Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Music to accompany Parkinson's Disease

(Dedicated to my brother Dave.)

Music can move us in many ways, emotional, physical and spiritual. Even though I am a hardcore skeptic, music moves me closer to God than any metaphysical "proof." The ineffable power of music is parallel to our conception of an all-powerful invisible God. Both are mysteries and both move us to joy, fear, awe and love.

When I hear praise sung by the Blind Boys of Alabama, or hear the anguish of separation from the divine lamented by William Byrd in "Bow Thine Ear Oh Lord" I'm closer to belief than the words of any preacher can bring me. Perhaps that's why some sects ban music. We can't have the choir director showing up the pastor.

Music also makes us shake our booties. Which is the more common reason that religions ban it. But the human urge to boogie to the beat is deep as a funkadelic bass part. And according to "Musicophilia" by neurologist Oliver Sacks, humans are the only creatures known to respond to rhythm by joining in with their own (often unconscious) toe-tapping time keeping. For us, it's as natural as breathing.

Symphonies are even written in "movements." And since movement is the heart of our concern as people with Parkinson's Disease, music is our ally. So here is an assortment of music that makes me move, one way or another. It's dopamine for the soul.

To warm up with something that will make a dead man stomp his feet, Cue up the "Yankee's Revenge" medley by David Bromberg, an ebullient breakneck journey through some well-known fiddle tunes. If Bromberg isn't your cup of tea, try Bothy Band's "Green Groves of Erin/Flowers of Red Hill medly. Then swing into "South Australia" by the Pogues. And as long as our Irish is up, detour over to "Gloria" by Van Morrison If that isn't reet pateet, I just don't know what is.

How do you follow Van Morrison? If you're Barrence Whitfield, you don't ask that question, you just cut loose with "Bip Bop Bip". After which, it's obvious you step aside for Professor Longhair and his spectacular piano playing on "Hey Little Girl". Then change direction, take a journey into a man's soul while Albert King performs "As the Years Go Passing by" It moved Eric Clapton so much he used the melody for the hook riff on "Layla."

Ready for a little fear and trembling? Get a load of Etta James singing "God's Song," written by that unassuming subversive Randy Newman. Hey, trembling is motion!

It might be wise to beat a hasty retreat to Blind boys of Alabama. You can't go wrong with anything on their "Spirit of the Century" album, but for the sheer unexpected brilliance of it, let's go with "Down in the Hole" written by Tom Waits. Then, if you're not afraid to have your heart broken, listen to Linda Thompson's elegant version of Waits' majestic anti-war plaint "Day After Tomorrow." Of course the Waits version is devastating, too. Your call.

Next we reach the still point in the center of a turning wheel where Martin Carthy sings a spell-binding acapella song of the cycle of the seasons called "The January Man."

Then cut loose with Richard Thompson Singing "Hard On Me." The words to this song could easily be about Parkinson's, but it's the unworldly, eloquent guitar solos that really express the rage and frustration of living in a body that refuses to move. His reckless playing lays waste to everything in a way that is frightening as it is cathartic.

Left amidst the chaos that music can describe, we find that it also offers grace. Where? Look to the work of J. S. Bach. In Bach, stateliness combines with surprise, joy with beauty, brilliant craft with exuberant inspiration. My brother credits Bach's music with saving his life as he battled depression. My Dad explained Bach's music this way "He was talking to God." And who can doubt that God listened?


Anonymous said...

This is, by far, the finest post I have read on any blog in a long, long time. As a musician, I can testify that music does indeed move the soul - at least it does for me. I can not count the times when I have sat behind the piano, alone or in front of a group, and "lost myself" in the music. Call it Nirvana, call it Heaven, call it what you will - it doesn't even have to be the best performance ever, so long as it is played by the soul, the message will be heard. I know this because I have heard recordings of my own playing, at times when I was "moved" the most, only to discover it was technical mush, yet for some reason, on some level it home, even with (or perhaps because of)its awful imperfections.

Peter Dunlap-Shohl said...

Thanks for the amen, Joe. I guess we can add "Raises prose level" to the many mysterious attributes of music. Or maybe not. Who can forget Frank Zappa's critique of Rock Journalism, which he labeled "People who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read."



Pat Yack said...


Wonderful insight.

You can hear music. Feel it. Down to the DNA.

It is perhaps our oldest art and one of our most enduring forms of communication.

Best ~


dr s said...

Thanks for the dedication and for writing such a musical post. If it makes one person discover Dowland, Bach or the Thompsons (or any of the artists you mentioned, for that matter), it will have been extra worthwhile.
I used to say that music is, for me anyway, the greatest art form because, along with dance, it's the most embodied art, the least head-oriented, the least Apollonian.
Bloviating aside, the supremacy of music can't be explained any more than the supremacy of love (I also used to call music--again, along w/ dance--the most erotic of the arts). Either one understands the divinity of music or one doesn't--and I feel badly for those who miss out on this heavenly condition. Thanks for the tribute.

Peter Dunlap-Shohl said...

Just glad you're back!