silent songbird: an ode to linda ronstadt

I felt a cold wave pass through me when I saw the headline. “Linda Ronstadt has retired from singing due to Parkinson’s disease.” Even after a long career fully documented with almost 30 albums in styles from rock to swing to opera and Grammy awards (and nominations) out the yin yang, it made me sad. And scared. Stories like this expose one of the quieter fears lurking somewhere inside me – coldly creeping up my spine like a slow, poisonous spider – that one day I won’t be able to sing anymore. It wouldn’t even be the loss of performing in front of people or recording songs that would get to me. I’d just be devastated to no longer croon to myself while I sweep the floor. Depressed to be driving in the car, hear a favorite tune and not feel the utter catharsis of belting along in diva style. Singing is like breathing to me – whether anybody else hears it or not – and it makes me shudder to think of losing one of my favorite forms of expression.

But there’s another reason why I’m mourning the end of Ronstadt’s career: she was the first voice teacher I ever had. No, not in person – I’ve never met her. But back when I was a young girl in the wild suburbs of Jacksonville, Florida, entombed in my room of white and gold girly furniture brimming over with books and stuffed animals, I’d sit in a corner on the floor with my Fischer Price turntable, orange and white with that fat, flat arm and its suitcase stylings, and play a 45 of “Blue Bayou” over and over and over. Even as a bookish owl of a girl, I’d moon over such passionate longings for a home tucked far away with boats and water and where the folks are fine under that silver moon. I’d burble the low tones of the verse, hushed and sweet and then as the chorus came around, jumped those however-many steps to the top of my range, bellowing enough to make the book shelves quake.

“I’m going back someday, come what may to Blue Bayou”

Not that I had any idea what a bayou was. It didn’t matter. To me, Linda was what a Singer should be, with a voice that could be meltingly tender or hit you in the solar plexus with a baseball bat. And beautiful, too, with those huge dewey brown eyes, heart-shaped face and the telltale hint at her Hispanic roots in the flower in her hair. Of course I dug the fact that she was part Latina too.

My favorite part of her career was the early days with the Stone Poneys and her hard-hitting rockers like “You’re No Good” and “It’s So Easy”. I respected her later forays into other styles rooted in her family upbringing – the Nelson Riddle songbook, Pirates of Penzance and mariachi tunes, while sporting a demure bob. But to me she was always a 70’s “torch rock” singer with long hair wearing faded blue jeans.

Still, one of my favorite songs of hers is a deep cut from her 1978 release “Living in the USA” (that’s the cover with the tight perm and roller skates). It’s a beautifully poetic song, “White Rhythm & Blues”, penned by her then-squeeze JD Souther, about longing for what you’ll probably never find, like “Black roses, white rhythm and blues/And somebody who cares when you lose.”

Daddy had given me the album a while back and by this time I was playing in restaurants and needed some new material. I was smitten with this song in particular and it quickly became a favorite in my repertoire and a favorite of Daddy’s. Now the family joke is that every time I’m visiting home and there’s a guitar around he’ll inevitably holler “Do Black Roses!”

So over the years, I admit I had grown a little tired of always doing That Song whenever Daddy and I and a guitar were co-located. Even though I’d quickly lose myself picking that D chord. But next time I get the chance, I’ll be sure to belt it out extra loud for you, Linda. Your golden throat may not play for you anymore but the waves from the heart strings you’ve plucked are still reverberating through the ether. Thank you.

Gorgeous background bayou image by jetheriot

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