"Uptown got its hustlers, the Bowery got its bums. Forty-second Street got big Jim Walker, he a pool-shootin' son of a gun". Jim Croce sang those words in 1972, six years before I was born. They've been burned into my memory for so long that I can't remember when I first heard them.
It's not my song. It's my dad's. When I was a kid, he carried around a little boombox with a cassette player. I can still see it sitting on the front seat of his 1977 Volkswagen camper van, little EQ sliders arranged in a V, the case of Jim Croce's Greatest Hits lying next to it, Jim's face all sideburns and moustache over crooked teeth.
Why does it matter that "You Don't Mess Around With Jim" makes me happy? Science hasn't provided a definitive answer. Even if it did, the answer would be about patterns or rewards — something mechanical that fits into a utilitarian theory.
Here's my answer: music, more than any other form of art, tells us immediately about ourselves and those around us. You hear the first chords of a great song, shocked, locking eyes with someone across the room, someone who gets it.
You are sharing something with that person, in real time and your big emotional brain is remembering every moment of that powerful discovery, storing it for recall every time that song comes on the radio. That's why people love music— because it reveals their connections to other people.
I used to hate kids. Now that I have two of them, I'm OK admitting that. In my 20s, I went around swearing I would never spawn — instead, I'd travel the world wild and free without ever having to change a nappy, listen to Barney songs, or pick up half-chewed Oreos from the floor.
People love finding out which songs other people love. Since 1942, the BBC has aired the program Desert Island Discs. In each of its 3000 episodes, a host talks with a famous person about eight songs that would save their sanity if they were stranded on a desert island.
This show has been around for 76 years because we need to know if Judi Dench or Alan Alda or Zadie Smith also love "Wichita Lineman" as much as we do. On the flip side, if John Cleese were to confess his love for something atrocious, like "Sweet Home Alabama", we'd be thrilled with revulsion. Can you imagine! How is it possible?
This is true even for unpopular US presidents. As the New York Times noted, W loved songs by musicians who couldn't stand him. There's something about tunes, man. Even if the voice in your earbuds loathes you, the jam is everything.
What does all of this have to do with you, fellow parent? I'll let Johnny Cash answer, by way of his daughter Rosanne.
"When I was 18 years old, I went on the road with my dad after I graduated from high school. We started talking about songs and he mentioned one and I said I don't know that one. And he mentioned another. I said, 'I don't know that one either, Dad,' and he became very alarmed that I didn't know what he considered my own musical genealogy.
So he spent the rest of the afternoon making a list for me and at the end of the day, he said, 'This is your education.' And across the top of the page, he wrote '100 Essential Country Songs.'"
The word that jumps out at me there is genealogy. Johnny wanted to make sure his kid, then a budding musician, understood her roots. But genealogy fits regardless. The songs you love place you in time, in culture, in location, on a continuum that stretches backward to the dawn of humanity.
Dropping the needle on a record is placing your pin in that continuum. That's why you should make a list of your favourite tunes and give it to your kids.
A few quick thoughts:
Don't overdo it. Johnny Cash got 100 songs because he was Johnny freakin' Cash. If you have a gold record and you're reading this, you get 50 songs. Platinum gets you 75. Willie Nelson, if you're out there, you can have 100 also. Tom from Accounting, go for a baker's dozen.
Don't be judgmental. The point isn't to pick on Ed Sheeran. Remember how your parents covered their ears when you blasted Guns N' Roses on the hi-fi? Don't be a jerk about this. Keep the focus on spinning cool tunes — maybe you or your kid will pick up some commonalities between the old and the new.
Don't be disappointed. Your kids probably won't love your jams like you do. That's ok! Knowing my dad's music helped me define the ways I wasn't like him, why Eddie Vedder meant more to me than Jim Croce. That's an important milestone for a child — understanding that his desires and impulses are separate from those of his parents, that his personality is unique, that their shadows will not hide him forever.
Don't wait too long. Rosanne was 18 when her dad made the list, but that was a long time ago. The world moves very fast now. A few weeks ago, my 10-year-old daughter was talking with her friends about Chance the Rapper and Bruno Mars. Again, you're not trying to inoculate against modernity but you do want to share these songs before your kids are so jaded that they won't care.
Don't be stoic. Explain what you love. What does the music mean to you? Does the singer give you goosebumps? Does the beat make you boogie? Do this well and your kids will just know to shut up when Whitney's singing or to give you a hug when "Purple Rain" comes on. (My wife is still upset about Prince.)
Don't worry that it's not good enough. You're not trying to impress a music critic. Be honest, even if when honesty is cheesy. You're telling the story of your life. Here's a bit of my story via one entry on my list: California Stars. Those are lyrics written by Woody Guthrie, whose son Arlo is a hero of my dad's.
Wilco is performing the music. They were the first band my wife and I ever saw in concert together, back when we'd just started dating. When my daughter was brand new, I'd ride the train home after a 10-hour workday and hold her in my arms, singing along with Jeff Tweedy. Those musical genealogies would wind around my own as I stared into my daughter's face. I couldn't help but cry. It's such a great song.