Smile when your heart is breaking

One of my favorite songs is Nat King Cole’s version of “Smile”. I first heard it as a little girl, and it made a big impression. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned about the singer’s life. The poor son of a butcher turned Baptist minister, his musical career was set against the racism of mid century America as the black civil rights movement was taking off.

Of course, Nat wasn’t the only black musician making beautiful music over the pain of his life. Billie Holiday sang the horrifying testimony to racism “Strange Fruit” (which incidentally was written by a Jewish teacher named Abel Meeropol).

Louie Armstrong grew up a fatherless child in a desperately poor part of New Orleans. A boy from as far on the wrong side of the tracks as one could be, he left school in 5th grade to start working, and ended up in a group home for a while. His musical success was something of a miracle.

Not that success eased everything for him: like other black musicians, he was not welcome to sleep in many of the expensive hotels he was hired to play. After the show was over, he was expected to leave for a black hotel on the poor side of town. He also adopted and took care of a brain damaged child. Yet his voice made the song “Wonderful World” iconic.

I once heard an interview with famous Fado singer Mariza. Fado is a traditional kind of music, native to Portugal, which always sounds a bit melancholy. I really like it. She was talking about the origin of the songs, and said that in Portugal, Fado was music people sang when they were sad. The act of singing somehow lightened the burden and let some light in.

Perhaps this is like the blues…. I can’t think of too many blues songs about happy subjects, but somehow singing and playing them is cathartic. Music does that. It has the power to change the colour of a mood, the tone of a moment, or even your perspective on life.

There is a great TED talk by Amy Cuddy on body language and its effect on the brain and behaviour. We all know that our internal moods affect our external gestures and attitudes. It’s less obvious that the reverse can also be true. So maybe this is why singing or playing music can lift a case of the blahs or the blues.

Next time you’re feeling low, try to put a smile on your face. Listen to your favorite tune. Or better yet, sing it!

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