Life under quarantine can be dreary. But great music can lift us up, help us feel better connected to the world around us, or put us more closely in touch with the pain we are feeling.
Ludwig Van Beethoven — Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, “4th Movement”
Before there was “the Internationale” and “Solidarity Forever” Beethoven’s Ninth was an anthem to workers movements the world over, particularly the symphony’s fourth and final movement, which adopts Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem “Ode to Joy” (originally titled “Ode to Freedom” but likely altered due to political reasons) for its choral arrangement.
The symphony is a celebration of life, brotherly love and a tribute to music’s ability to unite us. “Seid umschlungen, Millionen,” Schiller’s lyrics call out. “Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!” (Be embraced, you millions. This kiss is for the whole world!)
The music itself — widely regarded as one of the greatest compositions ever written — is a testament to triumph over struggle. Beethoven was virtually, if not entirely, deaf by the time he finished it. Nonetheless, violinist Joseph Böhm recalled the composer in ecstasy as he conducted the symphony’s 1824 premiere in Vienna:
[He] threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.
Here’s Leonard Bernstein conducting a Christmas 1989 performance of the Ninth from Berlin shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It features musicians from East and West Germany, Russia, America, France and England and was originally broadcast to homes in dozens of country’s the world over.
Various Artists — “We Shall Overcome”
These are dark days, no doubt about it. One song you might not have heard since attending a campfire sing-along as a kid or watching a documentary on the Civil Rights movement is “We Shall Overcome.” It’s worth giving it a fresh listen. Lyrics like “We’ll walk hand in hand,” “We shall all be free” and “We are not alone today” give the spiritual particular resonance during this time of isolation when there is so much to overcome.
The modern version of the song was adopted from a Charles Albert Tindley hymnal in 1945 by striking cigar workers in Charleston, South Carolina and was published two years later in Pete Seeger’s People’s Song Bulletin but the song dates to at least the eighteenth century. You can hear it in the opening bars of the hymnal “O Sanctissima.” Folklorist Guy Carawan helped introduce it to the Civil Rights movement and marchers sang it in the streets of Selma and throughout the South in the 1960s where they confronted the billy clubs, dogs and bullets of the white power structure. It’s been covered by everyone from Malalia Jackson to Bruce Springsteen. Here’s Joan Baez’s rendition:
Various Artists — “The Auld Triangle”
These days, prisons — where confined and crowded living quarters can mean a coronavirus death sentence — pose an exceptional risk to inmates, and while we’re all penned up to one extent or another, this song of aggrieved longing for freedom hits home.
The tune first appeared as a leitmotif in Brendan Behan’s 1954 play The Quare Fellow, set in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison on the eve of a planned execution. Behan himself — queer, alcoholic, a brilliant raconteur — spent time in Mountjoy as well as prison cells in England for his activities as a member of the Irish Republican Army. The “auld triangle” in the song is a reference to a large, iron triangle guards at Mountjoy once hammered to rouse prisoners to attention.
In this version, Shane MacGowen sings the song for the Pogues.
Minor Threat — “I Don’t Want to Hear It”
Something to blast the next time Trump holds a press conference or whenever he opens his mouth really.
John Prine — “Paradise”
So much will never be the same. So much has been lost. That includes one of America’s greatest living songwriters.
It’s hard to find a song Prine has penned that does not fit our current moment. We could have gone with one of the many songs he wrote dealing jocularly with the prospect of his own death, the anti-patriotic number “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Heaven Anymore” or, since so many of us are doing it these days, “Donald and Lydia,” probably the most beautiful song about masturbation ever written. (Click here for tips on how to make your own homemade dildo.) But we’ve settled on “Paradise,” an ode to a time and place destroyed by corporate greed and environmental ruin.
Prine was part of a generation whose families left the hills of Kentucky to work in the industrial plants of the North. This song recounts his summers visiting his parents home town in Muhlenberg County “down by the green river where paradise lay.” Paradise doesn’t last long, “‘Mr. Peabody’s coal train hauled it away.’”
In this video, Prine performs the song in the backyard of the house he grew up in.
Various Artists — “St. James Infirmary Blues”/“Gambler’s Blues”
In Albert Camus 1947 novel The Plague, “St. James Infirmary” keeps rearing its head. It’s blasting in a crowded bar in the seaside town of Oran, which has been overtaken by pestilence, and it is the only record that journalist Raymond Rambert — who is only visiting Oran on assignment when it is walled-off to prevent the disease’s spread — has in his possession. “[T]his must be the tenth time I’ve put it on today,” he complains. In the novel’s setting, the song represents the plague’s persistence despite attempts by Rambert and the town’s inhabitants to escape it, whether in revelry or by fleeing outright.
Popularized by Louis Armstrong and today a staple of American popular music, the 8-bar blues is of unknown origin. It may be distantly related to the 19th-century ballad “The Unfortunate Rake” from the British Isles, though a clearer line could be drawn between “Unfortunate Rake” and later incarnations like the cowboy number “Streets of Laredo.”
For those interested in tracing the cloudy lineage, Smithsonian Folkways produced a compilation album that, among many takes on “Unfortunate Rake,” includes Dave Van Ronk belting out a “Gambler’s Blues” that resembles “St. James Infirmary” as we know it today. In any case, both the 19th-century tune and the more-modern ditty are thematically related, dealing with death at the hands of venereal disease.
The song’s melody is mournful, simple and haunting, with the narrator going to the hospital and visiting his lover where she is “stretched out on a long white table, so cold, so pale, so fair.” Many versions of the song, however, take a humorous turn when the narrator begins to make increasingly exorbitant demands for his second-line funeral. As the Cab Calloway version puts it:
I want six crapshooters to be my pallbearers
Three pretty women to sing a song
Stick a jazz band on my hearse wagon
Raise hell as I stroll along
The song may be related to an English ballad, but its bombast hails straight from New Orleans, where workaday musicians, many of whom could not read music, combined African, European and Caribbean influences at the turn of the 20th century to produce jazz. It’s an odd yet prototypical American tune that suggests we might face death with not only grief but also humor and even raise a bit of hell on the way to the graveyard.