Do You Believe in Magic? (Tryin’ to Tell a Stranger ‘Bout Rock and Roll)

John Sebastian


I’ll tell you about the magic, and it’ll free your soul
But it’s like trying to tell a stranger ’bout rock and roll

Gotta love this song. It’s especially remarkable because it does just what it’s talking about – frees the soul. In that sense it’s like “Drift Away.” Both songs are trying to express something of the salvific power of a “groovy” song, while at the same time providing salve to the soul. It’s magic.

John Sebastian was one of the great songwriters of his (or this or any) generation. So good, he performed a solo set at Woodstock, minus his band, The Lovin’ Spoonful. Long before that, in his young boy’s heart, he must have personally experienced the magic that music can work on the soul, otherwise how could he create such old/all-time moving songs? (Wait, was his last name Bach? Anyone out there know, ’cause that would explain everything…) But if you’ve never experienced that soul-awakening, maybe you don’t believe in magic, maybe you’re a “stranger” — to the magic. You probably aren’t, though, because you’re still reading this. In that case, you’re not a stranger, so I can’t say “Howdy, Stranger!” Too bad.

You have to keep in mind that back in the 60s when it was not a Baby Boomer world, rock music was still not completely mainstream. Things were still pretty much divided into “hippies” and “squares,” “short hairs” and “long hairs.” So back then, trying to tell a “stranger” about rock and roll was a more daunting proposition. On the other hand, this song had and still has universal appeal. Everybody loved it. And since it came out, it’s been used time and time again in t.v., movies, covers, etc. The very young generation especially love it now because it was used in a Disney movie. I was riding around with a five-year-old not too long ago and that (the original) was the only song he wanted to hear — over and over and over again. So what makes this song so special?

You don’t really expect me to answer that question, do you? The answer is always blowin’ in the wind. My sense is this, though: It has to do with the artist. It’s their soul force that comes through in the creation and execution of the song. And connected to that also is the inspiration and intention of the song. That is, where is the song coming from, and why did the artist decide to record it? As I suggested at the outset, intention is so essential. My feeling is that Sebastian, like many magicians (er, musicians) of that era, were not writing music merely to be bought and sold in the market place. It was coming from a place of deep feeling and love of music, and the message was really just a reflection of the new consciousness that was emerging at that time.

Another beautiful thing about this song, and perhaps another reason behind its universal appeal, is its universal message. When the singer tells you “just go and listen” no matter “whether its jug band music or rhythm and blues,” he’s really saying that all music has magic, it doesn’t have to be rock and roll. It has to do with the quality of the music. If it has quality — that pure intention that I mentioned — it will move you, no doubt.

In Sanskrit there is a beautiful word, “priya,” which means “dear, beloved” and is the root of our word “free” (from Old English “freo,” meaning “joyful,” and “noble.”) That’s not important, though, I just thought I’d throw that in to try to impress you. All that’s really important is that the magic of music is that it can set you free — free of mortal bonds — if you allow it to do so. It can provide a transcendent experience. And then once you have that experience, what do you do? You feel inspired, perhaps as Johann Sebastian did, to spread the love around. And then verily we see, with his help, that “the magic’s in the music and the music’s in me.”

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