Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
I was asked the other day what my favorite songs were. That took some thought. A tour of my iPod reveals a cornucopia of styles and genres, from classical to country and just about everything in between. So to try to narrow down some 800 songs to a few proved to be a challenging effort. Nevertheless, I persisted and came up with these, in no particular order.
Mahler’s “Resurrection” (the last 8 minutes).
This massive piece, written for orchestra and choir, is long (the 5th movement alone is 37 minutes long) but dramatic. Mahler’s pieces require augmented orchestras and choirs, but in this case it’s definitely not overkill. In the final movement, the conversation between the orchestra, the soloists, and the choir build to a climax that will put goosebumps on a person. It is a heroic affirmation of the Christian principle of eternal life, given voice by these words:
“What was created
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!
O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You masterer of all things,
Now, are you conquered!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Its wing that I won is expanded,
and I fly up.
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,”
And with a tear-producing emotion, the choir cries triumphantly:
“To God! To God! To God will it lead you!”
If you can’t be moved by this, you have no heart!
"El Paso" Marty Robbins
I love songs that tell a story, and there’s no better story than Marty Robbins’ tale of the lonesome cowboy and unrequited love. The lyrics are incredibly expressive, painting a vivid picture in the mind. The unnamed cowboy in the song falls for a dancer named Felina, but apparently is too shy to make his feelings known. On a fateful night, a “wild young cowboy” sweeps into the cantina and makes a play for the heart of this Mexican maiden. Flooded with jealousy and rage, the lonely cowboy challenges the newcomer. Shots ring out, and the young man lies dead. The lonely cowboy flees El Paso for the uncharted wilderness of the New Mexico badlands. He knows he’s a marked man, but his love for Felina trumps his self preservation:
Back in El Paso my life would be worthless.
Everything's gone in life; nothing is left.
It's been so long since I've seen the young maiden
My love is stronger than my fear of death.
I saddled up and away I did go,
Riding alone in the dark.
A bullet may find me.
Tonight nothing's worse than this
Pain in my heart.
He goes back, but there is a posse waiting. Despite being caught in a deadly crossfire, he rides on, driven by the love in his heart. Soon, the bullets find their mark:
Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel
A deep burning pain in my side.
Though I am trying
To stay in the saddle,
I'm getting weary,
Unable to ride.
But my love for
Felina is strong and I rise where I've fallen,
Though I am weary I can't stop to rest.
I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle.
I feel the bullet go deep in my chest.
He falls, dying, from his saddle, but in the last moments of his life, Felina rushes to his side. And he spends those last moments as he wanted to live; in the arms of the woman he loved.
Ain’t it romantic?
“In The Mood,” The Glenn Miller Band
Sometime in my teens, I discovered Big Band music. Perhaps it was my brief time as a musician, but the sounds absolutely lit me up. For me, the attraction is the lack of gimmickry. There’s no synthesizer, no special effects, no obscene lyrics. It’s just the power of the song, the grace of the arrangement, and the skill of the artist. Glenn Miller’s band changed the paradigm of popular music in those days and his influence is still around. I also like “Tuxedo Junction,” but “In the Mood” was, and still is, his signature piece.
And that’s good enough for me.
“Georgia On My Mind,” Dave Brubeck Quartet.
There are a plethora of versions of this classic, the best known being the one done by Ray Charles. Brubeck’s take is softer, more introspective. The song was released in 1959 as part of the “Gone With the Wind” LP. I have a lot of Brubeck favorites, but this one…
Closing my eyes, I feel the relaxed pace of life that is so much a part of the South. In Paul Desmond’s moody saxophone solo, I can almost feel the velvet air of a sultry Savannah night. In any genre there are songs that are pleasant to listen to. Then there are those masterpieces that sweep you from reality and take you on a journey from which you are reluctant to return.
“The Star Spangled Banner,” Instrumental version by the Boston Pops; vocal by Whitney Houston.
I can hear the groans starting. But, hey; I’m an American, and a proud one. I’m a veteran and a student of political systems throughout the world, so I the love I feel for my country is honestly earned.
The Boston Pops performs this annually, usually at the big July 4th “do” in Boston. Normally, being a old brass guy, I like the band versions better. But the Pops, regardless of who’s baton they’re following, are the best at wringing every ounce of meaning and emotion from those notes.
Being a singer (of sorts) I can appreciate how difficult a song this is to sing. A wide range, challenging intervals, and putting the required emotion into the words... And I’ve certainly heard (and in some cases endured) hundreds of singers of every stripe tackle this song. But, despite her recent troubles, most people would agree that Whitney Houston's performance of The National Anthem at Super Bowl XXV during Desert Storm trumps them all. She caught perfectly the broad sense of unity produced after U.S. forces successfully evicted the Iraqi Army from Kuwait. It was a magical moment, one of those rare times when the American people stood shoulder-to-shoulder, arm-in-arm. As she sang, we all joined in. America spoke with one voice.
We felt with one heart.