You Don’t Find Memphis Slim And Ludwig van Beethoven In The Same Story Every Day

If I’ve had a true passion for nearly all of my life, it’s music. The high decibel kinds above all. I may be at least 20 years past my prime, but I still like to fill my body regularly with driving beats and pounding drums and merciless sonic assaults. Yeah, hard rock, wailing jazz and raucous blues are very alright with this boy.

Having said that, I now will wimp out by adding that, often when I’m listening to music, I don’t care to be blasted into outer space. My constitution ain’t that far from the delicate side, so there’s a limit to how many wham-bam vibrations I can healthfully deal with. That’s why I keep at hand a welcome mat for mellow music. Hell, mellow is like Jell-O, right? There’s always room for Jell-O.

And I don’t mean that in a slighting way. Not at all. Sure, aggressive music is what you turn to when you need to shimmy and shake, when you’ve got to let the lava flow.

But music on the calmer side of the spectrum can work wonders too. Everybody knows that. How many more shoulder knots and jaws half-frozen in the clenched position would there be in the world were it not for the likes of James Taylor, Alicia Keys and Willie Nelson? A lot.

But you know what? Music, whatever its intensity level will, if you’re lucky, do something far better than what I mention above. Namely, transport you to purer realms. For me, I find that it works in different ways, depending on the nature of what I’m listening to. When it comes to hard-driving music, long solos from electric guitars (and, less frequently, from other instruments) sometimes capture me. I’ll close my eyes, find the gentle currents underlying the musicians’ explorations, and in moments will be hopelessly at ease, happily drifting in the ethers. These are out-of-body experiences, natural highs.

Calmer music, on the other hand, doesn’t bring me outside myself. What it does at times, though, is open a space within me that I ordinarily am out of touch with. This is a peaceful place. The noise of the world isn’t there. I settle into it and then let beautiful sounds wash over me.

What’s the difference between the two types of phenomena? Well, the first involves awe, meaning that I can barely believe the sweep of the magic carpet ride, nor my good fortune in occupying lofty regions in the first place. When the ride ends I find it hard to decompress.

Awe, however, doesn’t enter the picture in scenario number two, a more down-to-earth experience. It’s similar to when I’m in a museum, checking out this and that work of art, and meet a piece that immediately captivates me. Scenario number two isn’t as astonishing as its sibling, but it’s damn well good enough. The more smitten we are by the world around us, the better.

Naturally, I would like to add specific musical examples of both forms of enchantment to this story. But in a sense that would be cheating. You see, when I first sat down to compose the present piece, I didn’t anticipate that it would squirm around, mutate and head in the directions that it has. Awe wasn’t part of the original story idea. Any further mention of magic carpet rides will therefore wait for another day. Instead, I will say a few words about the two numbers, both of them members of the calmer side of the musical spectrum, that originally were meant to center and anchor that which you’re now reading. They struck me just right when I heard them, stopping me in my tracks to bask in their fineness.

I haven’t been to any concerts in the past week, but at home and in the car I’ve imbibed plenty of music. Many genres, many levels of intensity. As good as much of the music was, only Mother Earth, by the American bluesman Memphis Slim, and Piano Sonata No. 13 in E-flat major, by Ludwig van Beethoven (as performed by André Watts), separated themselves from the pack.

I was in the bathroom late at night brushing my teeth when Mother Earth came over the airwaves. I’ll be damned if I didn’t put down the toothbrush and listen hard. The song, a commentary on mortality, possesses a deep soul and unaffected beauty that can’t be denied or resisted. Memphis Slim, who wrote Mother Earth, recorded more than one version of the song. The one that I heard was the first, from 1951. Here it is. That’s Slim on vocals and piano.

Memphis Slim (born 1915, died 1988) was a big talent. He had what it takes when it comes to singing, piano playing and composing. And Ludwig van Beethoven (born 1770, died 1827) was no slouch either — What, you mean that’s common knowledge?

I’m making a heretical statement, however, when I say that Beethoven is not among my very favorite classical composers. For example, I’ll take Haydn, Bach and Sibelius over him. But Piano Sonata No. 13, which Ludwig wrote during 1800 and 1801? Man, its grace goes straight to the heart. I was sitting on the living room sofa when I heard it on the radio a few days after putting down my toothbrush for Memphis Slim. After the first three notes I was convinced that it is something special. Several listenings later, I still feel that way.

Goodbye till next time, gentle readers. Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay. Mucho gracias. And, oh yeah, here’s the first movement of Piano Sonata No. 13: