CXXXI. Music: Part 1 – Syncopating Jackhammers

September 2, 2014  — I’m up! I am awakened on a Saturday morning in August just past eight to the sound of two syncopating jackhammers directly below my second floor bedroom bay window. My bed is situated within the cove of the windows. Ensconced lazily beneath my counterpane I can view activities outdoors on all sides of my house, from the bay window and the window on the wall opposite. Outside the bay window I can watch the squirrel eating the green berries on the dogwood before the berries ripen to red, ricocheting the remains off the chain link fence and onto the ground – crackle, ting, thack, thack-thack, tick, thack. These are the sounds that recently have awakened me. Good morning, Squirrel. My bay window reaches out, gathers, and cups the sounds from the street below.

From my bedroom I can see and hear the world; the room is like a wheelhouse. Yet, as I am ensconced within, under dulcet intervals, my bedroom becomes the acoustically ideal music room, the hexagonal space embracing the sound as within a conch shell. Truth be told, within my being is mostly music (preferably a waltz). It’s odd I don’t play an instrument beyond a little guitar, and piano extra-lite. I did compose music, rudimentary, at one time, but no more – maybe one day, given passionate inspiration.

The windows are closed this Saturday morning, thankfully. Still I cough from the rising dust penetrating the windowpanes. My next-door neighbors are having the cement walk that runs alongside their house dug up to be replaced with fresh cement. Incredibly for this day and age, the guys with their cement mixer arrive so suddenly, my neighbors don’t have time to warn me. And I had dusted Friday.

I am not pleased.

I get up. The sound of the jackhammers transporting me to times in August 1966 in Washington, D.C., when at the end of my workday, I, pregnant, would emerge from the Congressman’s office on Capitol Hill and squeeze into the red bucket seat behind the steering wheel of our sleek, black Austin-Healy 3000 where on the dashboard the water temperature gauge read 120 F. They had just begun constructing the D.C. subway that summer, so the sound of jackhammers pervaded the town, ever present. The popular song then was John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”: “Hot town, summer in the city; back of my neck getting dirty and gritty.”

Only a couple years earlier, before I had gotten married, my roommate said to me, “You have to go to the Cellar Door [in Georgetown] and see this group, The Mugwumps. They are really, really good.” I wanted to but never got there. The Mugwumps were formed in 1964 with (Mama) Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty (both later to become two of The Mamas & The Papas), Zal Yanovsky and John Sebastian (both later forming The Lovin’ Spoonful) and a Jim Hendricks. Barry McGuire and Roger McGuinn as well as John and Michelle Phillips were also connected. The Mamas & The Papas’ song “Creeque Alley” tells this story:

Barry McGuire wrote “California Dreamin’.” Here is his recording with The Mamas & The Papas singing backup:

Jackhammer-Saturday night, our local PBS station holds a fundraiser and I just happen to tune in to “John Sebastian Presents Folk Rewind.” There, in a 1960s black and white film, is Judy Collins singing “Turn, Turn, Turn” to Pete Seeger, the composer, who is singing harmony. For an hour or so I watch all the great ‘60s folk artists performing, either in archival film or currently, as with Roger McGuinn and Barry McGuire. Barry McGuire sings “Eve of Destruction” with updated lyrics, although they don’t need much updating; in fact, the message of most of the folk songs from that era remains relevant today: the times, they haven’t changed. And, yes, included are The Lovin’ Spoonful performing “Summer in the City,” replete with jackhammer.

So, what is music? Is the jackhammer in “Summer in the City” employed as a musical instrument? An ongoing debate endeavors to define what can be categorized as legitimate music. The late composer John Cage (1912-1992) believed that any sound, or lack thereof, could be considered music. For, what is music without silence? The sound of silence is an integral component of music. In John Cage’s composition “4’33”” (1952) silence is the music: Cage instructs the musicians to remain silent for four minutes and thirty-three seconds: on the recording, here a musician shifts in his seat and there, towards the end, one coughs, verifying the presence of someone following the score. (I’d upload this piece to my sidebar playlist, but, well … you know….) Others of John Cage’s many compositions include pieces for prepared piano, “Child of Tree” (1975) for percussionist and amplified plants, and “Inlets” (1977) for four conch shells and the sound of fire. I especially like this latter. It is meditative. I am considering making a John Cage playlist for my iPod. Really. I could: John Cage’s compositions require deep listening, compelling the listener to focus, and contrary to what some might think, many are pleasing to the ear and psyche. Possibly so because he was a follower of Zen Buddhism.

The jazzy syncopated sounds of the squirrel crackling dogwood berries and thwacking them onto the chain link fence and ground below: is this then not music, too?

— Samantha Mozart

12 Responses to CXXXI. Music: Part 1 – Syncopating Jackhammers

  1. patgarcia says:

    Reading this makes me think of the Mama’s and the Papa’s. I still love the song California Dreaming. It came out as i was dreaming about how I could make my desire to leave the United States a reality.

    I don’t envy you waking up to jackhammers and dust, but it seems as if it gave you inspiration to write this post, and if it did, well done. Thinking about folk songs from the Loving Spoonful, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and also the memory from Jimi Hendrick awoke within me nice memories of the past.

    Thank you.

    • sammozart says:

      In a frustrating situation, I ask myself what am I learning from this — like asking one’s spirit guides — the child and the master on the lily pad. And with the jackhammer I got my answer big time, Patricia. A great way to turn a negative into a positive. What a wealth of music and joy; and it continues to today.

      I have one more post to write regarding that day, though, Patricia, and that’s about ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, what they call DooWop now. It all brings back so many fond memories.

      From the ’60s I have 500 LPs, all in storage in Calif. I wish I could pull out an album and play Jimi Hendricks or Peter, Paul and Mary, but to bring them here to Delaware is not in my budget presently. So, to have this music brought back to me on TV that night was a gift.

      Thank you for making the time to comment, my friend. Now on to your other comments. 🙂

  2. Thanks, Samantha. This week has not had enough music – my temp assignment this week is in a room with a television constantly blatting the news channel. The only song I could get started in my head was “Isis” by Bob Dylan, which I don’t consider one of his best. Now I can hear the Mamas and Papas. Thank you for this.

    The synchronicity of non-music with music has always fascinated me. Various random rhythmic sounds cue songs – there’s a binding machine in our mail room with a hydraulic mechanism that plays, with a very jazzy rhythm, the first four notes of Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me”.

    Wonderful, inspiring post. Thanks, Samantha!

    • sammozart says:

      Glad I changed your tune, Gary. 🙂

      Your story of the machine playing the Duke Ellington-like jazzy rhythm reminds me of many, many years ago, before computers in offices, when I worked in the actuarial department of an insurance company. We had these huge electric calculators, like high, oversized typewriters, on our desks. Al, who sat behind me, would say, “Listen to this,” and he’d hit lots of 8s to create a calculation where the machine would go on and on in this very syncopated jazzy rhythm until it finally came up with a solution. It was funny. I went to iTunes and listened to those first four notes of “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me,” the jazzy version. I rather like that — you could almost dance to the rhythm of that binding machine….


  3. “The jazzy syncopated sounds of the squirrel crackling dogwood berries and thwacking them onto the chain link fence and ground below: is this then not music, too?” As much as I like squirrels, and I like squirrels very much, the sound effects of their foraging would never make my iPod’s hit parade, Samantha. Musique concrète never rocked my world, but I did like the use of sound effects in Summer in the City.

    • sammozart says:

      V., I am so sorry I only just found your comment — and it wasn’t because I didn’t hear it over the squirrel thwacking. I don’t know why WordPress didn’t go ahead and publish your comment immediately.

      Anyway, the squirrel thwacking sound is OK, gentle, though not for an iPod playlist, I agree; but the squirrel ate all the pretty red berries which I so admire through the autumn. The squirrel didn’t even leave any for the speckled birds which annually gorge on them during their migration south.

      I agree with you on the Summer in the City sound effects.

      I’m glad you came by. Thanks.

  4. Susan Scott says:

    What a wonderful and evocative post Samantha thank you! A trip back in time to Summer in the City, the back of my neck getting dirty and gritty – I didn’t have to check on your post for these words! And the Mamas & Papas .. Barry Mcguire as well … Eve of Destruction … I wish I had an Ipod …I’ll check out the youtube links you’ve provided, thanks.
    I like silence sometimes when I’m working. Though putting on Willie Nelson as I do often, the same one, is wonderful.
    I like Robert’s quote by Walt .. must be Whitman …’All music… – It is nearer and father than they’.

    • sammozart says:

      Well, there’s more to come, Susan, re the music. It was an amazing evening of music from all eras, of a day that began with a jackhammer. I think my seeing “Summer in the City” performed that night was a sign reminding me that there’s always a positive side. I didn’t know Barry McGuire wrote “California Dreamin’,” or if I did I had forgotten. Interesting to hear The Mamas & The Papas singing backup, rather than lead, and to learn that singing backup is how they got their start.

      Anyway, as little as I’ve read of Walt Whitman’s work — he produced so much — I am always amazed as his insight. He died in Camden, N.J., across the Delaware River from Philadelphia (sort of an East Philadelphia) and we, therefore have a Walt Whitman suspension bridge over the river.

      I do like my iPod; I can make playlists (one of my favorite pastimes), and carry them with me. Although, mine is old and can’t do all the new ones do; friends gave it to me when they upgraded to a new one.

      Music, like the published word, transcends time. So it’s like the composers are right here with us when we listen to or read their works, as I’m sure you are aware; it’s like they’re communicating with us telepathically. I like that.

      Thanks. Oh, and btw, Robert looks just like Walt with his long white beard. 🙂

  5. Robert Price says:

    My dear Sam,

    This world would a lonelier more conservative space without the sounds of music. Thankfully there are those that listen, and, hear it; as good old Walt once said, “All music is what awakes within us when we are reminded by the instruments; It is not the violins or the clarinets – It is not the beating of the drums – Nor the score of the baritone singing his sweet romanza; not that of the men’s chorus, Nor that of the women’s chorus – It is nearer and farther than they”.


    Berry Thacker

  6. Gwynn Rogers says:

    I definitely believe that your squirrel was “berry” musical. He was enjoying the rhythm of nature. Maybe the squirrel wanted his sounds to blend with the jackhammer in “Summer in the City.”

    I enjoyed your post as I listen to “Fun, Fun, Now that your Daddy took the T-Bird Away.” You took me back to the 60s, although on some level I don’t think my mind left there. 😉

    • sammozart says:

      Yes the squirrel is attuned to the rhythms of nature, Gwynn, and his timing is impeccable — every morning promptly at 8, he or she is out there enjoying breakfast. And, I might add, back later for lunch.

      Glad you enjoyed your ’60s West Coast rock music as you read.

      Thanks. The minds of most of us of a certain age have not fully left the ’60s, I believe.