How do songs mean? Andy Williams remembered.
September 27, 2012
Yesterday, I received a notice on my phone that the great vocalist Andy Williams had passed away at the age of eighty-four.
The first thing that popped into my head was his signature song, Moon River. In an instant, I was a teenage boy watching Andy Williams’ variety show on network TV, listening to his performance of the song.
I never knew what Moon River was about, and still don’t. It doesn’t matter now, nor did it then. What mattered was the feeling the song created, its ability to sweep away the real world and transport the listener somewhere else, somewhere sublime.
As a singer, Andy Williams had a remarkable technique. He placed the sound in his mouth, right behind and on top of his front teeth where his facial bones resonated as the sound vibrated through them. This created something that was neither falsetto nor full voice. And it gave him the uncanny ability to move up and down his remarkable register with no apparent effort. In other words, as some people are born to play football, others to write, others to perform brain surgery, Andy Williams was born to sing.
But all that aside, I still wonder how it is that songs mean? Their meaning is not the sum of their parts. You add all the components together and it doesn’t equal the experience, or the memory, of the song.
Moon River reminds me of lost innocence, a simpler time, a more dangerous time, coming of age, dreams.
Or how about The Star-Spangled Banner? Is it just a song that is hard to sing with words easy to fumble? No, it conjures up national pride, self-sacrifice, war, patriotism.
Amazing Grace? A song of only a couple of chords, with just a few notes, it makes people cry and search within themselves for touchpoints with the eternal.
He Stopped Loving Her Today? Are you telling me that the greatest country song of all time is only about one man who lost a girl and never got over it?
You are My Sunshine? What parent has ever sung it to a child without having to swallow a lump in his throat?
I could go on and on.
Scientists are attempting to study how songs mean. They will never unravel it. Not because they aren’t diligent in their efforts, but because the human heart is ineffable, unknowable, mysterious and sublime.
I am so glad I lived in a time when I could listen as Andy Williams took center stage and sang Moon River.