The Songs Remember When: Part I

“The Lord…gave me these sounds.” 

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is a British-born neurologist whose maverick investigations inspired the Academy-Award winning movie, “Awakenings” and who gained notoriety for his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a collection of unusual cases of mental and emotional issues.  He is, as his website puts it, “physician, a best-selling author, and professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center,” even being named the first Columbia University artist forhis contributions to the arts.  In his book Musicophilia, “Dr. Sacks investigates the power of music to move us, to heal and to haunt us.”

In his “Music and Memory Project,” Dr. Sacks collected and investigates the power of music on memory.  It is tempting, and I have even said this sometimes myself in thinking about identity, that when memory goes, so does our sense of identity and self.  Who am I when I can’t remember any more.  So often in my vocation I hear people say, “Mom left us long ago.”  In Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders, an individual descends into a solitary cocoon of long-term memories, and then finally into silence before death.  Where did what we knew as “the person” go?

A friend recently shared a very moving video posted on YouTube of Sacks’ project.   CLICK HERE TO VIEW    It is a remarkable record of a man named who has debilitating case of Parkinson’s disease which rendered him inert and lifeless most of the time.  They learned from his family about some of his favorite music from Cab Calloway and others early in his life and put it on an MP3 player and put on the ear phones.  The transformation is remarkable.  He is alive again, eyes bright and he begins to move to the rhythm and sing along.  A glow of life continues after the music is taken away.

He says, at the end, “The Lord…gave me these sounds.”  There is something remembered in our bodies, our minds, our selves, deep and irreplaceable.  Human beings and the earth God made are sacred, all of it.  We should treat it that way.

In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat  Sacks told the peculiar story of Jimmie, a man of 49 who had lost his memory thirty years earlier and lived in a perpetual present.  He asked, what is left of a person when memory is gone?  Catholic nuns took care of him at a nursing home, and invited Sacks to come to worship.   “Watch Jimmie in chapel,” counsel the Sisters:

[Sacks says] I did, and I was moved, profoundly moved and impressed, because I saw here an intensity and steadiness of attention and concentration that I had never seen

The inimitable Cab Calloway

before in him or conceived him capable of. I watched him kneel and take the Sacrament on his tongue, and could not doubt the fullness and totality of Communion, the perfect alignment of his spirit with the spirit of the Mass. Fully, intensely, quietly, in the quietude of absolute concentration and attention, he entered and partook of the Holy Communion. He was wholly held, absorbed, by a feeling…absorbed in an act, an act of his whole being, which carried feeling and meaning in an organic continuity and unity, a continuity and unity so seamless it could not permit any break.

Trisha Yearwood sang a Grammy nominated song called “The Song Remembers When,” written by Hugh Prestwood.  Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of music is its power to evoke something deep and ancient in us–an event, an emotion, a relationship.  Even when the overt memory is gone, said the song, “the song remembers when.”

Trauma victims know as few others do:  memory is deeper, more visceral and embodied than we can ever know.  A sudden sound, a familiar smell or sight, and we are there again.  What are we to make of this?  More next time.

About Gary Furr

Gary is a musician, writer and Christian minister living in Alabama.

Posted on May 23, 2012, in Art, Brain, Creativity, humanity, Love, Memory, Music, music therapy, Oliver Sacks, Physiology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. When I was in college, I read Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings”. As I was finishing the last page or two, a song was playing on the radio. For years afterwards, I could hear a certain chord progression that must have been from that song and I would be immediately taken back to Middle Earth. Looking forward to your Part II. LaMon

  2. I can remember when my grandma was declining in her later years. She would often go into spells of silence or frustration, but when my cousin and I would sing old Hank Williams songs, (or what few hymns we knew) she would light up and sing with us. Those are still some of my favorite memories of her.

%d bloggers like this: