I’m going to take a bit of liberty with my first contribution to this column. Rather than a life event, this post is more about the effect that music can have on our personal outlook, worldview, etc.
I’m a pretty easy going guy. At least that’s what I like to think. Turns out, in some ways I’m wound up pretty tight. This is probably most true in my work life. Although it wasn’t my initial plan, at this point I can’t imagine having gone down any other career path than the one that I ultimately chose. I love my job. I have great colleagues, I love working with my students (who are constantly teaching me, whether they realize it or not), I love the process of research and discovery.
As much as I enjoy the various elements of my job, there are often times that it pulls me in many directions, and I can feel the walls closing in. And I fully admit that sometimes this is self-imposed, by virtue of me putting too much on my plate. When I get overly stressed, I get edgy. When I get edgy, I get cranky. When I get cranky, I ‘m sometimes not the kind of person that even I’d like to be around. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a mean-spirited person by any means, and I don’t walk around kicking cats and spitting on children. But as is true of many of us, I suspect, outside pressure and stress can sometimes get the best of me, and in those moments, its incredibly easy to thoughtlessly displace your dour mood onto those closest to you.
Listening to the great Dr. John recently, I had a moment of clarity.
The song in question is “Accentuate the Positive.” The tune is not one penned by Dr. John (a.k.a. Mac Rebennack), but was written in 1944 by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. An impressive roster of artists have recorded it over the years: Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Artie Shaw, Perry Como, Sam Cooke, and most recently, Sir Paul. But Dr. John’s rendition will always be the definitive version for me, in large part because it was the first iteration that I’d heard. Doc’s version of the song first appeared on his 1989 album of jazz and pop standards, In a Sentimental Mood. The song was also featured in an episode of David Simon’s excellent Treme to great effect. (Sadly, it was also included in the soundtrack to 1992’s The Mighty Ducks, but I digress.)
My obsession with the music of New Orleans continues to grow, but of the many prodigious musicians that city has birthed, I probably spin Dr. John’s records more than any other. Many songs in his expansive catalog stick out for many different reasons. But in hearing “Accentuate the Positive” repeatedly, the song clicked with my psyche. Accentuate the Positive. This is my new mantra. In fact, I often leave a copy of the track on some format in my car so that at the end of a frustrating day, the good Doctor can help me to get my head straight. And it usually works.
You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium’s
Liable to walk upon the scene
The song is simply a quick reminder of what is ultimately important, of what has the most value in our lives. Life is filled with positive and negative situations, and plenty of “mister in-between.” But what we choose to emphasize absolutely sets the tone for our personal outlook and attitude. Taking a broader social view, “accentuate the positive” does not mean that we ought to be oblivious to the ills of the world, but that we out to “eliminate” those as much as possible by by working on the “positive.”