I have a big problem. A personal problem. The lyrics to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” keep repeating over and over in my head. One day, it’s Joan Baez singing and the next it’s Levon Helm of The Band. At church, at work, on the train, at my desk, in Starbucks, when I exercise, when I eat and, yes, even when I sleep.
It started a few weeks ago when the moon was full. The night was restless, and I wandered from dream to dream, until I was summoned by President Trump to attend an important meeting at the White House, along with representatives of the mainstream media and Frito-Lay.
When they called on me to speak, I didn’t know what to say, so I broke into vigorous song: “Vigil Caine is the name and I served on the Danville train … till Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again!”
It was a stirring rendition in my very best singing voice, which isn’t particularly good. You see, I have a tin ear that got me kicked out of the fifth grade choir because I can’t hold a tune. Even now, I lip-sync the hymns at church because they’ve threatened to escort me to the crying room so the congregation won’t have to listen to me.
However, in my dream I delivered a superb performance, which was enthusiastically received by the music critic of the New York Times, who said I had a promising career with either the Metropolitan Opera or the Von Trapp Family singers.
As I belted out that tune, I waved my hands and strut around the press room in such a jubilant performance that I was soon joined by the cast of Kinky Boots, the White House press corps, President Trump, and Bill and Hillary Clinton. (Who invited them?) I suspect Bill was there because he was Governor of Arkansas, and Levon Helm was from the same state — a hamlet called Turkey Scratch.
Here’s the problem. Since my stellar performance, I haven’t been able to get the song out of my head. This psychological condition is called an “earworm” or “stuck song syndrome,” and when it occurs a piece of music constantly repeats itself in your brain.
Research shows that 98% of people get them, although musicians and those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder are more susceptible. Western Washington University scientists suggest that giving your mind a workout with Sudoku, anagrams and crossword puzzles can help break the cycle, while researchers at the University of Reading say chewing gum is equally effective — so I’ve been chewing a lot of Juicy Fruit.
The last time I had an earworm this bad was when my third daughter got married, and “Shout” by the Isley Brothers got lodged in my brain during the wedding reception. Over and over and over again, I heard “Welllll, you know you make me want to SHOUT! C’mon now! SHOUT!”
This time, I’ve taken desperate measures to break the curse. I went online to watch Levon Helm perform the song with The Band in an amazing rendition that was immortalized in the documentary “The Last Waltz.” But that seemed to make things worse.
Then, I started singing the song at work, but the summer interns thought I was crazy. They had never heard it before, which disheartened me since it’s ranked among the greatest rock tunes of all time.
Every waking moment, shaving, showering, brushing my teeth, cutting the lawn, riding on the train and reading the newspaper was interrupted by “The night they drove old Dixie down, and all the bells were ringing; the night they drove old Dixie down, and all the people were singing; they went ‘Na na na-na na-na na-na naaa …’”
After two weeks, I knew I had to take drastic action and began to consider electric shock treatments. However, I decided the safer and saner option would be to lodge another song in my brain that would push this one out. The new tune had to be powerful and packed with emotion. What were the possibilities? Handel’s Messiah chorus? Beethoven’s Ode to Joy? The Star Spangled Banner? Or God Bless America in my best Kate Smith impersonation?
After long and serious deliberation, I made my choice. I listened to a recording, hummed a few bars and starting singing: “Why do birds suddenly appear, every time you are near? Just like me, they long to be … close to you!” The Carpenters would be proud.