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New Thoughts on Old Songs


Musical Chairs

By Aaron Whallon

Music has the unique characteristic of being its own antipode with the ability to intensify or quell any emotion. The time, the place, the person, the song and the emotion determine how the music is felt.

He had all but ignored her, and she didn’t know why. It’s not that he wasn’t a nice guy, he just didn’t know. She felt dejected because of this perceived rejection.

She stands on the platform waiting and thinking. The 1 train pulls into the station and two men get onto the train before her. One is on the younger side, about her age, while the other is much older with a shiny, bald top-of-the-head and gray remnants on the sides of what appeared to be a thick, luscious mane. The former carries a black soft-shell guitar case, sets it down right in the middle of the seats, blocking all traffic in the middle of the train car, and grabs a seat on the bright orange plastic bench.

Across the train sits a man holding a musical instrument between his legs that she has never seen before. It looks like a 2x4 connected to a giant, wooden salad bowl with four strings running down the face of the lumber. It’s about the size of an upright bass, but its notes are much higher than a bass. The owner of this foreign instrument wears what appears to be traditional African garb—a long, neutral gray gown with six buttons along the line of his sternum. His face is a deep, youthful black with a smile that shows the exuberance of his youth. His fingers are sprinkled with white, dry flakes and calluses from the repetitive nature of his playing. He doesn’t carry a case for the musical contraption, just the bare wood exposed to the air and the eyes of onlookers.

The young guitar player stretches his arm out to reach the zipper of his case at the tip of the tuning pegs and proceeds to gently tug as the teeth spread at the headstock up to G then D# and up to the bridge and down around the body. His right hand grasps the middle of the acoustic guitar’s neck as he brings the light oak colored body of the instrument to his stomach.

The older gentleman, acting as a ring leader, sits to the right of the guitar player and says, “See, I told you you’d be a perfect match for each other.”

The two musicians are rather shy. The guitar player re-zips his case and slides it under the seats, and, standing up, walks the 3 steps across the train to take a seat next to the African. They quietly exchange pleasantries and shake hands. It is obvious this is their first meeting.

“Just jam on something,” the older gentleman says with a loud, giddy excitement.

The guitar player takes a reluctant whirl at strumming a chord or two, and the African plucks a couple of notes in key.

The train rolls along to the next stop picking up people on its way uptown. At 9:30 in the evening the typical passenger on this train has just gotten off work after a very long day. The Bronx-bound 1 holds a wide range of well-dressed individuals—from me, a thirty-something white American girl from the west coast, to dark skinned Dominican and African American males to light-brown skinned Cubans and Puerto Rican females. If you get on the train in Midtown or the Upper West Side, the odds are good that you’ll be a passenger for at least a hundred blocks.

Some passengers look on with an anxious annoyance as the two musicians create nothing more than noise for a minute as they feel each other out. She can tell that both are fairly competent with their respective instruments and both understand the common language of music.

After this initial feeling-out process the guitar player says, “How about Stand by Me?”

“Oh that’s great,” the old man says a little louder than socially acceptable for a train full of dreary evening commuters.

The guitarist strums along for the first couple of chords but the African isn’t picking up.

“Do you know Stand by Me? It’s in the key of A.”

The African says the first audible words that she can hear, “I’ll pick it up.” He has a very thick accent that confirms her suspicion that he is indeed African.

The guitarist starts back up and the African sheepishly tries to get in for several measures. Finally they start to play together and the guitarist says, “Now someone’s got to sing.”

“Oh yeah!” the older gentleman says.

But the guitarist just looks around to see if there are any volunteers. The problem is that no one really knows what they are playing, and quite frankly, no one seems to be all that interested. Or they don’t show their interest, at least. After realizing he is going to have to go it alone, the guitarist quietly starts in, “Oh when the night…has come.”

“And the land…”

“…is dark.”

“And the moon…”

“…is the only light…”

“…we’ll see.”

The old man sits up in his seat and rapidly rubs his hands together in delightful approval. He begins to sing/talk-a-long to the words.

He then says in the middle of the song while looking up and down the train, “Okay, we need some singers. Who’s gonna’ sing?”

Instead of starting the second verse—“If the sky…that we look upon”—the guitarist recycles back to the beginning of the tune.

“Oh when the night…”

Then—out of nowhere—an African-American woman in her mid-40s, with a fairly good singing voice, takes the lead, “…has come.”

“And the land…”

“…is dark.”

“And the moon…”

“…is the only light…”

“…we’ll see.”

By the time she gets to—“No I won’t…be afraid”—more than two-thirds of the passengers are engaged in an all-out 1 train sing-a-long.

Normally people treat each other like inanimate objects on the train, but in this moment she feels a sense of human togetherness. The unexpected emotion causes the loneliness she felt just minutes earlier to be forgotten.

The makeshift concert lasts for only three repeated verses of the classic Ben E. King song, the entire exchange, taking place in under six minutes. Every passenger in the train gives an uproarious round of applause at the conclusion. As the train approaches the next stop, the guitar player quickly puts his instrument back into its case. He finishes just as the doors open, shakes hands with the African and says goodbye as he waves to the rest of the train’s passengers.

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