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Jan 22, 2007 4:26 pm


Music and Memory



Marcel Proust tasted a cookie with tea and the taste and smell brought memories with a profound immediacy. I smell cut grass and my mind goes back to neighbors, who with a saintly patience, allowed me to jump into their hills of cut and raked grass. I remember nothing else about them, but that moment still comes back to me, though as Proust noted, the phenomena fades in intensity as it is repeated.

Music brings back memories, too. This Washington Post article is about a forthcoming book by Doug Bradley and Craig Werner on music and Vietnam veterans to be called We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Music and the Experience of Vietnam Vets. The article begins with a veteran, Howard Sherpe, hearing a few bars of “Another Saturday Night” flashing back to the sight of a bloody dead soldier: “The music brings the sights and sounds and smells roaring back. He can even see a cigarette in his hand that is splotched with blood -- the dead man's blood .”

The article notes a second phenomenon. The words the soldier remembered had been changed in his mind, a change that probably occurred back then (and with the assistance of the quality of AM sound). The new lyrics expressed his feelings about being in Vietnam: “Another Saturday night and I ain't got nobody/ I got all bloody and feel some pain”.

Music and memory are so tricky. (In fact, the following paragraph is based on a book I read in high school augmented slightly with Googling. I hope I have made no mistakes.) In Silas Marner by George Eliot there is a Christmas dance at the old Squire’s to which the town is invited. The fiddler plays “Over the Hills and Far Away” and the Squire aches with nostalgia, for he thinks of himself as having come from over the hills and far away.

I suppose that is part of the power of Christmas music today. Not only is it beautiful with a beautiful set of messages, but its seasonal nature makes it seem part of the order of things, stitching past and present together. Memories return. Each year, Eliot’s squire asks for a tune that evokes distance and sadness and joy all at once.

The memory of the soldier above is hardly Christmas. It stabs across time with no regard for the seasons. Nor does the song seem to be a true part of the memory. There is no indication that the song was in the background at the moment the soldier handled the body. The song—in part I suspect because he had transformed it—became linked to a moment that resonated with the pain that the war built within him: to use a metaphor, it is the precise sound that rings the silent bell of that pain.

As historians we approach memory carefully. In fact I wonder if the much lamented shift of historians away from individual lives is somehow related to a growing realization of just how malleable memory can be. (Go the comments area)

Broad forces, the inexorably demands of climate, the changes in society that somehow harden into rock, the sweep of a new technology, these can seem far more sound as subjects. While the closer one looks at a life, the more one seems to go beneath the facts to find something like what a quantum physicist finds—that apparently solid matter emerges from a restless sea of probabilities.

But of course we live our lives in that messy probabilistic level. Sam Cooke’s song traveled 6000 miles to touch that soldier’s ears; he unconsciously “translated” it into something that gave expression to his pain and disillusion. For long as he lives, “Another Saturday Night” will link him to it that moment when he saw that splattered blood on his smoking cigarette.

Is Sherpe's memory precise? We probably cannot know. We do know that Sherpe has made it part of his life. To him, it helps tell his own history. By knowing it, we can tell, however imperfectly, something about his life and something about the impact of songs and war.


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David Lion Salmanson - 1/22/2007

In my opnion, the best discussion of how historians can use memory effectively is Allessandro Portelli's The Death of Luigi Trastulli and other stories.

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