In My Own Words: Rediscovering music of the past by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Without her voice, I don’t know if I would have made it through high school. That’s not totally accurate: it was both her music and lyrics combined with that awesome voice that made it possible. But I do remember the very first time I heard her sing. I bought her album after looking at it for almost a year in Grand Way, a K-Mart like store that was located in the Endicott Plaza. There was a very short half-sung, half-talking opening, which was followed by the song “Tuning My Guitar” that blew me away. Who am I talking about? Melanie Safka, usually just known by the name Melanie. Although her biggest hit was “Brand New Key,” that light pop tune is not one of my favorites. What I preferred were her ballads about loneliness and pain, the type of music that spoke to my teenage heart. 

I’ve not only been thinking about Melanie’s music, but, for the first time in more than 20 years, I’ve been listening to it. That wasn’t possible when I first got my cochclear implant: most women’s singing still didn’t sound right. But lately I’ve been exploring music that I loved in the 1960s and ‘70s, and am again able to enjoy that raw, powerful voice that spoke to my young heart and which still thrills me. 

This musical exploration has been fun and it’s interesting to see what music still appeals. I have two Melanie CDs: a greatest hits album and the first album I bought because my favorite song is not on the greatest hits CD. But I’ve also listened to songs I haven’t thought about in years and found that the music and lyrics still resonate.

The same is true for the CDs I’ve bought of Dr. Hook (a band originally known as Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show). I wanted my favorite song by the band, “Last Morning,” and the only CD I could find it on was a 2-CD set with its first three albums. Again, I heard music I’d forgotten about that I loved and found myself falling in love with it again. This time, though, I realized that there were other songs I liked and bought a CD of Dr. Hook’s greatest hits. It was the group’s ballads that were my favorites when I was young and I still like them. However, I was surprised to discover their upbeat songs are also a lot of fun – more than I remembered.

Not all my musical explorations have been successful. For example, I listened to a CD I already had of the Broadway musical “Rags.” I knew there was a song on it that I loved when I used to listen to the album in the 1990s, but was unable to tell which song it was. Other singers can also be difficult: some of the music on the Mandy Patinkin albums I have sound wonderful. Others sound like music, but I can’t make out the individual songs. That may also be because of his singing style, which tends to be the same no matter the song.

I do realize that music from my early listening years can be easier to hear, but I’ve had some trouble with The Monkees’ greatest hits, although I didn’t have problems listening to their music on Youtube. Maybe there were different recordings online or the lyrics were easier to follow when I was also reading their lips. But additional listening (and a lot of concentration) has made the songs on the CD sound better. It may sound funny to have to say that I have to practice listening to music to hear it, but that’s true.

My greatest find came about by accident. I was looking for specific albums online and the suggestions underneath them included a very inexpensive CD of a record I remembered from my childhood: Harry Belafonte singing live at Carnegie Hall. That two record set was my parents’ and I had not heard it or thought about it for decades. It took some practice to really be able to hear some the songs, but I’m glad I put the time in because the music is marvelous. The album was originally recorded in the 1950s, but it still sounds wonderful and fresh. I’ve probably listened to it more than any other CD since I started my explorations.

I’m taking a break from buying new CDs, at least for the moment. I have many I purchased in the 1990s, but most of those are still too difficult for me to hear specific songs. I know I bought them because I liked at least one song on them, but, like with “Rags,” I can’t tell which one it is. Still, I’m not letting myself get discouraged because there is so much music I can appreciate. Sometimes I hear part of a song – a musical phrase – and feel a joy like no other.

Before my implant, I used to daydream about what I would do if I were given the gift of hearing music for 24 hours. I debated whether I would want to revisit older music or listen to new music. It was a way of deflecting the pain over a part of my life that was missing. I have not recovered the ability I daydreamed about, but I have recovered something else beyond compare: music that speaks to my heart.