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David and Art - Hearing a New Song

Certain works of art have the power divide your life into before and after.

I heard a song the other day, that more than just about any other song, has the power to take me back to a specific place in my past, instantly, the moment I hear it. As soon as it started, I was transported back to a particular record store I used to go to while I was in high school. It was in the Dallas Galleria Mall, up on the third deck, and it was called Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Company. Its name hints at its merchandise. It wasn’t Musicland or Sound Warehouse. It was meant to be a source for classical music and literature and poetry. Its music department also featured a fair amount of jazz, including a new kind that was getting popular at the time. I was there looking at books and records or whatever. I was by myself.

Then this tune came on the store’s sound system and I was transfixed. I’d never heard anything like it. I didn’t even know what instrument it was playing the melody. It was melodic; it was jazz-ish; it was exotic in some way. And right there in that instant I knew I wanted it. I wanted to find out what it was. I wanted to listen to more of this. I didn’t want to leave the store without it.

Maybe the most interesting point is that right then, standing there, I felt a break happen with my past. Now I wasn’t a particularly perceptive high school kid, but I felt certain that something new had entered my world and that now things were different—that’s what I mean by break. I had never heard this before and what’s more, nobody I knew had ever heard it. In pursuing this, I was doing something very different. I was on my own.

This is what art can do if we’re open to it. Experiencing a new work of art and feeling drawn to it can quite literally give you a break from your past. Anything my life, my musical life at least, falls into two segments: up until I had heard this, and after I had heard this. A lot of people have a painting like that. It’s certainly the case that most everyone has a novel or a poem or a play that they perceive of as changing their life when they first encountered it.

One of the things significant about my experience that day at was that it happened in a public place designed for me to hear music in. If I hadn’t been in that record store, I never would have heard it. To this day, I wouldn’t have heard it because I’ve never heard it anywhere since. The moral of the story is to be always open to new art. You never know when it’s going to change your life. The song, by the way, was called “Light in Your Eyes,” by the steel drum virtuoso Andy Narell.

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David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.