- Courtesy of Benjamin Roesch
- Benjamin (left) with his dad and brother
Sharing the music that matters to us the most is a powerful way to connect with the people we love the most. I learned this on one of many long childhood road trips. Each summer, my brother, Jacob, and I would hop into the back of the family minivan, and my dad would drive us from Indianapolis to western Ohio, where my stepfather was waiting. We'd scarf down McDonald's burgers and fries at outdoor picnic tables, then finish the journey to Oneonta, N.Y., where we spent each summer with my mom, stepdad and three younger brothers. A life divided, though happily.
On one such road trip, my dad did something strange. He told Jacob and me there was a song he wanted to play for us. A song that he'd always loved, that held a message he thought might resonate in our young minds. He said he wanted us to set aside our Nintendo Game Boys and paperbacks and really listen. Uh oh.
Now, I was already very familiar with my dad's Baby Boomer musical taste. Sunday morning cleaning sessions were always accompanied by Pink Floyd or the Rolling Stones. Pool parties featured James Taylor and Van Morrison. We had a dog named Joni, after the great Joni Mitchell. My dad loved music, but until that moment, he'd never made a big deal about it.
I can't remember whether he mentioned, before he hit play on Harry Chapin's epic 1977 song "There Was Only One Choice," that it was more than 14 minutes long. That particular realization hit me about halfway through, when my stamina wavered and my mind began to wander as the stanzas blew past me. The song begins as a simple folk ballad about a young street musician who's found his calling on a six-string. As it goes on, it segues into Chapin's own midlife musings, including his honest reflections on America's promise as it reached the Bicentennial. I know I felt something when it was over, but I don't remember what it was. My dad didn't demand a response. He just let the silence linger as the miles passed us by. He'd done his part.
Years later, without seeing the obvious parallel — after all, I was a myopic 21-year-old at the time — I repaid the favor when I asked my dad to sit quietly in a room with me and listen to Keith Jarrett's 1973 solo concert from Bremen, Germany. I'd found music that deeply stirred my soul, that seemed to have unlocked some secret truth in the universe. And sharing it with the man whose opinion mattered most to me felt deeply important.
These days, as a father of two sons — Felix, 12, and Leo, 10 — I've grown more nostalgic and think often about my childhood. I keep coming back to that day on the highway.
As I replay the memory, it's my father's love for the song that has lingered far more than the song itself. I grew to love Harry Chapin on my own, and his timeless story songs are old favorites at this point. I even cue up and listen to "There Was Only One Choice" now and again. I never mean to get through all 14 minutes, but I always do. It's a beautiful song. But I've come to realize that my dad was doing something far more powerful than sharing a song he loved. Maybe without even meaning to, he was sharing something deep within himself that his own words couldn't express. A vision for life. For America. For the way he hoped his own sons might dream big as they navigated the world. In the end, the song wasn't really the point. Asking us to listen was.
Like in my own childhood home, my sons couldn't escape music if they tried. Whether I'm cooking dinner or quietly reading, there's almost always a record playing. But there's a difference between hearing and listening. And from time to time, I sit them down, cue up something I love, such as Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" or the Beatles' "If I Fell," and ask them to really listen.
I invite you to do the same with your children, with the understanding that the song or album you choose isn't really that important. What matters is carving out the time to connect. What matters is laying your heart bare through the music you love, so that as your children grow up and find their way through this world, they'll know something about your passion. They'll know something about what kind of person you really are. And they'll carry that with them always.