Music’s way of taking us back

Jim Graham - Contributing columnist

Stan Gockel, the new pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Wilmington, sang a solo last Palm Sunday, a song he likes to sing every year: Geoffrey O’Hara’s “I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked.”

And like music often does, it took me back — in this case, back to hearing my father sing it year after year.

My father was a short man with a deep voice, and I can see him standing in the chancel of the church reaching for a high note at the top of his range by rising up on his toes!

This particular song also does for many what it was meant to do, take the listener back to pathways that led to Bethlehem, Galilee, the Mount of Olives, the mighty Jordan River, through the Garden of Gethsemane, and finally the climb up Calvary’s deadly hill.

Music has a way of doing that … of taking us back.

Another one is, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty!” Sounds like a woman on HGTV seeing her renovated home for the first time, though “OMG”, with much space between each word, usually suffices.

But it’s also a hymn, a hymn I often sang as child, nestled between Nanna and Pop-Pop, 4th pew from the front, left side of the center aisle. Mom and Dad were up front in the choir loft.

Despite all the strange imagery and way of speaking – “[Saints]… casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea. Cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee, Which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be” – as a little kid I learned such songs and many others, without understanding them or making any attempt to memorize them, just simply by singing them over and over again.

As my voice matured, I learned to read the bass line, and can sing some of them to this day without any written notes to prompt me. Music does that. It takes you back and brings you forward – a part of you.

Visit any nursing home worship service and witness residents who can’t remember or communicate much at all – watch their lips, hear them sing their old hymns.

In the secular realm the same is true. The ’50s were my high school years. The early Elvis was a joke to many of us, particularly the bands I played in. Our guitarists would poke fun at him, swinging their hips (a controversial movement in those days!), while singing, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, cryin’ all the time; You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, and you ain’t no friend of mine!”

But it still took me back.

We had music we took seriously, too. Rock ‘n’ roll and swing we jitterbugged to; sentimental love songs for dancing cheek to cheek – cue the background violins (there were violins?)!

Whenever I hear the songs of that era, I’m right back there at the weekly Saturday Night Canteen, a record hop sponsored by the PTA, or watching, even appearing a few times on American Bandstand.

Yes, Philly was my hometown. Sometimes the music makes you sad as you reflect on what looking back filters through as “the good old days.” You know that’s a generational thing, but you miss it and sometimes wish you could go back. Then you realize you are back there again.

Music does that for you. As one old song says, “Memories are made of this.”

Sit back, turn on Pandora or Sirius XM radio, or listen to your own recordings of music through the years. Let music take you back.

Go to church, and COVID permitting, sing the music of yesterday and today; let it lift your spirits.

And then – thank God for music!

Jim Graham is a retired Presbyterian minister.

This weekly column is provided to the News Journal on a monthly rotation basis by members of the Wilmington Area Ministerial Association.

Jim Graham

Contributing columnist