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For the Sake of the Song

Mix's Tom Kenny ponders the ephemeral nature of -- and bonds created by -- songs as he considers the work of Bob Marley, Buddy Holly and Wilco

All sorts of songs have been running through my head over the past month, and I’m not sure why. It’s been an unusually active flurry, much more than the experience we’ve all had where some four-bar phrase pops into your head on the way to the shower, then lingers, then becomes downright annoying by breakfast. I’ve had plenty of those. But lately, it seems as if everywhere I turn and with everyone I talk to, I see, or feel, a song.

My guess is that it started soon after I finished watching Get Back, the eight-hour Beatles documentary produced by Peter Jackson. I wrote about it last month, as you know, and I’ve hummed more than a few tracks over the past 30 days, that’s for sure. They do have more than a few to choose from. But it’s been more than the Beatles in my head. I have a bird feeder in my Oakland backyard, and a gang of 20 to 30 small, wren-like mutts of the urban bird world visit each day, sometimes in groups, often en masse. A couple of days after Christmas, while sitting on my back patio and doing a crossword puzzle, I looked up and saw three of them lined up perfectly on the fence, waiting their turn.

In the same half-second that I reached for my phone, a thousand images flashed through my head—from sunshine on a lake to pine trees to Bob Marley’s red-yellow-green knitted cap—and I felt a wave of comfort. Before I even took the picture, I was humming outside and singing inside:

Rise up this mornin’, Smile with the risin’ sun

Three little birds, Pitched by my doorstep

Singin’ sweet songs, Of melodies pure and true

Sayin’, This is my message to you, whoo-hoo.

Don’t worry, About a thing

‘Cause every little thing’s, Gonna be all right…

I then sent the picture to my daughters, Molly and Jesse. I used to sing it to them when they were babies to stop them crying. They knew what the picture meant, but the image didn’t connect us; the song did. All in all, it’s not a bad verse-chorus to have running through your head. I hope I re-planted it in theirs. I have no idea why “Oh, Boy!” keeps popping up. Even after 20 or so days, I don’t find it annoying. It always seems to add a skip to my step. Sixty-five years after Buddy Holly recorded it at Norman Petty Studios in Clovis, N.M., those lyrics found their way back into my head and I felt that guitar in my feet. Made me want to dance. Now that’s a good song!

Last Friday marked the end of a long and not-great week. A dear friend, Lisa Roy, had passed away unexpectedly a few days prior, work was slammed, and…I don’t know, lots of other stuff. Around 2 in the afternoon, friend and longtime Mix editor/writer Barbara Schultz emailed a link with a simple note that said, ‘Hey, I know you had a long week and I know you love this song. Enjoy!”

I clicked the link, and it was Wilco, with special guests, singing “California Stars” at their induction into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame. Man, did that ever come at the right time. My whole week turned around! I put away my laptop, grabbed a beer and texted it to my niece Tonya (we danced to it at her wedding) and my buddy Dave, who texted back: “Woody Guthrie’s lyrics and Jeff Tweedy’s melody. Can’t go wrong.”

No other art form approaches music—and thereby, “song”—in its ability to evoke such a wide range of emotions and such a defined sense of time, place and memory, whether you’re talking about an individual, a small group or an entire culture. Music provides connection. Songs give us all a voice.

Harvey Mason Jr., featured on this month’s cover, knows a thing or two about songs and music. He sold his first song at age 8 to Grover Washington, Jr. Later, while attending the University of Arizona, he would write jingles for local brake shops, mattress dealers and the like to make money to buy gear—so he could write and record more songs. His jingle writing helped his songwriting, he says, and vice versa. As one improved, so did the other.

Then came the hits, both as songwriter and producer, with Brandy, Spice Girls, Aretha, Justin, Britney, Deneice Williams, Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton and many others. Then came the movie work, the recording studios and the Grammy involvement, which found him in 2021 accepting the permanent role of president and CEO of the Recording Academy. Still, of all the hyphens in his multi-hyphenate career, my guess is that he places Songwriter first.

Back in the day, I used to hear engineers say, “I can use all these amazing tools and techniques, mix the best I’ve ever mixed, and it doesn’t mean shit if you don’t have a song.” Today, with the emergence of immersive music, I hear a variation on, “Yes, I can throw things at the ceiling and spin them around the room, but every decision I make should be about serving the song.”

I wish I could write a song, but I can’t. So I’m glad there are those out there who can, because I’ll be needing a few more popping up to bounce around my head.