Notes of Change

Rock and Roll
Epiphany 42

Wisconsin is generally known for being the home of the US football team Green Bay Packers and cheese. The people of Green Bay are proud of having the only publicly-owned American football team franchise as well as the many dairies that produces its fine cheeses. They are also rightfully proud of their history as beer brewers. A relative of the founder of the Valentin Blatz Brewing Company, young Lester William Polsfuss was interested in nothing for which his home state was famous.

At the age of eight, Lester learned to play the harmonica. Not being overly successful on the piano, he next took up the guitar. He had one problem, though. It took two hands to hold and play the harmonica and two hands to hold and play the guitar and Lester only had two hands. Period. And he wanted to play both instruments at the same time. His first musical epiphany came in the form of a harmonica holder which he designed to be worn around the neck. It is still being manufactured today using Lester’s same basic design.

By the time he had turned thirteen, Lester William Polsfuss was performing as a country music singer. The local roadhouses and drive-ins required a large sound so Lester looked for ways to make himself be heard. His next big epiphany was to wire a phonograph needle to his guitar and connect that to a radio speaker. He built his first solid body guitar while still a teenager from a piece of rail taken from a nearby train yard. By age seventeen, Lester dropped out of high school to become a fulltime professional musician, performing under the stage names of Rhubarb Red and Red Hot Red.

Young Lester continued playing guitar and developing better sound quality in solid body guitars. He also experimented with the “sound on sound” technique, recording tracks over previously recorded tracks. In 1988 he was elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; his guitars, their sound quality, and his playing having had a profound effect on the new musical style known as rock and roll. In 2006 at the age of 90, Lester, known to the world as Les Paul, won two Grammys, the music industry’s highest award.

While it may not seem like Les Paul was a conduit of peace, the sounds possible through his musical engineering have served to unify the world and bring about social change internationally. It was Pythagoras in the fifth century BCE who said: “There is geometry in the humming of the strings. There is music in the spacings of the spheres.”

Music has no language save that of the vibrations or tones. It is easily understood and felt by all. One hundred years after Pythagoras, Plato would claim: “The music masters familiarizes children’s minds with rhythms and melodies, thus making them more civilized, more balanced, better adjusted in themselves, and more capable in whatever they say or do, for rhythm and harmony are essential to the whole of life.”

A young Mozart once wrote to his father: “We live in this world to compel ourselves industriously to enlighten one another by means of reasoning and to apply ourselves always to carrying forward the sciences and the arts.” Each of us plays a song, whether we call it music or not. The actions of our lives provide the harmony to our melody of words. Will our song be one of discord or will we bring about a pleasing blend of chords as we walk this path of life with each other?

The list of artists with whom Les Paul play, performed, and collaborated is endless. At his death, literally thousands of musicians claimed his influence guided them in their careers. The young boy who designed first a way to hold his harmonica while playing his guitar and then revolutionized the electric guitar and a musical style that traveled around the world in popularity was himself an epiphany of what can happen when we let the rhythm of life resound in our lives.

We each are a part of the symphony of life. We each have a part to perform and all have value as being note-worthy, regardless of race, color, creed, gender, or ethnicity. T. S. Elliot said: “Music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts.”

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