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Stephen Swanson

Stephen Swanson

Stephen Swanson delves into the vital quandry of enjoying and hating "anticipation" for its own sake.

In the past few weeks, I've found that the music of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings particularly inspiring.  It's not just their blend of classical soul and a contemporary mentality.  Nor does the music just grab at my heart and begin to bounce it in the most pleasant way.  Nor, yet, does it merely provide a hopeful outlook while grading student essays that might be less than impressive in their appearance of dedication.

It calls to me to get ready.

"Getting ready" presents a very real meaning for me these days as we expect our second child at any hour, day, or week.  It's not just the excitement and worry of how a second child will affect our lives and the thrill to meet this new person who will come into our family and change who we are.  Something bigger and smaller at the same time lodges in my heart.

In the beginning of the the title track of 2007's 100 Days, 100 Nights, the horns/saxophones begin by quietly spiraling down in the right channel, pause, the drums tap off four times in the left channel, and Jones' powerful voice comes in, "100 Days...100 know a man's heart," in both ears.

Not only does the stripped down production work to recall a 50s/60s feel, it also brings to the fore the absences of the other voices.  This awareness of the missing sounds and pauses heighten and balance the parts where the sound is filled with lead vocals, backing, bass, drums, guitars, and horns, forcing the listener to appreciate both the presence and absences even more.

I want to balance this with the ending track of the album, "Answer Me", particularly the version that the Dap Kings released that shows a bit of the recording process. This version amplifies this anticipation because it not only uses Jones' sparse piano intro, but it takes a number of starts to get it right before breaking into the song itself.  The listener/viewer keeps waiting for the song to get grooving, but not quite yet.

When it finally, breaks into the chorus, the words and music combine to give the lyrics some significance that cut to the heart of the meaning and importance of anticipation:

Answer me, sweet Jesus

Won't you hear me calling

I need you, Lord

Answer me, sweet Jesus

Don't you hear me calling

I need you, Lord

The repetition and subtle differences calls for the listener to pay closer attention but to also join in in spite of those differences. The lyrics and music combine both a familiarity and a new-ness that strengthens the associations between singer and listener.  So that when we reach the verse,

Lord, I've run out of words to sing

All I can do is moan

I cannot pray, like all of a sudden

But let me know my prayer's being heard

whether we are religious, spiritual, or not, we have a bond at least with the singer.  There's an association implied by anticipation...a requirement of a relationship of some sort, and we want that fullfillment.

However, we are stuck in the now...the not yet.

Still, as frustrating as this seems, a meaningful expression comes out, and it's expression does not consist of just one, lone voice.  Jones continues singing as she's joined not only by the band but also with a chorus of background singers as they all call out for the thing that is not yet.

She (They) conclude on a definitive:

I'm gonna wait right here for ya.

It's hard to wait.  Patience is hard, especially when so much can be at stake, but I find that Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings not only join me in the release of those emotions but that they also exemplify the nature of humanity's struggle for meaning and value in the process, the tensions between the strange and the familiar, the solo and collective, and the terrestrial and supernatural.

I <3 them and hope that you will too.

Stephen Swanson teaches as an assistant professor of English at McLennan Community College. Aside from guiding students through the pitfalls of college writing and literature, he spends most of his time trying to remain aware of popular culture, cooking, and enjoying time with his wife and son. He holds degrees in Communications (Calvin College), Film Studies (Central Michigan University), and Media and American Culture Studies (Bowling Green State University). In addition to editing a collection, Battleground States: Scholarship in Contemporary America, he has forthcoming projects on Johnny Cash and analysis of vampires and gods in terms of hospitality.