America in the late 1960s was a society in the midst of cultural transformation. Heightened by the combined tensions caused by our involvement in the Vietnam War abroad and the civil rights movement at home, the art and consciousness of the 1960s burst out of the combustion of a conflicted American society caught in a bipolar world. The music, which was so varied and diverse, seemed brimming with urgent and energetic emotion. Rock n’ roll, which in the 1950s was an emotional release from the hardships of the depression and war the previous generation endured, suddenly had a new purpose in the 1960s, whether it was too express love, freedom, peace, rebellion, or protest.
I have often thought about what it was like for my father to come of age during this cultural revolution. He was in college at a time when incredible events were changing our cultural landscape, and he was able to experience some of the greatest artists as they emerged onto the scene and into the cultural consciousness. During this time, his interest in different genres and eras of music expanded, as he learned more about the influences of the artists of his generation, and he would buy a couple of albums each week, amassing a record collection that nearly fills a room in our downstairs. While I sometimes wish I could have experienced those artists and unforgettable moments firsthand, I feel fortunate that I grew up listening to a collection of music on the vinyl records that my dad will never trade in for an iPod. There is so much warmth to the dynamic sound that fills a room when you play a vinyl record that can never be replaced with a digital file, despite all of the convenience I find in my iPod and headphones.
It is incredible what music can do; that sounds can be arranged in a certain sequence so as to evoke very particular emotions. Whether it is the sound of an instrument or of the human voice, musical notes make their way to our ears every day, influencing our lives in many ways, from our headphones while we workout, read, or relax, to the radio during a long commute, to larger venues when we are together with friends. Its significance ranges from mere background music in a lobby or taxicab to a spiritual hymn that touches the soul. Music is a universal language, and while it can carry a powerful message, it can also inspire and uplift us, as Bob Marley sings, “One thing good about music, when it hits you feel no pain.” No matter the level of engagement with the music that is constantly around us, it carries with it a story, a meaning, an expression.
The description above barely scratches the surface of music and its importance and relevance in our lives. Although events such as the annual Grammy Awards attempt to quantify the value of music and reward those artists who exhibit the most talent, it is very difficult to truly understand that value and to compare musicians and their respective work. Unlike sports, for example, music is not about winning or losing, and the talents of true artists cannot be put on display in a competitive environment.
While sports were the focus through most of my youth, even I, whose hands held a basketball instead of a musical instrument and who lacks the musical talents and knowledge of family members and friends, can appreciate the power of music and the role it plays in our lives. I was too young and naive to realize it at the time, but my father was shaping my musical interests from an early age when he gave me one of The Beatles’ albums as a Christmas present one year. Looking back, I now am able to truly appreciate that gift and his musical interests, which have been shared with me over the years. It is always refreshing to return home and hear the music from his albums make its way from the downstairs throughout the house as they are played on his turntable, and unlike double-clicking a file, the process of playing a record is a ritual that adds significance to the experience.
I was back at home for a few days recently, and I had the opportunity to take a look at the record collection with him. As my eyes scanned several shelves of records, he explained how they were organized by artist and genre. Some of the more renowned artists stood out to me, and it was as though I could begin to see rock and roll’s evolution the way you learn about the biological process in class: how the blues of BB King transformed into Cream and Jimi Hendrix; how the folk of Bob Dylan inspired Bruce Springsteen; how the melodic brilliance of the Beatles can be heard in every mainstream band from U2 to Radiohead to Coldplay; and how the psychedelic experimentation of Pink Floyd inspired alternative genres. As I pulled out several records, my dad explained each artist, then he recalled where he bought that record as if he were re-living that same moment in a day decades ago. He could have recited the lyrics to each song if I had asked him to. The fact is each one of those records is a page of a chapter in my father’s life, which from his college years through the early 80s, was part of a book written around music. I was not around during that time, but when viewing that music collection, I am able to take part in the story.
The story is not only told through a piece of music, but is also created as we experience that music. As is the case with many other forms of art, at its roots, music is way to get in touch with the soul, to express feelings, to communicate thoughts and experiences to a greater audience, and a means to tell an everlasting story with so many meanings. This underlying element – the story – remained at the forefront of my mind as I continued to look through my father’s collection. When I came across one artist with a signature patchy beard and distinct voice, I realized that it has been his story-telling ability that have transformed him from a New Jersey boy to a symbol of American music. Bruce Springsteen exhibits a unique combination of musical talent, emotion, and the energy of virtuoso live performances that have allowed him to become a living legend and transcend the generational gap from his beginnings in the 70s to the present day. He has captivated fans with the sound of his E Street Band and powerful poetic verses about everyday life, and with each new record that he releases, his authentic lyrics and genuine stories continue to resonate.
Today, you no longer need a turntable and a set of vinyl records to listen to the music of your favorite musicians. At our fingertips at any time of the day is an endless amount of songs from artists all over the world. Technology has vastly changed since the 1960s and 1970s, and yet, just as there is still no substitute for the quality of a vinyl record, the underlying themes of the two generations also bare striking resemblances. As was the case over 40 years ago, America only recently extricated itself out of a proxy war that it had no business fighting and there is a disgruntled youth, disappointed with and angered by the lack of great leadership in the world’s greatest country. However, despite these similarities, my generation has not embraced music as its voice for change, at least not yet.
Only time will tell if years from now we will look back and remember a new group of iconic artists born amidst so much social change. I am certain, however, that the immortal stories recorded by Bruce Springsteen and others will be shared with the next generation, influencing people in the same way they did when they were first told. It is those stories for which my father cherishes that record collection, and I am fortunate he has shared it with me.