By Marco den Ouden
Empathy is an emotional connection with another person, an ability to understand another’s emotional state and to share the emotion to some extent. It occurs naturally to most people to some degree. And while it is often associated with negative emotions such as pain, sorrow, and loneliness, it can also encompass joy, or just a feeling of kindness or understanding towards the other person.
The songs suggested for this topic covered a wide range of situations. Perhaps the most common one is that between lovers. To love someone is to share that person’s joys and sorrows, and the more able we are to do so, the more fulfilling is the relationship. We’ll start with two songs of empathy of a lover’s pain and sorrow. Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders tells her lover, “I’ll Stand by You”. And reaching back to the 1950s, we have Elmore James showing off his trademark slide guitar work as he sings “It Hurts Me Too”.
A break-up leads to a broken heart. It’s not easy to get over a relationship torn asunder and Prince identifies with the pain of a woman he met on the dance floor. “It hurt me so bad when she told me with tears in her eyes, he was all she ever had and now she wanted to die.” He does the honourable thing and turns down the possibility of a one night stand telling her I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.
Sometimes empathy means helping a loved one overcome a feeling of inadequacy, a lack of confidence. Jonathan Richman tells his girl, “I got faith in you. Sometimes you don't have it in yourself, but I got faith in you. And our time is right now, now we can do anything we really want to. Our time is now, here in the Morning of our Lives.” There is a certain unaffected naturalism to Richman’s music that I find very appealing.
While we’ve covered the relationships of lovers and would-be lovers, empathy also exists between close friends. Best buddies share a rhythm, a feeling of camaraderie that is evident in Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.’s rendition of Me and My Shadow.
Another couple of buddies share a very special moment at the birth of Talib Kweli’s son. He is overjoyed and excitedly tells the story. His buddy Mos Def reacts: “I know how you feel, Kweli I know how you feel. That's the sound of Joy. See my brother, I know how you feel, Kweli, I know how you feel.” Three years later a daughter is born and the feelings overwhelm once more.
Parenthood is possibly the greatest bond of all, even stronger than the bond between lovers. Loyle Carner suffered from ADHD in his childhood; he was a handful. But he was not just a son to his mother, he was the Sun of Jean. This heartfelt tribute to his mother ends with a soliloquy by his mother herself.
“He was a scribble of boy,” she tells us, “All hair and mischief, a two-foot tale of trouble, the bee's knees, a cartwheeling chatterbox of tricks, completely fearless … He turned the world upside down and we're richer for it. He was and is a complete joy. The world is his, that scribble of a boy.”
The love a parent for a child is told again by the Barenaked Ladies in a song written by keyboardist Kevin Hearn. His daughter is mentally handicapped, incommunicative. If it is hard to get inside the head of someone with his faculties unimpaired, how much more difficult must it be to understand the mind of someone so damaged. Hearn imagines she experiences joy with Flying Dreams.
Steve Ignorant is best-known as the front man for the punk band Crass. He takes quite a different turn with his group Slice of Life. The music is mellow with an acoustic accompaniment. S.A.D., of course, stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder. The black-and-white music video is compelling. Steve’s craggy face exudes empathy. Carol Hodge’s piano work adds to the mood.
The next song is not my cup of tea, musically speaking. But it is lyrically compelling, the only song suggested about man’s best friend. A scientific study in the December 2018 issue of Learning and Behaviour confirmed that dogs do, in fact, feel empathy for their masters. The punk band Killdozer tells the story of one such dog, a racing dog saved from slaughter at the end of his career when adopted by a boy in a wheelchair. For all its raw grittiness, Knuckles the Dog is a moving story of the love between man and beast.
When one drives through skid road seeing the drunks lying in the gutter, the druggies walking in a daze and the whores peddling their bodies, there is a tendency to shrug these people off as the dregs of society. Losers best forgotten. There is not a lot of empathy for the down and out.
That was my attitude until I became a volunteer teaching remedial English for the city I live in. My “clients” included new immigrants, people with grade school education, an autistic boy, and assorted substance abusers. For a while I taught at a drug rehab centre to a group of five men. At our first class I asked them to tell me their stories. Their backgrounds varied but I was astounded to learn that two of them had a murderer as a parent.
I remarked to a counsellor with a later group that one of the men seemed particularly bright and intelligent. She told me that a year before he had been on skid row. So the next two songs are about understanding the troubled people of our society. Joe South tells us “before you abuse, criticise and accuse, Walk a Mile in My Shoes. And the Hollies, in possibly the greatest song on empathy ever written, tell us He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.
We close with something a bit more upbeat. Buckshot Lefonque is a jazz group that provides the mellow background for a spoken word recitation of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The poem is based on Maya Angelou’s autobiography of the same name, a paean to having empathy for yourself as well as for those who are oppressed and yearn for freedom. Oh, did I mention that the woman reciting the poem is none other than Angelou herself? Powerful and moving.
Affectionate A-List Playlist:
I’ll Stand By You - The Pretenders
It Hurts Me Too - Elmore James
I Could Never Take the Place Of Your Man - Prince
Morning of Our Lives - Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers
Sun of Jean - Loyle Carner
Me and My Shadow - Frank Sinatra & Sammy Davis Jr.
Joy - Talib Kweli ft Mos Def
Flying Dreams - Barenaked Ladies
S.A.D. - Steve Ignorant’s Slice of Life
Knuckles the Dog - Killdozer
Walk a Mile in My Shoes - Joe South
He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother - The Hollies
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Buckshot Lefonque & Maya Angelou
Big Beloved B-List Playlist:
Kid - The Pretenders
An Innocent Man – Billy Joel
Empathy - Alanis Morrisette
Killing Me Softly - Bonnie Herman & The Singers Unlimited
I’ll Be Your Mirror - The Primitives
Man in Black - Johnny Cash
This is to Mother You - Sinead O’Connor
Lean on Me - Seal
I Know What It’s Like - Amanda Shires
Ghafoor’s Bus - The Young’uns
Period - Eri Sasaki
Hello in There - John Prine
Reach Out, I’ll Be There – The Four Tops
Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand) - Diana Ross
Time After Time - Cyndi Lauper
When the Boy’s Happy (The Girl’s Happy Too) - The Four Pennies
Elephant - Jason Isbell
Another Man’s Shoes - Drew Holcomb
Fallen Angel - Frankie Valli
Being Alive - Dean Jones & Cast of Company
Umbrella - Rihanna
Plane Crash in C - Rilo Kiley
I Melt With You - Modern English
All My Favorite People - Over the Rhine
Give a Man a Home - Ben Harper & The Blind Boys of Alabama
Guru’s Wildcard Pick:
Broken by lovelytheband
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: I know why the caged bird sings: songs about or expressing empathy. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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