“In a well-wrought song,” wrote philosopher Susanne Langer, “the text is swallowed hide and hair.”
How many times have you sung “Shoo fly, don’t bother me” and stopped to think about the words? Probably never. And that’s true of many of the songs we sing. The notes hit the heart and grab the bulk of our attention before climbing up to the head—if indeed, they ever reach it at all. When words are memorable and the meaning matches the music, we have a happy marriage indeed.
Sometimes we like the meaning and the music is not particularly inspired— “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.” “Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud!” Sometimes we love the music, but the words are pedestrian—Rodgers and Hart’s lovely ballad “It Never Entered My Mind” has some awful lines about “ordering orange juice for one,” “I have to scratch my back myself” “say the maiden’s prayer again”. Sometimes both the words and the music are dubious—“My baby does the Hanky Panky”— and sometimes they join exquisitely—Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You.” Etc.
But back to Shoo Fly. After singing to the fly three times to leave you alone, the punch line is “For I belong to somebody.” What’s that supposed to mean? The fly’s supposed to nod it’s head and say, “Oh, excuse me. Had I know you weren’t single, I wouldn’t have buzzed around your head?” Of course, “I belong to somebody” is open to interpretation, from marriage to friendship to a child-parent relationship to slavery. But the next verse indicates that there’s some love involved, for in spite of this annoying fly, the singer proudly announces, “I feel, I feel, I feel like a morning star.”
I’ve been doing a dance to this song the past couple of weeks with the kids at school and adults in workshops. To prove that we don’t often pay as much attention to text as we might, I asked them, “What is a morning star?” “Venus!” is the first answer and then it goes from there to a “sad star” (mourning), a kind of hippie tea, a morning TV news anchor. Then I have to quote the end of Walden—“Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” So a person who feels like they belong can shine like the sun and bring light to the dark night of the earth.
The theme of belonging is ripe in poetry, old and new. From Mary Oliver, we have the wild geese who are “over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” David Whyte tells us, “It doesn’t interest me if there is one god or many. I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned.” When Wordsworth felt connected to the natural world, he went “dancing with the daffodils,” while Yeats, having finally found "the glimmering girl with apple blossoms in her hair" went hand-in-hand with her picking “the silver apples of the moon and the golden apples of the sun.” James Brown was more direct: “Yeeow!!! I feel good! I got you!!”
Belonging is good. Feeling loved and cared for is good. Feeling part of something larger than yourself is good. And feeling unloved, abandoned, ignored, neglected—well, it’s devastating. Especially if you are six years old.
My daughter Talia called last night in tears and told me about her first grade student in Argentina who had a meltdown and started lamenting, “Nadie me da cariño. Nadie me quiere. Necesito cariño.” (Nobody is affectionate with me. Nobody loves me. I need affection.) Her parents are divorced, have restraining orders out against each other, the Mom re-married quickly, had another baby and moved to Chile and now this girl is showing her sadness by kicking all the other kids in her class. When Talia started talking to her, the anger changed to confession, “I need to be loved!!” Pretty sophisticated for a six-year old. And heart-wrenchingly sad.
I’m aware that this posting has as many sub-plots as a Seinfeld episode and I’m looking to tie them together. So while you’re paying more attention to the words of songs, brushing up on Thoreau, researching the theme of belonging in poetry, don’t forget to love somebody and tell them so and show them so with real affection. We are all worthy of love. Especially the children. Brush the flies away and make them feel like a morning star.