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The Long and Winding Road

James M. Rohner | September 2015

“Jim is an expert on songs,
but my mom is an expert on everything.”
– Eliott, age 5

    There is a scene in the classic rock movie Almost Famous where the older sister played by Zooey Deschanel leaves home and gives her younger brother a box of her classic albums from the early 1970s. “Someday, you’ll be cool,” she whispers. In real life, the movie’s writer and director, Cameron Crowe ended up as a respected journalist for Rolling Stone, so apparently he did become cool. I have a sister, but she sure never gave me any great records. I had to figure out my musical tastes on my own.
    When I reached college, it just took a quick walk down the hall to hear new and unfamiliar music. (The guys across the hall freshman year loved David Bowie’s Space Oddity beyond any reasonable standard.) A course on jazz history augmented my experiences in high school jazz band and gave me a foundation that I have continued to explore over the decades. I have always hoped for the chance to pass on my musical wisdom. At last, I can.
    For most of the past year, I have driven my young stepson home from preschool and summer camp. This has meant that for 20 minutes a day, I have a captive audience of one. Because Chicago only has a couple of radio stations worth the time, I spend most days shuffling between various stations on SiriusXM. The radio lets me pick various favorite songs and artists, and I have tried to tailor these preferences to give Eliott a highly subjective but well-rounded course in important popular music as I see it. I have learned some important lessons during that daily trip.
    One great song can make the ride seem shorter for weeks. For much of the spring, that song was Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars and producer Mark Ronson. Day after day, the favorite song alert popped up on the radio, and we sang along. Although a five-year-old has an amazing ability to mimic lyrics, I was relieved that a few of the racier words went over his head. A common question from the boy in the back seat is: “What does this song mean?” Often, I would say that “It’s about love.” With Uptown Funk, after months of listening to it, I had to admit that I could not explain it at a pre-school level so I just said, “I don’t know.”
    Sometimes, a good song was not required. I would strap in my passenger, and he would announce, “I want to hear a bad song.” To honor the request might take a channel change to the 80s or 90s station for a cheesy ballad or the work of a hair band.
    I still remember the first time he heard Stairway to Heaven. “This is the greatest song in the history of rock,” I told him. I’m not sure he agreed, but I will give it time.
    His favorite song from the past year was James Taylor’s version of Aaron Copland’s I Bought Me a Cat. Questionable grammar aside, this song plugs into the preschool brain perfectly. I tried to explain that James Taylor played other songs I liked on satellite, but he did not always make the connection.
    On some days, he made up his own songs. I’ll spare you the lyrics, but I imagine that 5-year-olds the world over somehow share the same puerile sense of humor. Somewhere over in China, there must be a boy singing with gusto about poop during the ride to school.
    My musical curriculum seemed a bit slanted toward music I liked when I was five. I’m not sure how relevant the pristine singer-songwriter records of the mid-1970s are in today’s diverse musical landscape. However, songs like America’s Sister Golden Hair and the Carpenters’ Top of the World make me smile whenever they come on to the radio. One day when I heard Eliott singing along with Elton John (“Levon, Levon loves his money”), I knew my education by immersion was working.
    My attempts to sprinkle in some jazz were mostly a failure. It may be too much to introduce a kid to Coltrane when he has just come from fingerpainting. Regardless of what was playing, our time together in the car helped us get to know each other. Sharing a love of music grew into love for each other. It is the best part of my day.
    This fall, Eliott will attend the local grade school and take the bus every day. We won’t have that daily time to talk and laugh and sing along with the music. I am determined to keep teaching him what I know about music, and help him find what songs speak to him. The classroom might change, but the lessons continue.

James M. Rohner,