Sunday, September 11, 2016

Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy" to my #AtheistEar

I know what today is, and that's why I picked this song.

In 1989, I was just stepping out of my sheltered Southern Baptist upbringing and beginning to explore pop culture and pop radio. My girl friends were still listening almost exclusively to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack; the Beach Boys "Kokomo" was everywhere; and a song called "Veronica" by some odd Englishman named Elvis made such an impression on me that I was willing to leave my radio tuned to our local Top 40 station, which insisted on playing such awful fare as "Pour Some Sugar On Me" and "Sweet Child o' Mine," in hopes that I could hear it again.

Then out of nowhere, a relatively unknown a cappella genius released a joyful, silly ditty that conquered the world for a few weeks.

A video featuring Robin Williams and the brilliant Bill Irwin didn't hurt, either:

(Lyrics are here - but you probably know them note for note.)

By itself, this song probably wouldn't count as being religious in nature, but Bobby McFerrin has always been associated in my mind with faith. He made a few casual references to "the Good Book," in his music and in interviews; he composed and performed Psalm 23 on his 1990 album Medicine Music; and his most recent album, 2013's Spirityouall consisted of arrangements of spirituals and traditional Americana, as well as "original songs which explore Bobby’s everyday search for grace, wisdom, and freedom."

McFerrin's spiritual character would have been important to me in 1989, because I was in the process of figuring out which secular pop culture phenomena were "acceptable" and which were not. I couldn't find anything particularly objectionable about Don't Worry Be Happy, even using the hyper-critical standards for judging pop culture I learned from my pastors and grandfather. I ended up buying Simple Pleasures and carried it around for years, playing it in my car or putting it on when I went to sleep.

Like most absurdly popular one-hit acts, Don't Worry Be Happy hit a saturation point, and became a joke for the hipper members of the cognoscenti. It became an easy punchline for late night hosts, and a cultural reference which, with an eyeroll, could show how sophisticated the speaker was. A lot of people "got over it" and McFerrin's career might have been declared "over" as well. Except that it wasn't. He kept making music, taking on interesting projects with jazz and classical greats, and he built a reputation among musicians as a true genius with a childlike sense of wonder to match his impressive vocal range and control.

As an adult, and as a young parent, I sometimes found it difficult to share music and stories from my childhood with my little children. Like I discussed last week, the hymns I grew up with seemed too wrapped up with ideas that I had not only rejected, but which seemed loaded with awful baggage. I didn't want my children to have their earliest memories tied to ideas that I felt I had outgrown and regretted.

I also had difficulty relating to the new choices welling up from the children's entertainment industry - I loathed Barney and the Wiggles, I was uneasy with the acid trip that was Teletubbies, and I struggled to find much depth in the songs that they were learning in school. I made my own "mixed tape" CDs for the car, and combined songs the kids liked with some of my own favorites - songs like Don't Worry Be Happy - which seemed to go over pretty well. We all survived our long car trips to and from our home base when we were stationed in the UK, at least.

The September 11 attacks on America affected my family deeply, though thankfully, indirectly (described in The Impact on My Faith). It was that period of my life, in the years after 9/11, that I really started thinking about the songs and tradition I had grown up in, and applying some critical thought to what I had been taught to believe from birth. As I did, many of the old hymns and songs I had loved growing up became problematic for me, because the things they say have been exposed as ugly and corrosive. But one of the earliest songs in my memory that had no baggage and still held up as an unabashed statement of joy in the face of adversity was... Don't Worry Be Happy.

I was somewhat embarrassed by this. I didn't want to be the guy telling 9/11 victims, "Hey, in every life we have some trouble... but when you worry, you make it double!" I didn't want to admit that my philosophical answer to It Is Well With My Soul has a music video featuring three clowns hopping around acting silly. But when things get dark, I have to admit that humming to-koo-koo, to-koo-koo and tapping out a rhythm on my sternum brings in a welcome bit of light.

When my son began to struggle in school, and we began to suspect that he was on the autism spectrum, we looked for ways to reach him and help him deal with the frustration and anger that was building up. He was too young to have a logical, rational discussion. We couldn't just talk him through his troubles. This was doubly difficult for me, because I try to confront problems rationally and head on, and because he had already formed a barrier against me - for some reason, he had decided to focus his rage on me, so I couldn't even get near him when he was in trouble.

We needed to draw him out of himself and make him care about something, so we got him a hermit crab. We knew he loved animals, and that he found it easier to relate to them than to people. Our hope was that if something depended on him, he would take care of it, and this would help him see his own worth and teach him to be responsible for something outside of himself.

He loved that crab. He named it Dedrick, and he kept Dedrick's terrarium spotlessly clean and well stocked with water and food. It wasn't a magic wand that suddenly made everything better, but he did start to make progress and he came out of the dark place he had been making for himself. He even grudgingly started sharing more time with me, proudly showing off the new shell he had picked out for his crab or talking about research he had done online.

I still couldn't relate to him the way I could to my other kids. He wasn't openly hostile any more, but he was still guarded. I sometimes felt like he would never let me in, and I would never be able to repair whatever was wrong. I felt like I had nothing to offer him. But one day, my wife came and got me. She excitedly took my hand, and indicated I should be quiet. She took me to where the boy and his crab were sitting in a sunny corner of the living room. Dedrick was exploring a freshly cleaned cage, and my son - the boy who didn't even like to talk around me - was singing.

He was singing Don't Worry Be Happy.

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