You can hear the newest episode of SongWriter, featuring a story from cellist Ben Sollee, and a song written in response by rapper James Lindsey here:
On 9/11 I began volunteering for NYC’s Office of Emergency Management. I was grateful for the opportunity to pitch in; we all desperately wanted to help. I remember stories of firefighters and police officers getting pillowcases of supplies thrown at them. The projectile-care-packages usually contained a bottle of water, $20, cigarettes, and (for some reason) socks. When things started to settle down a few weeks later, my supervisor handed me a job listing for OEM and asked if I wanted to apply.
Though I was committed to building a career as a musician, I was strongly tempted. Work with a clear, straightforward impact in the world is incredibly compelling to me. My brother is a surgeon, and when we’re together he frequently has to take calls from his team about one patient or another. Watching him, I always feel jealous that his work is so necessary, so plainly useful. There are few phone calls on urgent, life-saving matters in the arts.
On bad days making music can feel like an act of idle narcissism, and when you’re struggling to find your audience, there are lots of bad days. Existential insignificance lives within each of the numberless rejections most artists experience.
Yet watching the presidential victory speech the other night I was again struck by how central music is to human emotion and communication. News anchors on CNN talked at length about the Vice President-elect’s choice of Mary J. Blige as the soundtrack to her walk to the podium, and how the song spoke quiet volumes to Black Americans. When Biden’s speech ended, Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” underscored the Presiden-elect’s message to the nation. Words alone can tell a story, but music is the language we speak to the heart.
How is art somehow at once the most, and the least, essential human endeavor? In the grand scheme of things, a given combination of notes and words just does not matter. Every songwriter has felt, looking at the blank screen, that no one cares if they do or don’t write a song today. Yet most of us know the song that brings tears to our eyes. Most of us know what song we want our family to sing at our funeral.
When I was on tour last year I played a show in Louisville with cellist Ben Sollee. He told me that he has partially retired from music, opting instead for work at a local environmental non-profit. In the new episode of SongWriter Ben tells a story about learning that his family sold their ancestral land to a coal company, and songwriter and rapper James Lindsey reflects on family and fatherhood, and performs his song “Hoop Sessions.”