A nostalgia of time and place

John Devitt

I remember the first time I heard Kris Kross’ Jump.  I was in Grade 6 and it was played on a seemingly endless loop during a Jump Rope For Heart and Stroke fundraiser.  Nowadays I’m a little ashamed of my poor taste in music, but hey, I was only 11.  Sue me.

Back then all my friends were listening to New Kids on the Block, Milli Vanilli, Weird Al, Bon Jovi and such.  I cannot hear any music by these artists without thinking back to those days.  I can picture my grade school classroom and the kids around me, and from there I recollect all manner of things long since forgotten.

Weeks ago some friends and I had a debate about how music can evoke a sense of time and place.  In a variety of ways, most of us were able to identify a past experience with a specific song.  Whether this identification occurred by hearing the song and recollecting where we were and when we heard it, or thinking about where we were and what we were doing and then remember the music we listened to at the time.  Either way, the fact is, an overwhelming majority of us do this.  It is called nostalgia.

1999 was the year of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dr. Dre revival.  Both CDs were staples at every party that year.  Chances were good that there were at least three people at each party that brought their own copies just in case there wasn’t one there already.  They were on constant repeat as friends and I drove out to the lake and would be blasting as we stopped for a leap off the Gannons Narrows Bridge near Lakefield, Ontario.  You could never get very far down the road without hearing Bryan Adams’ Summer of ’69 on the radio.  My friends used to change the lyrics to Summer of ’99 and somehow we knew that the song meant more that way as we all moved apart at the end of high school.

Music helps us access these memories because it impacts our emotions, influences how we see inanimate objects, and affects how we perceive others.  While traveling and meeting new people, many associate Revelstoke with our highly successful summer music in the plaza festival.  For many this may have been their only interaction with Revelstoke.  They stopped to get some information about Kelowna wineries, and were enthralled by the music in the Grizzly Plaza bandstand.  Years later they will talk about how welcoming Revelstoke is, reminisce about eating ice cream down the block from the grizzly bear statues, and they will do this with a smile.  They have connected their emotions to Revelstoke through music and it has changed their perceptions of our town.

Music gives us an opportunity to look at who we are now and reflect on where we’ve come from.  It connects within us a feeling of nostalgia.  In their report, Music, emotion, and autobiographical memory: They’re playing your song, Schulkind, Hennis and Rubin (1999) documented how the power of songs can bring to mind previous events and times.  They found the more emotion the song generated for someone, the more likely the song would cue a memory.  This is why when Blame it on the Rain randomly materializes on radio airwaves and I am overcome by the feeling of shame at the lack of musical taste my 11-year-old self had, I can recall with extraordinary detail my life at that time.

While the music in the plaza may not be nostalgic on its own, the experience is.  It harkens back to a time before television when people would gather in public spaces and socialize together.  Children will run around, grandparents will relax, young parents will chat with other young parents and years from now, “going to the plaza” will still evoke that feeling of nostalgia and sense of community.