I still believe we, as a united population, will walk together “up over the hill” someday. In my hopes lives the idea that in my lifetime a leader will emerge who will persuade the world community that a “new vibration” worth tuning into offers peace and brotherhood. As the days continue to rocket by, I am not so much concerned that people don’t know me as I am that people know themselves and offer themselves the opportunity to sail safely into a sunset with a loved one and make the best of their lives. As I listen to new songs that prompt smiles or tug at the memories born of yesterday’s tunes, logic and love blend to remix notes of delight, tease at the edges of wisdom, and lay the tracks for the continuing soundtrack for my life.
“Soundtrack Found Poem”
When I was seventeen
It was a very good year
A new day…was…coming
Ain’t it beautiful?
Didn’t you love the things that they stood for?
Didn’t they try to find some good for you and me?
When I was twenty-one,
it was a very good year.
I…packed my bags…
and I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
’til touchdown brings me ’round again.
“Well, there ain’t no way to know.”
“Kid, you’ve still got a ways to go.
When I was thirty-five
it was a very good year.
Look over yonder.
What do you see?
Red sails in the sunset, way out on the sea.
You think you know me well.
Well, you don’t know me.
I’m not the man they think I am at home.
When the times are hard and the chips are down,
I’m just a friend…with…
a simple solution to just about anything.
I think of my life as vintage wine
from fine old kegs,
from the brim to the dregs
… poured sweet and clear…in…a very good year.