When I was sixteen, a boy made me a mix tape. Handing it to me, he said, “As I put the first song on the tape, I thought, ‘Wow, this is my favorite song ever,’ and then, I listened to the second song, and I thought, ‘No, this is my favorite song.’ And then the third song was the best ever written, and I kept thinking that with every single song.”
I think of this every now and then when I get obsessive about a song, as I do occasionally. I’ll find myself thinking, “This is the perfect song! Songs do not get better than this!” I’ll listen to the song over and over and try to memorize the words.
This week, I have been listening to Katy Wehr‘s “When You Are Old.” I heard it first about a year ago on Brenda Dayne’s podcast Cast On. Brenda played it again recently, so when I had some free Amazon mp3 credits to use, I remembered it and downloaded it.
If you want to hear a sample of the song, you can find one on her website about a third of the way down this page.
I think it had me with the piano, and then it had me again when I heard the word “book.” It was one of those songs that made me stop what I was doing in the kitchen so I could concentrate on listening.
The clever album title led me to suspect it was a cover or a poem before I even went to her website and read anything about it. A quick search confirmed that the words are by William Butler Yeats.
When You Are Old
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
I sat at my computer and listened to the song on my iPod nano with the earbuds in, reading the words while I did. Over and over, until I had pretty much memorized them and their rhythm. I wasn’t satisified until I could sing right along with her.
Then I had one of those old people moments. You know the ones. I can’t believe how easy it is these days! You like a song and you just type the title in a little box and up come the lyrics! You hardly have to work at it. Why, I remember . . . .
I thought about other times I had wanted to be able to sing right along with a song and needed to know every word. A few years ago, it was “Red Dirt Girl” by Emmylou Harris. I wasn’t sure what the “mention in the news of the world” line was, but after I looked it up on a lyrics site, I was able to learn the rest of the words by listening to the song on repeat. Before I had an iPod, the car was the best place for this. I put the CD in, queued up the song, and started singing with it. When I missed a line, I’d hit the reverse button and start the song all over again. Every other day, on the way to the community college six miles away and back home again, on repeat—by the end of the week, I knew every word.
Before the internet, it was harder to confirm troublesome lyrics. I didn’t really start buying music until I was in college, and it seemed lucky then just to have CDs with the words printed in the liner notes. When we’d buy CDs without them, my roommate and I would have to sit with our heads near the speakers and ask, “Okay, there, what is she saying about the moon? Rewind it.”
“The moon’s ‘not just a name‘?” Once we figured it out, the whole song would fall into place and we couldn’t not hear it again.
Before CDs, before I bought music of my own at all, if I wanted a song not on my parents’ records or the kid cassette tapes in our closet, I got it from the radio. I had—or, my family had—one of those old boomboxes with only one side, and I would keep a blank tape in it and hit “record” when something I liked came over KKNG FM 92.5 (yes, at twelve, I liked the easy listening station). Then, pleased, I would rewind it and carefully transcribe the words into a notebook. I found pages from this notebook recently: a weird embarrassing mix of Air Supply and Dan Fogelberg from the radio, Xeroxed hymns and Amy Grant from church choir, and lots of John Denver handcopied from sheet music books checked out of the library.
I’ve forgotten lots of things, but I can’t forget these words that I took the time to learn so thoroughly. I know them now, and they’re part of me.