Monday 27 March 2017

Songs are cathedrals, a sort of stained glass of the soul

Travelling the American south, Joseph O'Connor felt goosebumps as the ghosts of Presley and Cash seemed to stir

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a book tour in America, and one Sunday morning I awoke in the beautiful town of Oxford, Mississippi, after a warm night of southern hospitality. From the chapel down the street, the Second Baptist Church, came the sound of a choir singing beautiful gospel in harmony, and all through the town, which was dappled in sunlight, people strolled in their Sunday best.

I was sorry to leave, but the day held great pleasures. I would drive from rural Mississippi into the state of Tennessee, a journey that will bring to any music lover's mind that gorgeous opening line from Paul Simon's masterpiece album Graceland: 'The Mississippi delta/ was shining like a national guitar.' So indeed it shone, that beautiful morning, as I drove idly along the back roads that still lead through the cotton fields.

The day before, I had visited the house where one of my favourite novelists, William Faulkner, had lived, that master being only one of the storytelling geniuses the American south has produced.

The title of his novel The Sound and the Fury came to mind as I drove a stretch of highway that leads through a gap in a wild magnolia forest. Some years ago, a friend explained, a tornado had ripped through the trees, and their remains still lie around, toppled or corkscrewed, wrenched into the shape of question marks.

I was playing a CD, Black America Sings Bob Dylan, and as we crossed the border into Tennessee, the angelic voice of Aaron Neville was singing that beautiful early Dylan poem With God on Our Side.

You pass many, many churches on a journey through the American south, but as is the case in Ireland, perhaps the most beautiful registrations of the spiritual feelings of that place are not in the buildings, but in the songs. Perhaps songs are themselves a kind of cathedral, their beauties a stained glass of the soul.

An hour later, I went into a small and unprepossessing building in a part of Memphis that is still very poor. It's called the Sun Recording Studio, and it was there, many years ago, that a young truck driver went through the same doors, telling the receptionist he wished to record a song as a gift for his mother's birthday. His name was Elvis Presley. He was remarkably shy. The world was about to be changed. Asked by the receptionist to say who he sounded like, he thought for a moment before replying: "I don't sound like nobody, Ma'am."

You stand in that room, which is about the size of a kitchen, and devoid of any glitzy decoration.

There is a shabby piano in one corner, an old microphone in another; there are a couple of photographs on the wall. But then the guide lists some of the artists who recorded their music in that room. And you feel goosebumps as their ghosts seem to stir.

The great bluesman Howlin Wolf. That peerless American storyteller Johnny Cash. This is the little room where Blue Suede Shoes was made. That piano, says the guide, is the one where Jerry Lee Lewis sat down and battered out the opening notes of Great Balls of Fire. And there, on the floor, you are shown a small X, placed to mark the spot where Elvis Presley was standing the first time his voice was ever recorded.

The young woman standing nearest to it on the morning of my tour stepped away from it suddenly, as though it was emitting a laser beam. And all of us laughed quietly, for we knew what she was feeling. When Bob Dylan came on the tour himself and was shown that X, he is said to have knelt down and kissed it.

You stand in a room. There is really very little to see. But from the speakers comes the sound of a young truck driver laughing and crooning, then a botched chord on a guitar, a few mumbles and jokes. And suddenly he is singing an old blues of Mississippi, the place of his childhood, the very fields you drove this morning. And a lightning storm flickers through your nerve endings.

As for those who say that a popular art form can never achieve greatness, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote a wise and true thing: "I am eternally grateful for my knack of finding in great books -- some of them very funny books -- reason enough to feel honoured to be alive, no matter what else might be going on. I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, 'The Beatles did.'"

A strange thing about beautiful art is that we sometimes forget someone made it. We think the Sistine Chapel ceiling or a Cole Porter song were somehow always there.

It is almost inconceivable to us that a human being one day sat down with a pen and wrote out the words, 'To Be or Not To Be: That is the question.' But that is what makes great art truly great.

The most brilliant storytellers of Mississippi, and perhaps the most brilliant storytellers of our own small country too, were the people who realised the awesome power of a song.

Songland is where a people truly live, in the airspace of our imaginations and our stories; a realisation summed up in the line of an old spiritual much beloved by that shy young truck driver whose voice would change the world. "Over my head, I feel music in the air. I know there's a God somewhere."

Joseph O'Connor's bestselling novel 'Ghost Light' has just been published in paperback and is Dublin's One City One Book novel for 2011. The full programme of events celebrating the novel is available at www.dublinonecityonebook.ie

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