May 23, 2014

I always hesitate to write about music. It tends to date me. My kids roll their eyes whenever I mention the 1970s, let alone folk rock. In the car, there’s a constant battle over which radio stations or CDs to play.

Every now and then, however, there’s a song that resonates and bridges the generational divide. These days, the song is "Carry On" by the band fun. It strikes a chord somehow with teenage angst and inspires my own kids to rally forward.

If you're lost and alone
Or you're sinking like a stone
Carry on
May your past be the sound
Of your feet upon the ground
Carry on

“Carry On” strikes a chord in me as well, rooted in past battles with depression. Its message is an exhortation, a call to arms and an affirmation of faith. It also has caused me to remember the song that touched me when I was 16 years old—long before I learned that my moodiness was only a hint of worst things to come. Arlo Guthrie sang Somebody Turned on the Light, which is partly about coming of age in the tumultuous decade between 1961 and 1971.

When the world is wrong better right yourself
It'll make the dark clouds fly
Nobody tall can put out the lights
Just don't let the spirit die
If you never see the sun till '91
Don't you ever give up the fight
Sure be glad when you see the dawn
Somebody, somebody turns on the light
Somebody turns on the light.

Other songs reflect the same theme. In 2001, Gospel singer Yolanda Adams’ "Never Give Up"  was a call for personal perseverance, but also provided encouragement and hope to a stunned, grief-stricken nation after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

An important distinction is that such songs are inspirational in nature, encouraging listeners to draw on inner strength. They don’t wallow in sadness or pain. I’ve always liked Gilbert O’Sullivan’s  “Alone Again (Naturally),” but face it, the fact that in the lyrics, he is on his way to throw himself off a tower doesn’t do much for inspiring a person to hold on.

From a biological perspective, music can calm stress and elevate mood by increasing levels of serotonin or dopamine in the brain. Music can literally lift and energize a person’s spirits, helping to overcome anxiety or depression.

Tunes and lyrics also stir memories. Music from a pleasurable time and place can therapeutically put people living with depression “back in touch” with important parts of themselves, helping to pull them out of isolation inside their own minds.

Thirty years ago, I was struggling with depression, unemployed and disconnected from most of my friends who lived in other cities. Turning points in my recovery came when a close college friends stopped for a night en route from Vermont to Michigan. As we talked into the night, he put one of my records on stereo—Abbey Road by the Beatles—which we had listened to many times together several years before. One song was particularly apt:

Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right
Little darling
It's been a long, cold lonely winter
Little darling
It feels like years since it's been here

In that moment I realized that it had been over a year since I had listened to music for music’s sake. It had been part of my withdrawal from the world and suppression of my energy and strength.

Turning the music back on helped turn me back on.

It doesn’t matter what decade you’re from. Carry on. Don’t ever give up the fight.

Share your strength.

Tell us the songs that inspire you.

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