Last Updated: April 9th, 2019

Musical beginnings

When I was a boy, my idea of great music and literature was South Pacific and the other Broadway shows of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Later, as a college English major, I learned that these dramas were regarded as “sentimental.” It was the late ’60s by then, and I began to take in the new music and forget the old.  I got into Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Donovan. Paul Simon, Ian and Sylvia (the Canadian duo) … a little bit of the Airplane, the Cream, Johnny Cash. Pete Townsend, since we had a common spiritual guide. Also, a couple of people you may not have heard of, Bob Brown and Jim Meyer, since they’d taken the rock/folk-rock idiom and turned it into exquisite devotional songs for that same spiritual guide, Meher Baba.

I wrote a song myself now and then, too. Or rather, they started taking birth in my heart in some magical way and then flying out into the world. I guess that’s the way creation happens a lot of the time, in all of the arts.

In my early forties, I kind of ran out of gas, musically. There was just not much happening. I was living in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina then, near the Meher Baba centre/retreat facility. I would go for evening walks with a friend named David, who had a piano in his apartment. After our walks, I’d go there sometimes and listen to him play.

The Great American Songbook

David was an aficionado of what has come to be known as the Great American Songbook, a vast collection of songs written between approximately 1920 and 1950, that are often called “pop standards.” Their composers are the icons of pre-rock American popular music: George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein of my childhood.

Author's friend David playing piano - Bhakti and The Great American Songbook

David and his wife, Louise, playing and singing at their wedding reception

I had gotten past age 40 without knowing more than a smattering of these songs. They were OK, I thought. Some were really good. Meher Baba had even had Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” played at his tomb seven times before his body was interred in 1969, and said the song has “deep mystical significance.”

If I happened to know the words to a song David was playing, I’d sing along. As our sessions continued, I got to know more and more of them. I also began to recognize them as treasures.

Not only that, I began to see that they’re spiritual treasures. One evening, David did a song called “Love Is Here to Stay” by the Gershwins. In that song, I heard something invoked that I recognized as cosmic Love: “In time, the Rockies may crumble/ Gibraltar may tumble / They’re only made of clay / but our love is here to stay.” Like every scripture, the song poetically addresses the impermanence of the material realm and the timelessness of the spiritual.

Billie Holiday performing - Bhakti and The Great American Songbook

Billie Holiday was just one of the popular artists who recorded “The Very Thought of You.”

Often, the lyrics of these songs were, to my mind, like the poems of Mirabai or Rumi, which seekers at spiritual centres all over the world recite or sing. Take, for example, the well-known song, “The Very Thought of You,” which has been performed by numerous artists since its composition in 1932. Here’s the first verse:

The very thought of you and I forget to do
The little ordinary things that everyone ought to do
I’m living in a kind of daydream
I’m happy as a king
And foolish though it may seem
To me that’s everything.

Now, take a look at the words of a poem by Mirabai, who worshipped Krishna in India in the 1500s.

I am absorbed in His love;
My misery of wandering
In the world has ended.
The lily bursts into bloom
At the sight of the full moon;
Seeing Him, my heart blossoms in joy.

Mirabai and Krishna - Bhakti and The Great American Songbook

Mirabai and Krishna

Mira’s words are all the more extraordinary because the One she was in love with had lived not hundreds, but thousands of years before! The point here, though, is that both excerpts bespeak Love.

Understanding the same poetic symbols on different levels

The Great American Songbook was written, at least consciously, to celebrate that great American commodity of Tin Pan Alley, movies and TV: romantic love. However, poetic expression is a language of symbols. A symbol can be understood on different levels. In Sufi poetry, for example, the mention of Wine describes alcoholic refreshment to some readers and spiritual intoxication to others. So it is in these songs with the entire lexicon of love.

At the Baba centre, I used to sing a ’50’s song called “Till,” one which moved me to tears again and again. What more exquisite words, I wondered, could anyone write, whether the beloved is human or Divine?

Till the moon deserts the sky,
Till all the seas run dry,
Till then I’ll worship you.

Till the tropic sun grows cold,
Till this young world grows old,
My darling, I’ll adore you.

You are my reason to live.
All I own, I would give
Just to have you adore me.

Till the rivers flow upstream,
Till lovers cease to dream;
Till then I’m yours, be mine.

These things are known already by many in the West who are on devotional paths. What about Buddhists? Can you fall in love with the Clear White Light of the Void? What about atheists or agnostics? Orthodox Jews who worship the Impersonal God?

I recall reading an interview with Ram Dass, a specialist in helping Westerners open their hearts. He was willing to work with anyone who claimed to be doing spiritual Sadhana. He’d observe the person as a soul, taking note of such things as an over-developed intellect or a fear of emotion. He’d encourage a person to say—to shout, actually—“I love you, Buddha!” or “I love You, God!” and be totally uninhibited in heart expression.

Buddhism, of course, also involves the practice of devotional Meta, or Heart Prayers, such as “May all beings be happy, may all beings be peaceful, may all beings be free from suffering, may all beings be liberated.”

Stephen and Ondrea Levine’s “Beloved”

The metaphysical leap in the understanding of the Great American Songbook’s lyrics hinges on a recognition of a “Beloved” with a capital, rather than a lower case “B.”

Stephen and Ondrea Levine, known best for their work with the dying, came from a Buddhist tradition. In the 1990’s, they published a book called Embracing the Beloved: Relationship as a Path of Awakening, in which they spoke of the value of using that upper case word. It was some time before the Levines “went public” with the term they’d been using privately for some time. Stephen wrote:

We find the term “the Beloved” quite functional for many reasons including the obvious parallel between the heart’s affinity for such an idea and the draw of the personal toward the universal. And, of course, because it is our practice to meet our beloved as the Beloved.

The Beloved is the One to whom, for a Bhakti, the songs of The Great American Songbook are addressed. Study them, sing them, dance to them and listen to them! There, you’ll find a veritable Gita of spiritual Treasure! Be it “Young at Heart,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your [or His/Her] Face” or “Love Is Here to Stay,” I guarantee that you’ll find the stuff of Bhakti, as well as Wisdom! Here’s one last lyric for the road:

Fools rush in
Where angels fear to tread
And so I come to you my love
My heart above my head

Though I see
The danger there
If there’s a chance for me
Then I don’t care

Fools rush in
Where wise men never go
But wise men never fall in love
So how are they to know

When we met
I felt my life begin
So open up your heart and let
This fool rush in.

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image 1 (Michael Feinstein): David Becker via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons BY-SA); image 2 (Pandit Udai Mazumdar): Nrityangana27 via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons BY-SA); image 3 (dancers): Washington Post Photo by Sarah L. Voisin (Creative Commons BY-NC); image 4 (whirling dervishes): University Musical Society (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA; image 5: Photo by permission of David Silverman; image 6: William P. Gottlieb via Wikimedia Commons (public domain); image 7: ArishG via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons BY-SA)