Bringing it all back home: When the music of the past inspires your future

When I was young, I remember taking a lot of long car trips.  Sometimes the final destination was family in New Jersey or Long Island. Other times we would drive 4 hours to our annual vacation in Lake George. But something was consistent about any of these trips: the music.

Before we left for Lake George, my father spent hours, slaving over his dual tape deck with the goal of creating the perfect soundtrack for our trip.  We were not allowed to hear what was on the tape. It had to be a surprise, my dad claimed.  Being stuck in the car for what seemed like an eternity was stressful for any kid.  But I couldn’t wait to embark on musical journey via these mixtapes. I knew that these tapes represented the fun times to come. Usually, the tapes started off slow to serve background music for when we pulled out of the driveway. I remember one mix in particular that started with the opening song in the musical Annie: “Maybe far away/ or maybe real near by…” Lyrically, this was a perfect opening moment.

Once the tape was cued up, we all sang along to songs such as Carol King’s “Where You Lead”   and Neil Diamond’s “Forever in Blue Jeans.”  James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel, Billy Joel, and Elton John always made an appearance.  There was Jim Croce’s “Operator” and Harry Chapin’s “Taxi”. The tapes dove into the doo-wop music and Free to Be, You and Me.

These tapes were catalysts for car-ride conversation. One time, we got into a serious argument about the true meaning of The Beatles’ “Let it Be.” (In the end, we agreed that “Let it be” is another way of saying “Fuck it”) Another time, we debated how the father in Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle” was a horrible dad.  It was almost impossible to hold in laughter during one colorfully-worded verse in Peter, Paul, & Mary’s rendition of “The Fox.” After years of indoctrination, I still know that Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” has some of the most poignant lyrics of all time (for example: “Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then” and “Surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends…I was living to run and running to live”).

Throughout my childhood, I was exposed to a lot of folk-rock music.  One of my first concerts was Peter, Paul, & Mary.  Another time, my parents dragged me to see Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall. I may have hated it at the time but it is only now that I appreciate how this exposure as a child informed my musical tastes as an adult.

Just as musicians are influenced by the music they like, I am influenced by the music I grew up listening to.  I am drawn to strong lyrics and melodic acoustic guitar. Storytellers, like Cat Stevens and Woody Guthrie, may be a thing of the past but you can find the influence of these artists in albums by Conor Oberst and Frank Turner. When Jenny Lewis covered “Handle with Care” on her Rabbit Fur Coat album, I immediately remembered that the song originated with the Traveling Wilburys, a band frequently found on my dad’s mixes.

With the current folk resurgence, I see a generation of kids like me who grew up listening to 1960s folk because their parents liked it.  These kids are rocking along exactly how their parents did.  This makes me wonder what are our kids are going to listen to?  What is going to be featured on our car-ride playlists? (Will there even be car-ride playlists?)  Will they appreciate it the same way we did?  Or will it be years before they realize the importance of opening one’s mind and listening to what came before?


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