Songs We Feel With

July 17 1998 3:30 AM

Songs We Feel With

They can make us wonder if our emotions are really our own.

Once upon a time, a man was in his apartment waiting to go out on a date to which he was looking forward with pleasure. Unexpectedly it began to rain. For a moment this depressed him. But soon these words came tripping through his brain: "Isn't it a lovely day to be caught in the rain?" He could see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in a gazebo in Central Park with the rain pitter-pattering around them. He was happy again.

Once upon another time, a man, perhaps not the same man, was expecting someone for whom he cared to return from a brief trip. When he saw her he spontaneously began to sing softly: "Well, hello, Dolly! Hello, Dolly! It's so nice to have you back where you belong." He felt warmth and joy. He experienced the joy that shone out of the face of Louis Armstrong when he sang that in the movie.

At an earlier time, a man who was lonely used to find running through his head a song that went: "Sometimes I wonder why I spend each lonely night, dreaming of a song." Those words consoled him. As the song said, he found his consolation in the stardust of a song. The song reminded him that he was not alone in his loneliness, and that made it seem not so bad.

One more example, of a different type. There was a man who had frequent occasion to drive north and south along Route 29 in Virginia. At some point he would see the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west and he would begin to sing to himself, "The mountains, the mountains, we greet them with a song," his college anthem. Recalling that song gave him a sweet, sad nostalgic feeling of youth gone by.


T hese little stories are all about the association of certain songs with certain emotions. They raise the same question. What was causing what? To concentrate on the first story, did the man in question think of "Isn't it a lovely day" because he was happy, or was he happy because he thought of that song? He didn't have to think of that song when the rain began. He could have thought of: "Stormy weather, can't go on, everything I had is gone." He didn't have to think of any song at all.

I don't know which caused which. I am not Freud. But I think the answer is some of each. (That seems to be my answer to most questions.) The man recalled the song because he was happy and he was happy because he recalled the song. Many factors led to his being happy in the rain. One of them was the song. He might have been happy without it. But retrieving that song from his memory bank helped to articulate his happiness, intensify it and prolong it.

Of course, there was something about this man that led him to store that song in his memory bank so it could be recalled when appropriate, years after he first encountered it. It was something about how this man was in his late teens and his 20s, before the business of daily life crowded out room for taking in new impressions from songs. But, still, if that song had not been written or if he had not heard it at an impressionable age, his reaction would have been different when the rain fell.

For people of my generation the key years were the '30s and '40s--the era of Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman, Fred and Ginger, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter. Ah, Wilderness! I do not share the songs that are in the memory banks of my children--the Beatles and Bob Dylan--although I understand them a little. I do not understand the songs of my grandchildren at all.

How people will react to particular circumstances is not ordained at birth. It is learned in part by experience, and the songs that people absorb are part of the experience that guides their reactions. Not only songs have that effect. Among other things, snatches of poetry do too. Sometimes when it is very cold I find myself saying, "St. Agnes Eve--Ah, bitter chill it was!" and I am back in my sophomore year at college, with Romantic Poetry of the Early 19th Century, in a very cold college town.

Some people insist they don't know what they think until they hear what they say. So there are people who don't know what they feel until they listen to the songs or poetry that are in their heart. I don't suppose that everyone is like that. I suppose that there are people who feel happiness or sorrow or jealousy or triumph directly, without any combination of words, either remembered or made up for the purpose.

Knowing your emotions are shaped by songs you heard 50 years ago is a little troubling. It makes you wonder whether your emotions are really yours or whether they are really Irving Berlin's set down with music to make a buck. It makes you wonder who is the real you. As my Aunt Gertrude used to say about Oakland, there's no there there; and maybe there's no real you in your emotions either.

But I don't believe that. When I say, "I've got the sun in the morning and the moon at night," there's a big dose of Ethel Merman but also some of me.

Herbert Stein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He is a member of the board of contributors at the Wall Street Journal.



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