My Playlist

1. “Let it Be” (John McCartney) – This is the most powerful representation of The Beatles I know. While many others like the expansive breadth of “Hey Jude” or the utopian unreality of “Imagine,” I prefer the simple orthodoxy of “Let it Be.” We need the help of the divine, the song tells us, both individually and as humanity. The whispered words of wisdom are for patience and contentment, characteristics I am sorely lacking. Whether I need to just wait for the answer that is coming, or whether the answer is for me to simply let come what may come, I find great comfort in the message of this song.

2. “The End of the Innocence” (Don Henley) – From the personal to the political, this ’80s classic addresses the loss of Edenic youthfulness. The soft sensuality of experience moves us toward maturity, but we can never return to the state of blissful perfection. An American counterpart to Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time,” without the dark seduction. My former high school students tell me they will forever remember this lyric.

3. “Colder Weather” (Zac Brown Band) – This song tells the story of a man and woman joined by love but divided by his own wanderlust. Our natures sometimes work against our desires, even the desire for happiness.  here is a touch of the Anglo-Saxon poem, “The Wanderer” in the lyrics and a hint of The Eagle’s “Desperado” in the tone, though Zac Brown brings the hurt and pain to a tremendous crescendo at the bridge. As the speaker thinks fondly of his lover back home in Colorado, sadly waiting for him, I am reminded of my heart’s home.

4. “Dido’s Lament” (Hayley Westenra) – There are several versions of this song, but I enjoy Westenra’s the most. Otherwise known as “When I am Laid in Earth,” this libereto, written in the haunting flats of a Hebrew mourning song, comes from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. In Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas has to leave Dido, Queen of Carthage, because it has been foretold him that he will found Rome, which is to be the greatest kingdom on earth. Though he loves Dido, he must fulfill his destiny. Overwhelmed with grief, Dido throws herself onto the fire as his ship sails away, her flaming passions destroying her. This song records her last thoughts, that Aeneas might remember her and forget her fate. In the first book of the Confessions, Augustine regrets that he felt such sorrow for these two lovers, despite his better judgment—his is a tacit acknowledgement of the controlling power of love and of words.

5. “Poison and Wine” (The Civil Wars) – As in “Colder Weather” this singer/songwriter lyric tells the tale of two lovers who both need and resist each other. It is the conundrum of Intimacy, which cannot always carry us to contentment. The song illustrates one of the great social problems of our age: loneliness. The irony is that we feel this isolation when surrounded by friends or even when we are filled with Eros. The cause of this malady, it seems, is our insufferable selfishness. He knows what she needs, and yet will not give it to her—and vice versa. Love is, thus, a bittersweet draught of life and death.

6. “Oh My Sweet Carolina” (Ryan Adams) – Another wanderer tale, this speaker describes his journeys through various American cities, depicting the losses he endured in each. He searches for something in life—some meaning, some direction, someone—unsure of what he needs. And in each city he remembers Kentucky, Carolina, and his family. It captures both our prodigal longing to wander and our desperate need to return home.

7. “O Mio Babbino Caro” (Giovacchino Forzano) – From an early twentieth century opera set in medieval Florence, this little aria is sung by a woman whose father will not let her be with the man she loves.  She pleads to be let go to join her lover to buy the wedding ring.  The father’s silence in between verses only darkens her mood before she concludes the song with a desperate yearning to die. This song nevertheless captures the fervent intensity which such emotions can inflict upon us. The musical arrangements in particular take the story near to heights of sublimity.

8. “Down By the Sally Gardens” (Orla Fallon) – From a poem by William Butler Yeats, this enchanting melody speaks of a lover who walks with his beloved in a field by a river. She cautions him to go through life slowly, but his young impetuosity resists her wisdom, each stanza concluding with his resulting grief. Whenever caught in the harried pace, this is a reminder to enjoy love and life as in a garden lest, as in the Garden, we lose it all.

9.  “Braveheart Soundtrack” (James Horner) – The film is my all-time favorite for many reasons, not the least of which is the incredible score—which is why I’ve included the entire album. Its music is at one particular and universal, national and subliminal. The last track especially, which spans the death of Wallace and the charge at Bannockburn, brings an exaltation that leaves me speechless.

10. “Georgia on my Mind” (Ray Charles) – Subtle, Southern, and haunting. Ray Charles’ version is, of course, the classic. Michael Buble performs a great Sinatra-esque version, and Hugh Laurie’s instrumental with piano and harmonica never fails to move me.

11. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (U2) – One of the preeminent songs on postmodern spirituality.  The speaker seeks faith and love, experiencing ritual and liturgy. He knows what truth is but cannot seem to connect with it. Despite his best attempts at finding religion, he remains unfulfilled.  Ever since The Joshua Tree album in 1987, U2 has both read and helped create the cultural zeitgeist.

12. Dante’s Prayer (Loreena McKennitt) – A loving missive from Dante to Beatrice. Though their names are not used, there are a number of images drawn from La Vita Nuova and the first few cantos of the Inferno and the Paradiso. The chorus, “Cast your eyes on the ocean, / Cast your soul to the sea; / When the dark night seems endless / Please remember me,”  is testimony to the power of transcendent love.

13. “Going Home” (Mary Fahl) – Appearing in the opening credits of Gods and Generals, this song will forever be tied to my nostalgia for the American Civil War. At first glance, it seems to be a hopeful conclusion to laying down arms and returning back to the fields and homesteads. Upon further reflection, it is an allegory about the peaceful repose of death. “I’ll know what I’ve lost and I’ll know what I’ve won when this road finally takes me home.”  A triumphantly beautiful violin at the bridge.

14. “Amazing Grace” (John Newton) – Perhaps this sounds cliché, but this is still my favorite gospel after all these years.  A former slaveship captain, John Newton committed himself to Christ, renounced his former life, and became a minister and abolitionist. His insight into the captivity of sin and the awesome power of liberation is an unsurpassed reminder of the human paradox. Like the 23rd Psalm, the simplicity of its lyrics and harmony touch a gentle chord over and over again. Renditions of this song are beyond count, though I am partial to the creativity of Lizz Wright, Hayley Westenra, and Chris Tomlin.

15. “Hector the Hero” (James Scott Skinner) – I have asked Leah to play this at my funeral. This Scottish dirge, composed in the early years of the twentieth century, was written in commemoration of the artist’s friend who had just committed suicide. It is often played slow and sadly in keeping with the spirit of the lament, though I have heard it interpreted as a céilidh jig before as well. My favorite arrangement comes from The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards who treat it somberly for the first minute before transforming the piece into a heroic entry. Death becomes a victory.

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