“Sometimes life is so hard, you just have to sing.”
The Music of Recession
My father built a sweater factory in the employment-starved Catskills, creating job opportunities in a locale that didn’t have many. Then along came the seventies with its sharp-dropping economy and wiped out the factory. All that my father had left was unplugged machines and a shell of a building. He, who had created jobs for others, had no business and no job of his own. So my father sought employment in the nearest metropolitan area, three hours away from home.
The recession-time job market was slim. The situation was desperate as my father had a family to support. He took the first job available, that of night mechanic in someone else’s factory. Pay was minimum wage.
A dozen mouths to feed. A mortgage to carry. All on minimum wage. The budget numbers just didn’t add up, which is why my father became adept at cutting corners and making do without. The first thing he cut was personal transportation, giving up driving his car. Yet even bus fare from New York City to our home was a strain on an already strained budget. So my father decided to stay in the City all week and only come home for Shabbos. Since he wanted to stretch his meager earnings even more, my father would hitchhike home.
One Thursday night, my father stood on the side of the New York State Thruway trying to catch a ride. No one stopped. It was cold. Time passed. Sleet started to fall, drenching my father. Each passing car sent a shower of icy water cascading towards him.
As my father told me the story, he said, “It was so bad, I just had to sing.”
“Say again?!” I wasn’t sure I heard right.
He smiled and told me, “Sometimes it is so bad, you just have to sing to God.”
Music is an odd invention; it always employs force. Think about it. The drum is a skin stretched to its tightest which you then pound away at with the drumsticks. The guitar is strings pulled taut, which you then pick or strum at, exerting pressure on the right string. The piano works more or less like the guitar, with strings being stretched and then hit. The flute, the clarinet, the oboe — they take breath pushed strongly through it and constrain it into a narrow space so that there is pressure on that breath, until it escapes through an opening.
All instruments are pressure concepts. As soon as you take away any tension, your instrument won’t work. It needs pressure.
David was a shepherd boy spurned by kin and countrymen alike. Alone he grew. Alone he forged his character. Through the pressures of daily teasing, through the tension of being hounded near unto death, David became King David, author of Psalms. From the ultimate pressurized childhood came the timeless songs of David. Pain can make music.
My father realized that only individuals strong enough to withstand tension become the instruments of song in the world. In a world so finely tuned, his moment of pressure must have been orchestrated for a response. So he met every challenge head-on. Were he to buckle from the pain, my father felt he would have failed, like the guitar string that snaps under tension.
That’s why in that moment of pain my father sang, bringing his unique music into the world.
Life can get incredibly hard, so I’ve learned. And my father taught me that if I’m in pain, I’m being asked for a response. I can feel worthy of being picked to be played. And like my father and King David, I can take each pressure, pain or tension and sing a song to the world.
Sometimes life is so hard, you just have to sing.