Turn again to life
“If I should die and leave you here a while, be not like others, sore undone, who keep long vigils by the silent dust and weep. For my sake, turn again to life and smile, nerving thy heart and trembling hand to do something to comfort weaker hearts than thine.”
—From “Turn Again to Life,” by A. Price Hughes & Mary Lee Hall, read at the WTC 10th memorial
While our country, and the world, paid their respects to lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001, many turned to music as a way to heal. The World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Penn., are part of our collective identity now. Music has offered some relief from the confusion and dread, but also chronicled our troubled thoughts for these last 10 years. During the WTC memorial, performances by Yo-Yo Ma, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Emi Ferguson and the U.S. Navy Sea Chanters chorus helped express the complex emotions of those gathered. The songs were changed, linked with the national soul in a new way. Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence,” written in 1964 as a response to JFK’s assassination, seemed necessary. James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” was equally transformed: I can’t sing the blues anymore/But I can sing this song/And you can sing this song when I’m gone.
We struggled with Sept. 11, and musicians struggled to express those chaotic feelings: national pride, rage, kindness, intolerance, fear. For many, Bruce Springsteen’s elegiac album The Rising captured New York’s spirit, while others related to Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).” Neil Young released “Let’s Roll” (a phrase from United 93 passenger Todd Beamer), and an all-star tribute to “What’s Going On” was embraced by radio. Country star Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” received wide acclaim. While critics and fans reacted differently to these songs, they undeniably resonated with people. New Yorkers like David Byrne and Laurie Anderson performed concerts, and Sonic Youth (whose studio space was two blocks from Ground Zero) released Murray Street.
Sometimes, we couldn’t find the right language. What was appropriate? Critical favorites like Massive Attack and I Am the World Trade Center found themselves questioning their band’s very names.
Clear Channel sent a lengthy list of songs to suspend from their 1,000-plus radio outlets. Without describing the resulting debate and censorship concerns, examining the songs on the “no play” list is a glimpse into how people interpret music. A few songs make literal sense — Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” and Lenny Kravitz’s “Fly Away,” but others are curious, like The Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian” and Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train.” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” Neil Diamond’s “America” and Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” were on the list, yet were ubiquitous in other media.
On Sept. 11, the world bonded together. More than 90 countries lost citizens in the attack and rose to help. Sonic Youth’s Lee Renaldo was quoted by the New York Daily News: “It’s made it easier for us to feel sympathetic to people in places where terror is a matter of course. If nothing else, it opened us up.” Still, many Americans are uncomfortable discussing our foreign policy and the possible causes for Sept. 11. When singer Tony Bennett, a WWII veteran, recently discussed these topics on Howard Stern’s radio show, there was controversy. Is it unpatriotic to examine these things?
Yo-Yo Ma performed a selection from the Bach cello suites during the 10th anniversary — the same music he once played for his father before he passed away. The cellist shared a deep part of himself, as many did on Sept. 11. We showed our generosity, strength and selflessness. But we’ve also seen deep divisions and anger that may never be calmed. What will the next 10 years of music and art celebrate? Will we have room in our hearts for something as ephemeral as a song? The lives lost that day are now our collective responsibility to carry. Two wars, ideological differences, the debate over interrogation methods, immense changes in the Middle East, rebuilding … these are our challenges. Maybe a simple act of creativity will help us hold on — give us that small (but elemental) comfort in the face of darkness.
Jason Noble is a Louisville musician who has performed with the bands Shipping News and Rachel’s, among others.