A while back, a friend handed you a mix cd, one of many he gave you over the years. Since you can remember disliking exactly one song out of the more than 20,000 that you must have heard in this friend’s presence you stuck it right in the car cd slot and turned the volume up.
Like all discs from this friend, every track was unnamed: Track 1, Track 2, Track 3. Etcetera.
Track 1 began to play. A man’s deep voice came growling out of the speakers: Something very wonderful is gonna happen, something very wonderful is gonna happen. Yeah, to you. Yeah. To you.
It was one of those times when you had to pull the car over and put it in park, stop everything you were doing so that you could just sit and listen to that song. That voice. Those words. You pressed Repeat over and over, although you wouldn’t have had to – the song was part of you the minute you heard that first joyous bellow: Something very wonderful is gonna happen.
“That song ‘Something Very Wonderful’,” you said to your friend. “Who is that?”
So you went to the Electric Fetus and bought the man’s discs. Played them all through, one after the other, over and over and over, the way you like, until they were embedded in you.
Based on nothing but that first listen, you conjured up a picture in your mind of Jon Dee Graham. In it, he’s sitting on the stage in a small dark bar, a single spotlight shining down on him and his guitar, and his face is lifted up to the light and he’s laughing.
You have always thought of music as the greatest and most powerful of the arts. The conjurer of feeling, of dreams, of past and future.
There’s the music you heard when you were tiny, that insinuated itself into your body like DNA. Last night you woke up at 3 a.m. with this musical DNA idea in your head, and right away the sensation of sitting on a hard wooden chair in a yellow-painted room with stained glass windows came washing over you. You felt your legs swinging against the chair, your feet barely brushing the floor. Surrounded by a dozen other tiny little kids. Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Every word of that Sunday School song, the way those chanting kindergarten voices floated up toward the high ceiling of that yellow room, is still inside you. Even if you left that kind of church behind decades and decades ago, you can never leave its music behind.
Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams: their music still sings its way through your body. You remember crouching in front of the big speaker with your ear pressed to it, the better to absorb.
Other music would come later. The Grateful Dead: when you hear it now you’re back in a hotel high in the Rockies where you cleaned rooms and vacuumed and polished and scrubbed. A place from which you walked out, at the end of the day, into the smell of sage and juniper.
Neil Young’s Comes a Time and you’re back in a cinderblock dorm room with a narrow bed and a blue wool blanket and red maple leaves pressed between wax paper and Johnson’s baby powder and a braided rag rug and college textbooks stacked on a wooden desk.
Emmylou’s Luxury Liner: an apartment down a back road in Vermont with a bathtub overlooking the mountains, stars massed overhead, a set of wooden stairs that creaked in the middle of the night, someone you loved having fallen asleep to Emmylou’s voice crooning in the darkness.
Then there’s another kind of music, the kind that happens when you’ve become pretty much who you are in this world. Knit together. Still and always forming, but there’s a point in life at which you have absorbed so much and experienced so much, that you start to be less a sponge and more a conduit.
This is another thing you were thinking about last night at 3 a.m., this conduit idea, but you didn’t have the words to explain it. If you had a guitar, maybe, and if you knew how to play that guitar, you could have written a song about it. Sometimes, more often than you usually admit, you want to be music instead of words.
Then the title to a Flannery O’Connor short story came to you, a title that has puzzled you forever: Everything that Rises Must Converge. For the first time it made sense, there in the darkness. If you live long enough and deep enough, something is released. Something is set free, to rise higher and higher until all like-minded souls are connected. All lost, come on home.
When you got up in the morning the word transponder was scrolling across your mind and you looked it up. “A wireless device that picks up and automatically responds to an incoming signal.”
Yeah. That feels about right –weird, but right– for the constant, invisible presence of music in a life. The give and take of it, the way it fills you up and sets you thrumming and then you send it out into the world.
Everything that rises must converge. That means that unrise-able things, things like wanting fame and riches and to make sure that everyone knows how accomplished you are, have to be let go.
Only connect. That line, from a novel written in the 1860’s, has stayed famous for so long because it’s true. It’s what everyone cares about. It’s the one thing that matters.
You’ve been thinking about that lately, along with this line from your favorite childhood book: To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.
It’s not an easy thing to do. To look upon something as if you were seeing it for the first or last time means that all of life becomes even more intense. Light shines down on everyone and everything is infused with beauty and sorrow and wonder and gratitude. No, it’s not easy to live like that.
That’s how Jon Dee Graham lives, though. You knew it the first time you heard that first song. Something very wonderful is gonna happen. When you wake up with that familiar, huge feeling of happiness, so happy just to be alive, that’s the song you think of.
When you sit on your porch and watch the girls in their summer dresses walking by, you think of his song Amsterdam, and how all the people in it are beautiful.
When it has been a long stretch of sadness and sorrow and exhaustion, and it feels, finally, as if maybe it wouldn’t be so bad just to lie down and sleep for a long, long time, or even just. . . disappear, his song Swept Away comes over you. Life is difficult at times, he says. I’ve fought depression my whole life.
Jon Dee’s music doesn’t bring you back to a long-ago time. It doesn’t remind you of who you used to be, in your time here on this earth. His music is who you are right here, right now, at this mid-life transponder age. It’s a big sweet life. What can you do but thank him for putting that feeling, and those words, to music.
Jon Dee Graham: I have an extremely strong belief in something I can’t explain.
*This Friday night, August 23, Jon Dee Graham (who lives in Austin, TX) will be playing at Morrissey’s Irish Pub in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis. Be there.