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Lessons From the School of Classic Rock


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He who sings prays twice, St. Augustine said. Maybe that is why music always has seemed a great teacher to me, although not every message has been holy. In fact, the instrument I least enjoy hearing at Catholic Mass, the acoustic guitar, I most enjoy hearing outside it, especially in the breezy ballads of the 1970s.

The lyrical lessons those songs taught were sometimes indirect and often humorous. I recall a childhood family vacation in Arizona, listening to

Gordon Lightfoot,

when my parents sheepishly stopped arguing the moment they realized they were bickering while driving on the actual Carefree Highway near Phoenix.

Other lessons were more purposeful—a kind of self-care before I knew what that was. Every mix tape I made in the 1980s, my teen years, included “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” Burdens felt lighter after hearing

Paul Simon’s

song. Ask around, any major dude will tell you. Better yet, listen for yourself.

Girlfriends being largely a theoretical concept back then, my high-school friend Tom and I often drove around Northern Virginia as an excuse to listen to music. An unwritten rule was never to stop until “Tangled Up in Blue” finished. It was simply a matter of respect for the great

Bob Dylan.

When I’m in a funk even today, I know I’m only one rendition of “Garden Party” from feelin’ good again. The

Ricky Nelson

song is about growth through struggle, and I’ve probably listened to it at least once a week over the past decade.

These days, I find myself looking to the good doctor

Townes Van Zandt

to fill my “Pancho and Lefty” wellness prescription. Perhaps it is the humbling realization how, like Lefty, we all make mistakes and, as the nearly perfect song goes, need prayers, too.

Mr. Lightfoot showed laughter is stronger than anger. Mr. Simon taught me to fix myself before trying to fix others. Mr. Dylan made me appreciate beauty. Mr. Nelson convinced me that staying true to yourself offers lasting peace of mind. Mr. Van Zandt preached forgiveness above all. Maybe the peaceful, easy feelings that inevitably follow these listening sessions are holier than I once thought.

Mr. Kerrigan is an attorney in Charlotte, N.C.

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Appeared in the October 21, 2021, print edition.


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