What Was That Song?

How do you find a tune’s name when it has no words?

Paul Greenberg

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Photo by Firdaus Roslan on Unsplash

There was a song that played on my classic rock station growing up that in my adulthood I could not name. It had a country-western backbeat and a thrumming guitar and in the last few years it’s been coming to me in the wee hours of the night. When I hummed it neither my teenage son nor my partner recognized what it was that I was humming.

The problem with this song is that you cannot Google it. It has no lyrics, and has left no textual footprints in the internet snow. It is one of those rare pop songs (the only one?) that managed to get on the radio for its guitar lick alone. It also goes on for some time and there are several licks within the main lick that I sometimes hum. No one knew what I was humming about.

But this was a real problem. Because I kept wanting to play this song for my son. He had just reached the age when he came to the slightest of passing interests in the music I listened to when I was his age. Moreover he’s into guitar solos. And this was the mother of all guitar solos. This was my chance to bond over music. But I couldn’t play it for him.

Now I know that this problem could have been easily solved by an iPhone and an app. I’m told in addition to Shazam (the app that recognizes recorded music) there is now an app that recognizes a tune well-hummed. But several years ago I gave up my iPhone (something I wrote about in The New York Times and in book form). I would be damned if I was going to go back to that greedy shard of glass and metal for the sake of a misplaced tune-name.

Only serendipity, it seemed, could save me.

Which it did.

Crossing Union Square in Lower Manhattan on the first warm day of 2024 all of a sudden I heard the song twanging out of the air. Live! A man about ten years my junior who bore a certain resemblance to the singer songwriter Dan Seiden who sometimes used to play at an ad hoc concert venue at Brown University (The Underground?) was wailing away at it. In deep concentration, he fingered his way through the complicated riffs and bridges while the country-western backbeat answered him from a portable speaker.

I pulled up on my bike and listened, nodded my head and almost started freeform dancing like the Dead Head I once sort of was. But this wasn’t The Grateful Dead. C’mon, I knew that. Occasionally the guitarist nodded at me sort of semi lifting his chin at his open guitar case where coins and bills lay scattered about. But I had nothing with me. No wallet. No spare change. Not even an iPhone to record what he was playing.

So I waited and watched while he played. And when he finished I said almost in tears, “Thank you. Thank you so so much. That song has been in my head for years. I’m so glad to hear again. But, man I’m so sorry, I have no change or bills on me. Would you mind telling . . . Can you just tell me the name of that song?”

He smiled and said, “Jessica.”

And then he said “I take Zelle.”

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org