Music Hath Charms…

William Congreve, a 17th Century English Poet and Playwright, is likely the
most misquoted, unknown, yet vaguely familiar writer of that era. His line, “Musick has Charms to soothe a savage Breast, to soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak” (Almeria in Act I, Scene I)  has been twisted to “Music has charms to soothe the savage beast” likely because of America’s squeamish Victorian attitude to the word “Breast.” 

What is it with boobies, hooters, etc., in America?

He is also the author of the line,

“Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d, nor hell a  fury, like a woman scorned,” (Zara in Act III, Scene VIII) twisted to “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

It got me thinking, as many things are wont to do, about how our misconstruing original meanings can hide things. One way this happens is with music. Don’t try to follow the path of my thinking, you’ll hurt yourself, perhaps irreparably.

Music can hide unpleasantness in a pleasing tempo, rhythm, or chord progression.  We often miss these meanings in our blissful humming of tunes.

By way of example, I picked two popular hits of the 60s (combined with the
beginning of the 1970s, the last decades with music of enduring value.)

Delilah,

I saw the light on the night that I passed by her window
I saw the flickering shadow of love on her blind
She was my woman
As she deceived me, I watched and went out of my mind

My, my, my Delilah
Why, why, why Delilah
I could see, that girl was no good for me
But I was lost like a slave that no man could free

At break of day when that man drove away, I was waiting
I crossed the street to her house, and she opened the door
She stood there laughing
I felt the knife in my hand, and she laughed no more

Writer(s): J. Shirl, H. Manners Pseud., Jack Mendelsohn, Henry Katzman

It would seem Tom Jones’ amazing voice—loved by millions and, ironically, women in particular—was so hypnotic he could sing of murdering his lover while his fans would sway and swoon to the tune.

But it turns out, even a different style singer—in this case, Kenny Rogers—held a comparable control over his fans while singing a similar tune of domestic homicide.

Ruby don’t take your love

Oh Ruby
Don’t take your love to town
She’s leaving now cause
I just heard the slamming of the door
The way I know I’ve heard it slam 100 times before
And if I could move I’d get my gun
And put her in the ground
Oh Ruby
Don’t take your love to town
Oh Ruby for God’s sake turn around

(Written by Mel Tillis)

Music does indeed hath charms not only to soothe the savage breast, but to make even murder danceable.

I have no doubt there are other examples. It is, perhaps, a cautionary tale we must embrace. Otherwise, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin stealing away the children, a well composed music piece may lead us over a cliff as we sing ourselves to our demise. Or worse, force us to use the word breast in public.

Pied Piper in Police Procedurals | Visualizing Wonder

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