There is something about music; I don’t know what it is. A yearning at Billie Holiday’s voice crooning “Crazy He Calls Me;” a pull at the bottom of the soul at Apoptygma Berzerk’s “Kathy’s Song;” a sweet sadness born when I hear Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore;” all that is bitter and strange and all too familiar to rise fluttering in my throat when Joanna Newsom’s “Only Skin” plays. I am not an auditory learner. I have to move to think. My brain is in my legs and fingers, but music moves me. Hips, shoulders, toes, eyes, everything in motion at the sweetness of song.
All my life music has got into my bones, moved them independent of my muscles, has settled in my flesh like a wound that I can feel when it rains or when a cold front comes in. That’s why I took voice lessons when I was younger. But I did what many mere mortals do when they are approaching the divine: I was afraid. Music is a sacred thing, holy above all other things humans can make, save poetry. It lives in the air. It breathes through our fingers and lungs. I learned early the sound of sacrilege: a wrong note. Hitting the high notes flat. Missing a beat.
Certain kinds of sin never held any terror for me–not masturbation, nor lying. As I grew older, those things seemed holy in their own ways, sex and tale-telling, and true to my Pagan roots, I worship in these ways. But the sin of making a wrong sound? It was scarier than death at times. If the note I made wasn’t true, I’d cringe and shrink, heart leaden sitting in my toes, nausea rising in my gut. All these words are flowers. I can’t describe the fear, its nearness or magnitude.
I played drum in the fifth grade. I picked up the guitar at nineteen. I set them both aside because of the horror sitting in strings struck wrong and in rhythms dropped. So knowing this, what does my friend Harper give me at summer’s end, a belated birthday gift?
A harmonica. He offered to teach me, but the night he gave it to me I couldn’t put it to my lips. I drove home crying, the harp sitting heavy in my pocket.
When I got home, I inspected it, turned it over. A Huang Silvertone in the key of D. I took the cover plates off and looked at the reeds, afraid to touch. I replaced the plates, and shaking, finally wrapped my mouth around it. One clear note I blew from the four hole, and set it down in tears.
But the note was clear. The note was clear. And slowly, I am learning to play.