Sunday, October 07, 2007

What Music Has Changed Your Life?

What Music Has Changed Your Life?

Last night while listening to Weekend All Things Considered while driving, I heard a "Reader Assignment" which was to write about a piece of music that has changed your life. The first piece of music that entered my mind was a performance by The Band of Up on Cripple Creek which I heard coming out of the kitchen at an AMC Hut in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Why that tune at that place? Who knows. I'm just reporting what first came into mind. (Of course, as I write this, other pieces of music come to mind: Stravinsky's The Right of Spring, Bob Dylan's Lay Lady Lay, Crosby Stills Nash and Young's Ohio, Mozart's Requiem). But the first thing I thought of was The Band's Up on Cripple Creek.

Of course the hard part is trying to figure out why that song was the first thing to pop into my mind. A little background on the scene. From June 1969 right after I graduated from Yale through June 1971, right before I started at MIT, I worked for two years. One weekend during this period (either Summer of 1969 or Summer of 1970) I hiked with a group of friends in the White Mountains. Our route took us by one of the Appalachian Mountain Club Huts. These huts provide rather comfortable overnight accommodations in picturesque locations along the mountain trails. (We didn't stay in the Hut -- rather camped in tents near the hut -- a lot cheaper).

I remember arriving at the Hut -- the end of our hike for that day -- pretty wiped out. Our usual pattern was to set up our tent for the night and then go explore around the campsite. I decided to just sit back and enjoy the scene from in front of the Hut. In addition to lodging, the crew of the Hut cooks dinner for the paying guests.

The AMC crews were usually larger than life hikers -- people who could carry 80 pound packs along the trail and not seem to get exhausted. Since everything in the Hut had to be carried in and out, this was an essential skill to be on a Hut crew. So, here I was resting after a strenuous hike for me thinking about these guys who seemed to enjoy carrying up at least twice the load that I was carrying, wondering about what was different between them and me.

Shortly, as I am in my contemplative state, I hear, coming out of the kitchen, the sounds of The Band singing Up on Cripple Creek, the perfect song for this location. It just seemed right, and forever after when I hear that song, I think of that beautiful place with its wonderful vista over the mountains.

      "When I get off of this mountain
      You know where I want to go
      Straight down the mississippi river
      To the gulf of mexico
      To lake charles, louisiana
      Little bessie, a girl that I once knew
      And she told me just to come on by
      If theres anything she could do

      Up on cripple creek she sends me
      If I spring a leak she mends me
      I dont have to speak she defends me
      A drunkards dream if I ever did see one

      Good luck had just stung me
      To the race track I did go
      She bet on one horse to win
      And I bet on another to show
      Odds were in my favor
      I had him five to one
      When that nag to win came around the track
      Sure enough he had won

      I took up all of my winnings
      and I gave my little bessie half
      And she tore it up and blew it in my face
      Just for a laugh
      Now theres one thing in the whole wide world
      I sure would like to see
      Thats when that little love of mine
      Dips her doughnut in my tea

      Now me and my mate were back at the shack
      We had spike jones on the box
      She said, I cant take the way he sings
      But I love to hear him talk
      Now that just gave my heart a fall
      To the bottom of my feet
      And I swore as I took another pull
      My bessie cant be beat

      Now, its hot in california
      And up north its freezing cold
      And this living off the road
      Is getting pretty old
      So I guess Ill call up my big mama
      Tell her Ill be rolling in
      Bet you know, deep down, Im kinda tempted
      To go and see my bessie again"
What is/was it about this song that I liked hearing wafting out of the kitchen of that Hut? Perhaps it was the contrast between the beautiful serene scene I was looking out on and the honky tonk sounds of the song. Here we were in this wonderful location and the song was talking about all of the things I was going to do "When I get off of this mountain..." (I wish: although I was young, unfortunately my love life was not as robust as the singer of this song). Perhaps it was the concluding lines about "this living off the road is getting pretty old" picking up on my feeling hot and sweaty after a hike and a little bit of artistic exaggeration about who I was. I also just liked the sound of not particularly polished song about a scruffy guy mirroring my image of the Hut crew members.

In any case, it has stuck with me and I remember that scene when ever I hear that song.

Maybe not as life changing as some events, but here, after 40 years, I can remember that moment vividly. There must have been some change going on at that moment.

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