Music to Code By

When I was in college, I used to listen to music all the time when studying. I worked at KGLT (still one of the best alternative college stations in the country) as a DJ and the assistant manager (which meant sometimes being referred to by the music director – all innocence and sweetness – as the “ass. mgr.” in written communications). I had access to all kinds, but mostly liked grungy, thrashy music…and liked all of it loud. People would ask how I could ever study like that. But, believe it or not, the volume served to drown out external distractions and helped me focus.

I no longer find that true of the hard stuff. I still crank it up on occasion, but even find that on my bike rides or while running that I prefer thinking in relative silence. So while working, my musical choices have become more judicious. I still find Classical unappealing in this setting, needing a little more pep in the morning. (That’s why NPR always goes off  after 8:00 a.m!)

One of my favorites is Alberta Hunter’s Downhearted Blues: Live at the Cookery. If you’ve never checked out this wonderful performer, you owe it to yourself to not only enjoy the music, but also to fully consume her inspirational story.  There’s a good bio here but I was first introduced to her and her music by the documentary Alberta Hunter: My Castle’s Rockin’, which captures just how remarkable she was as a performer and a person. (You can find it here).

Accompanied on piano by the elegant gentleman and composer, Gerald Cook, Hunter really struts her stuff. Even at age 82 she still had the charm and impeccable timing that originally made her a star way back when. It’s worth watching just to see how a professional does it. I also find inspiring both her self-effacing modesty and her sometimes risque banter.

Most of all, Hunter has some wise advice – some of which will bring tears to your eyes if you’ve ever felt blocked or frustrated. Her words are without question informed by a life spent first working her way up the hard way to stardom, then chucking it all to change careers. She prudently fudged her age, conjured up a high school diploma, went to nursing school and worked in health care until forcibly retired in 1977 at the age of 82. Then resumed her musical career at an age when most people are probably just thinking about what the nursing home will serve for lunch today.