by Sunni Wilkinson
In The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” backup singer Merry Clayton reaches a peak of such emotion, such electricity, that her voice breaks as she practically screams the lyrics (“Murder”) just before “It’s just a shot away.” If you listen carefully, you can hear someone in the background holler, “Wooh!” and you can almost see the people in the recording studio stand back a little, as if they just caught the woman levitating for a moment, reaching into a place deeper, more primal than we normally dare go.
In an interview with NPR back in 2013, Clayton describes how she was pregnant at the time of that recording, how she had no idea who the Rolling Stones were, how she got called at midnight to go in and do a recording that took a total of three takes and became the hallmark of her career. And how that very night she miscarried.
Music elicits a physical response from listeners. Sometimes we sacrifice part of us to it. Sometimes we’re given something back.
“I think.” That was all she could say. She could never finish the statement: about my mom’s haircut, my boyfriend who shyly waved and smiled, the state of her fingernails. After a massive stroke left my grandma almost unable to speak, she had to defer to comical facial expressions, pointing, and shaking her head to communicate. But the two words she could still hang onto were “I” and “think,” and it struck me as deeply profound that she could tell us, in two words, that she was, in fact, still entrenched in thinking, still there, a tiny “I” in a wheelchair considering the world around her. Even though she couldn’t finish the statements, we learned to read her. My mom’s haircut looked nice. My soon-to-be fiancé was a keeper (the wink helped). Her fingernails needed some attention. Would I use that shimmery pink polish in the top drawer? (She fumbled for it and pulled it out with a nod of approval.)
In this way, and over the course of six years, we had conversations about everything we always did: she, giving her approval or disapproval, poking me in jest or flashing a look that said she still worried about my parents’ marriage; and me, laughing in return or quietly taking her hand for a minute while we both shrugged our shoulders and felt the weight together.
Expression was not new to her. Years before, when my cousins and I were young, we would gather around for her recitation of “Little Orphan Annie.” She’d playfully poke us, like a witch with her gnarled witch finger, when she came to the part that said “and the goblins’ll gitch you if you don’t watch out!”
But it was music that drew out her deepest emotions, her greatest performances. When we were very young, she would sing to us at night the saddest songs you can imagine. One was about a child searching for her kitty all over the house and yard only to discover that her father has drowned it. “Kitty oh kitty, my poor little kitty” went the refrain, and her voice would reach up into a wavering falsetto, and we felt a great sadness wash over us. Another song called “Hobo Billy” described the life of a lonely hobo, and at the end she’d yodel “ho-oo-oh bo-ooh-oh, Billy!” in a way that mimicked the call of the train carrying the old hobo away.
My mother had been telling me for months that something miraculous happened to my grandma at the church services they held in the care center where she lived now. I was sure she was exaggerating, willing herself to hear things, to believe in healings and the proximate business of angels. But one week when I happened to be in town on a Sunday, I agreed to accompany my mom and grandma to church. Services were held in a small “chapel” – a large room decorated with vases of fake flowers and paintings of Jesus, a baby grand piano in a corner.
As I settled into a chair next to my grandma’s wheelchair, the pianist started to play a hymn – “How Great Thou Art” or “Sweet Hour of Prayer” or one of the usual Mormon hymns we all knew by heart – and a look of excitement crossed my grandma’s face. As the music conductor lifted her hand to lead the singers, my grandma raised her head a little higher and, to my utter surprise, began to sing out – clearly – every word of the hymn. She sang words she hadn’t spoken for over six years, sang them loud and with the same vibrato she’d always had.
Song, memory, and the body are inextricably linked. A study on the American Stroke Association website recounts the story of a young man who lived in Sweden in 1736 who was brain-damaged after an accident and rendered speechless. He astounded townspeople one day at church by singing church hymns alongside them as clearly as he ever did.
The study refers to the language disorder as “aphasia” and says that “every clinician working with aphasia has seen individuals who can produce words only when singing.” But the songs can’t be made up just to sing what they want to say. They must be familiar to the patient, music from their past.
Melody and lyrics occupy a particular place in the brain, a place distanced from language. Aphasia typically shows that while the left side of the brain (language ability) is damaged, the right side (music and “the melody of speech”) is unharmed and still able to perform.
My grandma had been a nervous person, unsure of herself and even afraid of other people at times, something that had escalated just before her stroke. But she’d always seemed perfectly confident, perfectly at ease with herself when she was singing.
When Merry Clayton reaches her music-induced out-of-body moment, my whole body is listening, feeling it along with her. She’s stretching the fibers of something deep within. It’s a reaching that, for her, means something breaks. For others, like my grandmother, it’s a loosening, a sleeve snagged on a branch and wrestled free, a bird lifting off, almost weightless, after a long, heavy night.
Sunni Wilkinson holds an MFA from Eastern Washington University. Her poetry has been published in Weber: The Contemporary West, Red Rock Review, Gulf Stream, Rock & Sling, and other journals and anthologies and has been nominated for two Pushcarts. She teaches at Weber State University and lives in Ogden, Utah with her husband and three young sons. She also blogs at www.allthelivelystones.blogspot.com