Music to Grow By

Where are the songs a father can sing his son?


“This is a song about the songs
We learned when we were younger…
Those voices carried, and they still carry us along.”

My son loves it when I sing.

His big blue baby eyes light up . He wriggles, then sits spellbound. Once in a while, if I’m particularly on form, he even tries to caterwaul along.

But now that I’m a father, I find myself asking a question I’ve never had to answer before: what songs do you sing to your baby son? Yesterday morning, when I sat at our little piano and regaled him for over an hour, I found myself feeling a little empty at how few songs I knew that seemed to fit my situation.

For whatever reason, most of the songs that came to my mind were either love songs or songs expressing an insight specific to the artist. The Way You Look Tonight didn’t really work, but neither did Angry Young Man. On the other hand, there are many songs a parent is supposed to sing a baby–mostly nonsense.

I had to think about it, but eventually I realized what I was looking for was songs my kid could grow into. I looked down into my boy’s eyes, and I had things I wanted to sing to him, even before he could understand the words.

Hello, son. Welcome to the world. Let me tell you a bit about it. Let me sing to you of the heroes you’ll dress up as in a couple years. Let me sing to you of our community, its traditions, and its stories. Of beautiful things I’m going to show you someday. Let me help you learn who you are.

My MP3 player isn’t exactly brimming with these sorts of songs. Even though I’m the director of an arts organization in my city, I’ve hardly seen anyone writing them. In fact, most of the songwriters I know, at least the ones writing non-religious songs, are writing from a place of profound loneliness–not community–so they tend to be writing in order to be heard, not to give voice to others.

Into this void, I’m grateful to say, stepped singer-songwriter Matthew Clark. I’ve been enjoying his upcoming album, Beautiful Secret Life, over the last few weeks. Among its 26 tracks are 15 songs that were part of a “song of the month” subscription he created for his friends–they entrusted to him their stories, and he turned them into songs. It’s a mix of styles and tones that ranges from folksy acoustic to comedy to riffs on jazz, from songs to God to songs explaining those weird artist people to everyone else, songs about his home and songs about coming home (it even includes trying his hand at an old-fashioned hero-and-dragon ballad). Echoing the sentiments of my favorite writer, Jane Austen, Matthew says, “It is in the ordinary that the most exceptional beauty is hidden.”

This is one kind of music that happens when an artist is part of a community, and when he is in dialogue with that community both as an artist and as a person. He’s not writing to a hypothetical Public or an angry stereotype of a world he can’t change; he is writing to, and of, real people and a real place. He has clearly listened far more than he has talked. As a result, his music doesn’t merely shock you (at one extreme) or cultivate your artistic desensitization with bland generalities (at the other). It makes you wistful, or laugh, or see the beauty of something right in front of you, or challenge you to be more like you should be. Some songs are great summer car ride music and others make you pull over and ponder–but nearly all help you learn, and express, who you are.

I hope there will be more artists like this in the coming years (in every medium, not just music). Artists who are the product of communities that have seized them and invited them in and loved them. Artists who want to love their communities back, and make them better, and speak to the larger world from what they have seen within them–who help build a less lonely world where people have songs for life’s ordinary situations. I’m quite sure that to see this become a reality, cities and towns will have to re-learn how to make their artists part of the fabric of their lives together–a challenge, I’m proud to say, my own city is beginning to accept.

In the meantime, I’m on the lookout for more music to introduce to my son. Any recommendations? Leave them in the comments, here or on the Humane Pursuits Facebook page!

Visit Matthew Clark’s website, which includes an album shop and stunningly affordable booking opportunities, here. You will be able to order his new album, “Beautiful Secret Life,” there on July 19. Follow him on Facebook here.

From the bartender:

Every month, my wife and I throw a cocktail party for our friends, neighbors, strangers…anybody we can squeeze in our house who likes good drinks and good conversation. With each column, I like to share what I send to our “happy hour” email list so you can enjoy the drinks too.

New York SourI finally figured out what to do with leftover wine! Maybe you laugh at this problem, but Christina and I often find we open a bottle, have a couple glasses each, and have that awkward half-inch left over at the bottom. We could fight over it, or occasionally one of us is gung-ho for a third glass…but more often than not it just ends up sitting there. But I now have a solution, and it’s perfect for summer, especially if you (like me) go through a lot of Malbecs: the New York Sour. It’s wine meets bourbon in the best way. Click here for the recipe.

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