Thwack! Thwhack! Thwhack! The drumbeats are strong and regular. If you didn't know better, you'd think it was the opening of a rock-and-roll anthem. Only when the first notes sound - three quick chords from a saxophone, a violin, and a guitar - do you suspect that this song might be anything but triumphant. The notes don't quite synchronize with the drumbeats. The lyric is about lost love. About not fitting in. About simpler memories of childhood. The song lurches along.
My friends can't believe I listen to current pop music. Last time I discussed this with anyone of my generation, she made a face and said, "How can you like that stuff?" She conveniently forgot that I have seen her music collection. She has records that make Bob Dylan seem like Puccini.
Even though it's not strictly the truth, I always state publicly that I don't really like "that stuff." I listen to popular music to understand the world of my students, the world that the rising generation is trying to create. I figure that it is harder to lie with music than it is with words. Some music lies, of course: the ones with formulaic melodies and lyrics with no more depth than an advertising jingle. They have their day and are gone. Yet every year, one band, maybe two, and occasionally more sing songs that are lasting, songs that will represent our age to the future.
It was a year or two ago that I began noticing Dave Mathews Band paraphernalia on my students. Some had a patch on a backpack, a sticker on a notebook. The most common item was the Dave Mathews baseball hat, worn with the logo on the front, the way such caps were originally intended to be worn. I didn't catch their music on the radio and gathered from my charges that it was rarely broadcast. So one day, I bought the CD and gave it a listen. That is when I discovered this odd song with its title about marching ants and a rhythm that seems out of sync.
It took me several listenings before I could feel what it meant. To understand how it worked took longer. I still can't explain the title: "The Ants Go Marching." The lyrics are bleak. They talk about the tedium of daily life, alienation from mainstream society, and failed relationships. I get little sympathy from my friends when I point to the Dave Mathews oeuvre as music that speaks for its age. They complain that the rhythm is too difficult and the lyrics too depressing. Soon everyone is ranting about every ill that has ever been fixed on the young, and our discussion ends as soon as someone declaims that they fear for the future.
Once, only once, did I attempt to calm the waters. I interjected that the lyrics to that great ballad of the 1960s, the Beatles' "Yesterday," are also fairly bleak. It, too, is about a failed relationship and the lyrics offer no better hope than to flee into the past. This was a mistake. Beatles music is sacred to some people, and I only inflamed that passion.
One of the great traditions of music is to sing away your troubles. Music that is always happy can hide problems. It lies by telling us that all is well when it is not. Great music can start with a problem, but it transcends it. It points to the truth that the problem would have us forget.
My best understanding of transcendent music came not from Dave Mathews nor the Beatles, but from a scholar of African-American music: Bernice Johnson Reagon. She argued that music was a healing force, for if you can turn your trouble into a song, then you could correct that trouble. The climax of the lecture was the story of a woman gospel composer who, after much turmoil, was drummed out of her church. She responded by writing a song for that church that begins "When you have given the best of your labors" and ends with the line "He'll say: 'Well Done.' "
IT is a song to bless, not one to complain. Such songs are common not only in the gospel tradition but in other forms of African-American music as well. A clever example, made famous by Elvis, was originally sung by a woman blues singer to her manager, whom she claims "Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog." She wasn't complaining. She wasn't calling him names. She was trying to solve a problem and get on with her life.
The lyrics of "Yesterday" are sad, but the melody transcends them and fits the words so well that by the end of the song we cannot believe that Paul McCartney will be forever consumed by this bad romance. He has turned it into a song that turns our thoughts elsewhere.
For the marching ants of Dave Mathews, the story is much the same. The lyrics talk of failed connections, but the beat is catchy and the middle section contains a clever violin solo and two lines that are sung by the audience at every concert. The lines don't make a lot of sense, but everyone loves to sing them. By doing so, they affirm that the world goes forward, that they will find a place, and that their music is every bit as good as their parents'.