Mar 21, 2008

Pop Music

This hour of Radiolab: pop music's pull.

Some songs have the nefarious power to stick mercilessly in our heads, and some songs have the transcendent allure to overcome cultural differences. We ask how songwriters create these songs seemingly out of the ether, listen in on the music a deaf man hears, and examine the timeless appeal of the Elvis of Afghanistan.


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ROBERT: This is Radiolab. I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: This hour, I'm going to curse you, Jad. I'm going to ask you to just simply do this one thing. You know that song that we both hate?

JAD: Which one?

ROBERT: Bum-bum, bad-a, bum-bum, bad-a, bum-bum.

JAD: God, it's like the moment you start that, it doesn't--

ROBERT: Keep going. Can you sing it?

JAD: [hums]

ROBERT: There are some songs that I can stick into your head and they just won't leave. There's somebody—of course—who got this song somehow stuck in her head, and then his songs that just won't go away because you didn't even invite them and they stay. This is an hour on the music in our heads. Where does the songs come from? Why do they stay? A whole hour without Suzanne Vega–

JAD: Thankfully.

ROBERT: –on Radiolab.

JAD: Let me ask you a question to get us started here. When a song gets stuck in your head, do you have one in there right now by any chance?

ROBERT: Oliver. The Broadway show tune.

JAD: Of course. What does it sound like when it's in there?

ROBERT: What does it sound like?

JAD: Yes. Just think before you answer it. What does it really sound like? Describe it musically.

ROBERT: Well, it's funny that you mention this. I don't hear any musicians.

JAD: Is it loud?

ROBERT: No, it's nothing. It's not loud.

JAD: Does it have like a location?


JAD: Tambor?

ROBERT: No, it just has a melody, a vague foggy--

JAD: Like a shadowy melody.

ROBERT: Yes, exactly.

JAD: Okay, well, that's our starting point, you know. Most of us get a song in our head, it's kind of like what you described, vague. There are people who, when they get songs stuck in their head, it's a whole different experience. It is not vague. In fact, they wish it were vague, they wish it were a shadow. You'll know what I mean in a second. Let me introduce you to someone.

LEO RANGELL: Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb.

JAD: Always has songs running through his head.

LEO RANGELL: Everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.

JAD: He's plagued by them actually, and he spoke with our producer, Lulu Miller.

LULU: That was going through your head just now?

LEO RANGELL: That's right. [sings] Mary had a little lamb, over and over again.

LULU: Let me have you just introduce yourself really quickly.

LEO RANGELL: My name is Leo Rangell. I'm not young. I just had my 94th birthday. I've been in LA since I was in the war, World War II.

LULU: Leo is a psychoanalyst.

LEO RANGELL: Oh, yes. I'm still in practice.

LULU: So he finds everything that's been going on in his own head intriguing from a professional standpoint.

LEO RANGELL: I'm trying to think, "What the hell am I doing?"

LULU: Anyway, this whole thing started for him about 12 years ago. He just had major heart surgery, and he wakes up in his hospital bed.

LEO RANGELL: I wake up in the ICU, and almost as soon as I'm conscious, outside my hospital window, I hear music, and it was distant. It sounded funereal, like hymns. I hear these songs, I look out the window, I think, "Geez, a rabbi is out there." I say to my kids, I casually say, "Hey, there's a rabbi out there singing." They said, "What do you mean?" I said, "There must be a rabbi school, and he must be teaching young people how to be rabbis," and the kids looked at each other.

LULU: Because they weren't hearing anything. But at that moment, that didn't matter to Leo because the music was so loud and vivid to him, so totally coming through that window that--

LEO RANGELL: I dismissed them as, "Oh, well, they could have their opinion if they want." I didn't think anything of it. Then the rest of the week in the hospital, I'm getting better and better, and as I get better, the music changes. I stop being perky and the music out the window changes to Chattanooga Choo Choo [mumbles] Chattanooga Choo Choo.

[music, Chattanooga Choo Choo]

LEO RANGELL: Well, 1:00 in the morning, 2:00 in the morning I'm waking up with these songs.

[music, Chattanooga Choo Choo]

LULU: Always coming in from right outside that window.

LEO RANGELL: Then I thought, "Jeez, there's a pretty energetic group there across the street."

LULU: At this point, Leo was beginning to suspect that something a little weird was going on.

LEO RANGELL: The real oup de grâce came when I was going to leave the hospital after a week or so, and this tune, I didn't know the words at first, but I started to hear, "Tata-dada, ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-da, ta-ta. Tata-dada, ta-ta--

LULU: As he packed up, signed out of the hospital, and got into his car-

LEO RANGELL: I was reflecting.

LULU: That's when it hit him.

LEO RANGELL: I still was hearing the song.

LULU: The song was still coming from outside a window, but now the scenery was moving.

LEO RANGELL: I thought it was related to the hospital and to the thing across the street. Here I am in the car listening to this.

LULU: That's when the lyrics appeared.

LEO RANGELL: Finally, the words come, “When Johnny's goes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah.”

LULU: He couldn't ignore it anymore. Not only was the song following him home, it's like the song was about him. He was the Johnny.

LEO RANGELL: The girls would cheer--

LULU: Marching home, coming home from the hospital.

LEO RANGELL: I realized, "I am listening to me. I am listening to me."

JAD: Okay, is he really though? Is he really listening to anything or does he just think he's hearing something?

ROBERT: Well, there's nothing out there for him to hear.

JAD: From the inside, is his brain actually hearing music? Well, lucky for us, there's a professor in England who had the exact same question. I called him up.

[phone rings]


JAD: Hi, can I speak to Professor Griffiths, please?


JAD: Tim Griffiths is his name. He is a professor of cognitive neurology at Newcastle University. Here's what he did. He took 35 people who are like Leo, who claim to be hallucinating music, and he scanned their brains.

TIM GRIFFITHS: Very simple experiment. I just put people in a scanner and said, "What are you hearing now? What are you hearing now?"

JAD: When they told him, "There I'm hearing music," at that moment, he would snap a picture of their brain.


JAD: Then he took a different group of people who have no hallucinations. Played them real music.

TIM GRIFFITHS: Actual music.

JAD: Scanned their brains, then he compared the pictures.

TIM GRIFFITHS: If you look--

JAD: They look virtually identical.

TIM GRIFFITHS: If you'd have put those in front of me and say one's people hallucinating, the other people being played music, I wouldn't be able to tell you which was which.

JAD: Which tells you two things. First, this condition is real. These people are not making it up. Second, this goes way beyond the ordinary experience that the rest of us have where we get a song stuck in our heads. These people are getting the full hi-fi experience of listening to music. Their entire brain is lit up.

DIANA DEUTSCH: The music sounds so convincingly like real-life music. What are to you think when it suddenly appears?

JAD: That's Diana Deutsch, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, who's been collecting emails from hundreds of different people who hallucinate music.

DIANA DEUTSCH: One person described it in the following way. He said, "Imagine that you were at a rock concert standing right by the loudspeaker. Well, it's louder than that."

LEO RANGELL: At the beginning when I didn't know what was going happen, I thought it was gonna take over my mind. It started interfering with sleep. It's [sings] On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe like all night. I got mad. I used to say, "Stop it already. Stop it. Cut it out. Come on. Enough. Enough. Enough." But you're never free. I thought I'd never sleep again. That was the low point. I thought, "I've got to get help for this."

LULU: At what point did you bring it up with doctors?

LEO RANGELL: The doctors were completely impotent. To this day, they roll their eyes when I tell them about it.

LULU: One doctor told him that maybe it was the fillings in his teeth picking up the radio.

LEO RANGELL: Okay, I hoped it was, but it wasn't. It continued forever.

LULU: Nothing he could do could make it stop.

LEO RANGELL: I don't have an off button.

LULU: It's like there was a jukebox in his head run by an evil gremlin. The worst part, the gremlin would mess with the tempo.

LEO RANGELL: Okay, ta-da-da-da, ta-ta-da-da, ta-ta-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da, the man on the flying trapeze. 

[music in, “The Man on the Flying Trapeze”]

LEO RANGELL: Then it starts speeding up. [sings] Da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-ta, ta-da-da-da. That's the worst. When that started to happen, I really was getting close to panicking. I had the feeling that it could go at its rate, and I couldn't stop it. It's like you're on a galloping horse and the horse is running away with you. I once told that to my daughter. She said, "Dad, why don't you just instead think of the song, Silent Night." [music in, “Silent Night”] I could control the tempo, and instead, when that was galloping, I would go, Ta-da-da-ta, ta-da-da-ta. Immediately, I'm completely relaxed, and the gallop is completely gone. I can even let it come back, and it would start now being [sings slowly] ta-ta-da-da-da-da-da-da.


LEO RANGELL: That was no longer ever a problem of the tempo running away with me.

JAD: Okay, so let's just assume Leo is not crazy.

LEO RANGELL: I never thought I was psychotic. Never. Never.

JAD: Because most people that turn out with this condition are not crazy.

DIANA DEUTSCH: There's nothing else wrong with him.

JAD: According to Diana Deutsch. Then the question becomes, "How can a person who is otherwise sane hallucinate to such a crazy degree?" Well, in the '60s, there was a Polish psychologist named Jerzy Konorski who thought about this and he came up with a simple beautiful idea, based on an assumption that he couldn't prove yet, which was, that between the ears and the brain, there are some connections, he thought, just a few stray connections that run backwards. Brain back to ear, which would allow sound to run in reverse. Now, this was just an idea. He couldn't really test it. Many years later, neuroscientists like Tim Griffiths start to poke around in the brain. They start to explore and what they find is that he was right. Very right.

TIM GRIFFITHS: Yes, we look at the pathway between the ears, and the brain, probably about 70% of the fibers don't actually go up, they go down, they go the other way towards the ears.

ROBERT: 70% go up?

JAD: 70% go from the brain to the ears. It's like our ears are literally wired to hear our brains. Now, Konorski's idea was that normally our ears wouldn't hear what the brain was saying because it was too busy taking in all the sounds from the outside. "What if," he thought, "The sound from the outside stopped?" Maybe then there would be a kind of backflow. The sound stored in your brain would start to flow backwards. Now, again, this is just an idea but there might be something to this because it would explain why most of the people who suffer from musical hallucinations, according to Tim Griffiths, have one thing in common.

TIM GRIFFITHS: By far and away the common situation you see is in people who have deafness, usually in middle or later life.

JAD: You don't have to take his word for it.

MICHAEL CHOROST: Nearly the instant that I went deaf, I started experiencing round-the-clock, 24/7, auditory hallucinations.

JAD: This is Michael Chorost when he was 36, he lost all of his hearing. He remembers the moment it happened. He was in the emergency room talking to a nurse and suddenly the sound started to go.

MICHAEL CHOROST: It was like going from talking like this, to talk like this, to talk like this, to talk like this. My ears were just draining out, like water draining out of a bathtub. I was just getting deafer, deafer, and deafer. At the same time, I was starting to hear a very loud ringing sound in my ears. It was gradually morphing into formless eerie, ethereal music. Music of the spheres really, I will call it. It would slowly morph into some version of the Ave Maria. [music in, “Ava Maria”] It was almost as if, as a sort of recompense to being deaf, I was like plugged into some deep background melody in the cosmos.

JAD: Now, here's the question. What would happen if Michael suddenly got his hearing back? Well, a couple of months later, Michael got a cochlear implant installed. This is a little chip that's put into his brain which promised to return at least part of his hearing. He says when the doctors turned it on-


JAD: -the moment he says they turned it on, the sounds from the world came rushing in and the music stopped.

MICHAEL CHOROST: Stopped cold. Just went away almost instantaneously.

JAD: There you go.

ROBERT: Well, but I happen to know a woman who had a very, very different experience.

JAD: What do you mean?

ROBERT: She had the same problem, she went deaf, she started hearing music. What kind of music was it?

CHERYL C: Hymns, spirituals, patriotic songs.

ROBERT: Her name, it's not actually her real name. It's Cheryl C, is what we're going to call her. She wanted the music in her head to stop and she'd heard about a patient like your friend here--

CHERYL C: –who heard musical hallucinations received a cochlear implant and hallucinations disappear. So I wanted to do it.

ROBERT: She did it. She got the implant. She wakes up on the operating table and-

CHERYL C: I heard the music. It was inside me.

ROBERT: Still there.

CHERYL C: Just was there. I can't stop it.

JAD: They are kinda the same situation.

ROBERT: They are very much the same.

JAD: Why would there be that difference?

ROBERT: I don't know why there is this difference between those, so I asked Dr. Oliver Sacks we often talk to on these questions. How do you explain the difference?

OLIVER SACKS: As a physician one sees patients, you ask about their symptoms, they produce their symptoms, but it is equally important to see the relation of the symptoms of the disease, to the person themselves, to their identity.

ROBERT: He's discovered, over the years, that the problem is expressed in the patient is partly a disease. The person is sick or in trouble in some way. At the same time, the disease is reflecting something about the person in front of him.

OLIVER SACKS: One sees interaction and a liaison, a collusion, a condition, I don't know what word to use, between the self and a symptom.

ROBERT: Sometimes it can come out so strangely. For example, there is a patient he has, who is a Jewish kid.

OLIVER SACKS: He was a Jewish boy who'd grown up in Hamburg in 1920s and 1930s and he had been terrified by the Nazi youth.

ROBERT: For some horrible reason–

OLIVER SACKS: He hallucinated Nazi marching songs. He was tormented.

ROBERT: On the other hand, Oliver told me about an old woman he once met in a nursing home who was haunted by lullabies.

OLIVER SACKS: One after the other, nonstop.

ROBERT: She was an orphan.

OLIVER SACKS: Her father died before she was born and her mother before she was five. Orphaned, alone.

ROBERT: She found the songs in her head deeply comforting.

OLIVER SACKS: The music and the hallucinations, in fact, seemed to be a door into a lost part of childhood.

ROBERT: Then the differences between people, when music floods into their head, what's going on, says Oliver, is the disease and the person, they are talking to each other.

OLIVER SACKS: The self can be molded by hallucination, but it can mold them in turn.

JAD: I wonder where Leo fits into this. Lulu?

LULU: Yes.

JAD: How would you say that Leo self interacts with his symptoms or vice versa?

LULU: Well, he's a psychoanalyst, so whenever he gets songs stuck in his head, which is like all the time, he analyzes it. He looks for a hidden meaning in it.

LEO RANGELL: You know the way dreams reveal your inner life, the same thing with songs.

LULU: Leo will tell you that every song is a message from his subconscious.

LEO RANGELL: Everything has an unconscious connection, pleasant or unpleasant.

LULU: He's just got to figure out what it is.

LEO RANGELL: [laughs] I'm analyzing me like I have a patient in front of me.

LULU: When I first called him up, he had “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” stuck in his head. That he told me it was because he'd been thinking about--

LEO RANGELL: The passivity of the American people in following a leader that misleads them. "And everywhere that Mary went, the lambs sure to go." I mean, the connection is obvious.

LULU: Or when he first got home from the hospital, he always had “America the Beautiful” stuck in his head.

LEO RANGELL: I'm certainly not a raving Patriot, but what this meant was home sweet home. America to me was home.

LULU: It's easy to think that this is kind of a stretch. Every song has some very specific meaning for him, but I don't know. There was this one time he told me about where he woke up with a song in his head.

LEO RANGELL: I stopped going to brush my teeth. I'm singing along as I go to the bathroom.

LULU: He didn't know why.

LEO RANGELL: This is what it was.

LULU: Just a few years after his wife had died.

LEO RANGELL: [sings] My Bonnie lies over the ocean. My Bonnie lies over the sea. My Bonnie lies over the ocean. ta-da-da, da-da, da-da-da-da. Bring back, bring back, bring back my Bonnie to me, to me. I realized when I said, "Why am I singing that song?" Then suddenly I realized it was our wedding anniversary that week. It was one of our major anniversaries. That song can kill me when I hear it.

LULU: Even so he told me that when that song comes, he doesn't want it to go.

LEO RANGELL: I found that when the song disappeared, I didn't want it to disappear.

LULU: It's now been over a decade of hallucinating music for Leo, and he found that, at some point, the music switched and went from intruder to friend.

LEO RANGELL: ta-da-ta, ta-da.

LULU: Now he looks forward to the songs.

LEO RANGELL: Stars and steel guitars, da-da, da-da.

LULU: They keep him company because often he finds himself alone.

LEO RANGELL: [singing] Da-da-da, in Monteray. It's true. One of the things about being 94 is that when you look at your telephone address book, half of them are not there anymore. You scratch out the name and that's not easy. [singing] Da-da-da, just Molly and me and baby makes three. Well happy in my blue heaven.

JAD: Radiolab's, Lulu Miller. Thanks, Lulu.

LULU: Yes. Thanks to Leo.

JAD: Leo has a book out about living with musical hallucinations. It's called Music in the Head: Living at the Brain-Mind Border, and so does Michael Chorost. He's the guy with the cochlear implant. His book is called Rebuilt: My Journey Back to the Hearing World. You can find links to all of those on our website,

ROBERT: Special thanks to Oliver Sacks, who basically gave us his Rolodex. We were able to find all these people and interview them all. Thanks to Oliver and Kate Edgar, his assistant.

JAD: Absolutely. Now, Robert, before we go to break, I just want to play one more clip if you don't mind. Couldn't figure out a place to put it. It's from my interview with Diana Deutsch. I was asking her about musical hallucinations and where this stuff comes from. Where does the music come from? What triggers it? She told me basically, well, it can be anything.

DIANA DEUTSCH: A striking example was somebody who wanted very much for her hallucinations to go, and suddenly they did go away. So she said, "Oh great. This is the sound of silence," and immediately the song, “The Sound of Silence.”

[music, “The Sound of Silence”]

DIANA DEUTSCH: Simon and Garfunkel's song started.

JAD: What a torture. Radiolab will continue in a moment.

LEO RANGELL: Radiolab is funded in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the National Science Foundation.

DIANA DEUTSCH: Radiolab is produced by WNYC, New York Public Radio, and distributed NPR, National Public Radio.




JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. 

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. Our topic today is songs that get stuck in your head and won't unstick

ROBERT: Now in the last section we got—we talked about people who were invaded by music and couldn't get the music out of their heads. Now let's switch and talk about people who desire more than anything to get a tune a melody into their heads. Oh, no, it was just specifically people who are professional songwriters. Well, like him.

BOB DOROUGH: Hello, my name is Bob Dorough. And I'm visiting here with Radiolab. Is that it? What is it?

ROBERT: Not everybody is completely aware of our program. But then again, not everybody would be necessarily aware of Bob Dorough. 

BOB DOROUGH: Was that good? 

ROBERT: But you may know this…

[SONG CLIP, Schoolhouse Rocks, “Conjunction Junction”: Conjunction Junction? What's your function?]

ROBERT: And this—

[SONG CLIP, Schoolhouse Rocks, “I’m Just A Bill”: Yes, I'm only a bill. And I'm sitting here on Capitol HIll.]

ROBERT: Or this-- 

[SONG CLIP, Schoolhouse Rocks, “My Hero Zero”: Zero, my hero. How wonderful you are.]

ROBERT: If you grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, which I, by the way, did not do so everything that we've just heard I've never heard before, but you've heard these. 

JAD: Oh My God, have I heard these!

ROBERT: And so you know Schoolhouse Rock. And you have Bob Dorough to thank for all the songs that will not leave your head. [music in, "My Hero Zero"] We invited him over to my apartment to sit my piano talk a little bit about... 

JAD: Hookiness. 

ROBERT: That's right, what makes a song so sticky, so sticky for your head.  How does that happen? 

[Bob singing and playing “My Hero Zero” on piano.]

BOB DOROUGH: No one ever gets there but you could try.

ROBERT: He told us a story of getting a call way back in 1972 from a fella named David McCall.

BOB DOROUGH: He was an advertising executive, the president of a small advertising agency. And he simply said, “My little boy can't memorize the times tables, but he sings along with Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones and gets their words. Why can't we put the multiplication tables to music? We'll call it Multiplication Rock. What do you think?” Looking at me. And I said, "Yeah."

ROBERT: Did you say yeah with confidence? 

BOB DOROUGH: Well then I did some research. I looked in the math books that I had in my library. And then I just came to me as a title. Three is a magic number. 

[Bob sings and plays “Three Is a Magic Number” on piano] 

BOB DOROUGH: [sings] Three is a magic number. Yes it is. 

BOB DOROUGH: Hey that’s good.

BOB DOROUGH: [sings] Yes it is. It’s is a magic number. 

BOB DOROUGH: [to Jad and Robert] Want to hear more? 


BOB DOROUGH: [sings] Somewhere in the ancient mystic Trinity.

BOB DOROUGH: And then I went to look in the Bible and I looked everywhere. It is one of the magic numbers. And then I thought of Buckminster Fuller. 

ROBERT: Why Buckminster Fuller? Because of that geodesic dome thing?

BOB DOROUGH: gWell, the triangle is strongest shape that can be because it can't bend. A square can sag—right?—and become a parallelogram or something but a triangle is fixed by its very triangularity, right? 

BOB DOROUGH: [sings and plays piano] Every triangle has three corners. Every triangle has three sides, no more, no less. You don't have to guess. When it's three, you can see, it's a magic number. 

[MUSIC CLIP, covers of “Three Is a Magic Number” in various musical genres]

ROBERT: As you can hear from these remakes, three really is a magic number. In any case, at the end of this conversation, I asked Bob Dorough to think back way back before you did Schoolhouse Rock before you became a jazz musician, back to when you were a kid, “Do you remember the first time you got a really good musical idea when a melody that kind of popped into your head?” He said of course I do. Let me play it for you.

BOB DOROUGH: [sings and plays piano] Sitting on the doorstep side-by-side. Sitting on the doorstep with my bride. Tonight, sitting on the doorstep, tonight we'll do the four-step, sitting on the doorstep.

ROBERT: That's all there. That's all there! That was your first song?!

BOB DOROUGH: Not a bad melody. Terrible words. But I made it up ploughing. I was helping Uncle John on the farm. I was riding a harrow.

ROBERT: I don't care what you were riding. 

BOB DOROUGH: Oh…[laughs]

ROBERT: What I care about is—so right off the bat, bom-ba-bom-ba.

BOB DOROUGH: Dee-da-dee-da-dee-da. That's a pretty good hook…

ROBERT: What I care about is where did that come from? 

BOB DOROUGH: From hearing pop music, you pick up the phone even though unschooled. I would say knew something about songs, you know, subconsciously formed.

ROBERT: Because it's the architecture of all those other ones. 


ROBERT: Do these things. Like when you hit the right one? Do they like shout, “I’m the one!”

BOB DOROUGH: They do. They do. I'm not going to forget it. And I can go to town and shop for groceries. Go to a movie. And the next day it will still be there because it identifies itself. 

ROBERT: It almost kind of feels like it has suddenly has weight.

BOB DOROUGH: It has weight and identity. And there it is. It's there. Sometimes I get the melody and then it's just sheer labor to make the words spit. 

JAD: Where does the melody come from? 

BOB DOROUGH: Melody comes—the Muse

ROBERT: Ever met this muse?

BOB DOROUGH: A lot of people are visited by the Muse and they don't recognize her.

ROBERT: When you were plowing that day way back you know

BOB DOROUGH: I had a muse.

ROBERT: Yeah, but did you know that you had one? Or do you just think it was just something that like like—you're like new shoes? 

BOB DOROUGH: Yeah, I thought it was something that just came out of the air to me. I wonder if I stole it. [laughs]

ROBERT: That would that would worry me I guess.

BOB DOROUGH:Yeah. Oh, that's one of the songwriters main objectives. When you think of a melody say, am I stealing it?

ROBERT: See, that's how mysterious this is. You don't know whether the idea was yours is— originally yours, or whether you heard it in some earlier part of your life and it belongs to someone else you don't know. So the Muse is a tricky kind of Goddess. And you know where it really gets extra tricky. Imagine if you write a tune and it has weight for you and people begin to enjoy it where you live. And then very mysteriously, it begins to circle the world and people who don't share your language, don't share your tradition, your culture, share your tune. That is really mysterious.

JAD: Okay with that in mind, I got one for you.

[CLIP, announcer: Here is a delightful English artist. England’s popular young recording star, Petula Clark, so let's have a very fine welcome. [Audience claps]

JAD: This is a tune that was written by a British guy who came to New York sang by a Parisian woman everyone thought was American and what they made everybody knows.

UNKNOWN SPEAKER 1: One of my favorite records is by Petula Clark.

[MUSIC CLIP, covers of “Downtown” in various musical genres]

[SONG CLIP, Petula Clark’s “Downtown”: Just listen to the music of the traffic of the city. Downtown.]

UNKNOWN SPEAKER 1: And this particular record has special memories for me. Bittersweet memories, if you like because—I'll pull the record out of the case here—There we are. This is the original single that I would have bought at the time. Pie records. No scratches. Always looked after. Petula Clark, “Downtown,” written by Tony hatch.

[Jazz music in the background]

TONY HATCH: I didn't write “Downtown”, specifically for Petula Clark. I'd been to New York in October 1964. I stayed on Central Park, turned left from the Essex house and walked down Broadway, and by the time I got down to Times Square, I thought that it was strange that there wasn't a song called “Downtown.”

PETULA CLARK: [reading lyrics of “Downtown”] When you're alone and life is making you lonely. You can always go downtown. Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city. Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty. How can you lose?

[MUSIC CLIP, covers of “Downtown” in various languages]

TONY HATCH: It had different meanings in different places. But for me, on that first trip there, it was the center of life, it was a great place to be. And even though I was on my own, I didn't feel lonely. That's the first line of the song. 

[SONG CLIP, Petula Clark’s “Downtown”: When you're alone. And life is making you lonely, you can always go downtown.]

TONY HATCH: I brought the idea back to the UK. And in those days in between recording sessions and mixing down the recording session I used to have about an hour in the recording studio, and I would go and sit in the studio and just doodle around. It's a good time after a three hour recording session, the mind was very active and the music was flowing very freely. I actually then wrote the tune to downtown. And that was it. I left it.

PETULA CLARK: When I remember when Tony Hatch came to the apartment in Paris. That's where I was living at the time. You know, I had moved down to France, I'd married a Frenchman already had two small children and life was great. This was I guess, in ‘63 or ‘4. And I said, “Well, I tell you what, I'll go make a cup of tea and you play something to me on the piano.”

TONY HATCH: I played her, the bones of downtown the the outline of it. And the few words that I had and put the word downtown into wherever it was gonna go.

[SONG CLIP, instrumental of “Downtown” in background]

PETULA CLARK: And I was in the kitchen making tea. When I first heard the music for downtown, and I absolutely adored it. And I came back with a tea and I said,

TONY HATCH: That's the one I wanted to record. That could be a fantastic song and a great record.

PETULA CLARK: We were in the studio maybe a couple of weeks later and recorded a monster.

JAD: Now here's the interesting thing as the song grew, something happened. The meaning began to change a bit. I mean, here's a song that was initially a celebration of the city you go downtown, you see the bright lights you with people you'll never be alone. Well after a while Petula Clark and some of the people who sang it expanded the song to include the exact opposite meaning. Instead of comforting, the city is now a haunted place. And you are now more alone than ever. Same song, completely new flavor.

[SONG CLIP, slower, melancholy cover of “Downtown”]

UNKNOWN SPEAKER 2: It's got a lot of character and a lot of different angles you could take on it. The one that sprung to mind for us was a kind of Blade Runner. Make a much darker picture of what it's like to go downtown.

UNKNOWN SPEAKER 2: So do do doo doo doo doo doo doo doo, because I always thought with the original that it presented a very happy bright lights thing but you always had this sense of shallowness that if you were on your own and you went downtown, you’d probably stay on your own and get quite depressed actually watching lots of people having fun around you.

[SONG CLIP, Petula Clark’s “Downtown”]

PETULA CLARK: Just being out on the street and being with other people and seeing the lights there's a kind of slight desperation in that I think. [singing] The lights are much brighter there you can forget all your troubles forget all your cares. I like that line. The lights are much brighter they forget all your troubles, forget all your cares. You can't actually but you can go out and try. It takes your mind off stuff.

PETULA CLARK: [reading lyrics of “Downtown”] Don't hang around and Let your problems surround you. There are movie shows when we go downtown, maybe you know some little places to go to where they never close. Downtown.

JAD: Thank you to Alan Hall, the BBC and Falling Tree Productions for that piece. You know what I think? If our question right now is like when a song falls from song heaven, why does it find an audience sometimes a global audience? I think it's not really the music in this case. I mean, it's catchy. Sure, but the experience of going downtown in New York, and you're excited, you want to see the bright lights, you want to be with people and you get there. And it still sucks. You're still lonely. I think people in Shanghai understand that feeling people in Bombay everybody knows that feeling. 

ROBERT: Yeah, it's like migration music. 

JAD: In a way, yeah. 

ROBERT: You know, moving from one place to a new place. 

JAD: Yeah. 

ROBERT: And there is interestingly precedent for this 50 years before they wrote “Downtown.” This was already happening on a much bigger scale than I had ever imagined. I learned about this from from this guy, 

AARON FOX: Aaron A Fox. 

ROBERT: He is a professor of musicology at Columbia University in New York. 

AARON FOX: And a damn good country and western lead guitar player. Country not that rock-and-roll sh[bleep] One! Two! Three! [imitates fast guitar plucking] [singing Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”] I hear that train a-comin. It’s rollin round the bend. 

ROBERT: Country music is a genre we normally associate with Kentucky 

AARON FOX: Nashville. 

JAD: West Virginia.

ROBERT: A particular part of America—

JAD: Cowboys, pickups…

ROBERT: But it has spread, he says to the most unusual place. 

AARON FOX: Some examples of that and there are quite a few include the extreme popularity of American Country and Western music over the last 50 or 60 years with Aboriginal Australians.

ROBERT: You mean Hank Williams would be recognizable to somebody somewhere in Western Australia? 

AARON FOX: Absolutely. 

ROBERT: Really?

AARON FOX: Dolly Parton being another one. 

ROBERT: Dolly Parton? 

AARON FOX: Dolly Parton is this international global star of the world's music, especially in southern Africa. She's a revered like a saint.

[MUSIC CLIP, Dolly Parton’s “My Tennessee Mountain Home”: In my Tennessee mountain home. Life is as peaceful as a baby's sigh.]

AARON FOX: Yes, it's true Zimbabweans love Dolly Parton. You can fill a venue with a band playing Dolly Parton songs and everybody will know all the words. 

[CLIP, Dolly Parton at a concert: That was fun. You’s doing good. You was into that Rocky Top.] 

AARON FOX: And most universally of all, Don Williams.

[MUSIC CLIP, Don Williams’ “Tulsa Time”: I left Oklahoma, drivin' in a Pontiac.]

ROBERT: If Don Williams were to go to Dar es Salaam or to Zanzibar or to Kenya or someplace and book a club…

AARON FOX: Don Williams has actually gone to Zimbabwe, where he has filled a soccer stadium with 40,000 people twice in a row.

[MUSIC CLIP, Don Williams’ “Tulsa Time”: Livin' on Tulsa time. Livin' on Tulsa time.]

ROBERT: Imagine 40,000 Zimbabweans crammed into a big stadium and down there in the center in the lights is Don Williams from Texas. I just wonder, what exactly are they hearing?

[MUSIC CLIP, Don Williams’ “Tulsa Time”: Livin' on Tulsa time.]

AARON FOX: I have asked Grenadian, St. Lucians, Trinidadians, Jamaicans, Norwegians, Finns, Germans, Russians, Chinese, Native American, Aboriginal Australians, Thai. Why do you like country music? And the first answer is virtually always something along the lines of it's the stories.

JAD: Like as in the stories in the lyrics?

AARON FOX: [half-singing] I was drunk, the day my mom got out of prison, and I went to pick her up in the rain. But before I could get to the station in the pickup truck, she got run over by a damned old train.

JAD: That doesn't sound very Aboriginal to me.

ROBERT: You know how many Aboriginals are actually run over by trains? 1000s, actually. That's not what Professor Fox is saying. He says ignore the details and listen for the larger story which has to do with moving with migration and with regret. You’re lonesome for something and the thing you're missing is…

[MUSIC CLIP, “The Green Green Grass of Home”: The old hometown.]

AARON FOX: The green green grass of home.

[MUSIC CLIP, “The Green Green Grass of Home”: The green green grass of home.]

ROBERT: Aaron Fox as you can boil much of this music down to just this feeling. You look and look around me you long for something simpler, something that you left behind.

[MUSIC CLIP, “The Green Green Grass of Home”: And I realized I was only dreaming.]

ROBERT: What would be the best couple of examples you can think of have I miss the farm? I miss the crickets.

AARON FOX: Oh, where do you start? The first hit country song was in nostalgic reverie for, quote…

[MUSIC CLIP, Fiddlin John Carson’s “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane”]

AARON FOX: “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” performed by Jimmy Rogers and Fiddlin’ John Carson.

ROBERT: The song was recorded in 1927. And that happens to be the moment…

AARON FOX: If you look at the U.S. Census… 

ROBERT: As he’ll tell you….

AARON FOX: When the United States crosses the threshold from more than 50% agrarian and rural dwellers to more than 50% urban dwellers.

ROBERT: In other words, country music really exploded—and this is not an accident when most people no longer lived in the country. 

AARON FOX: Country music is born when the country becomes a nostalgic idea.

ROBERT: And so in America anyway, suddenly there was this dreamscape of country places that no longer exists except in heads and the music started just then. So if people in Los Angeles had in Chicago heard country in their minds, it seems just as logical that people who move from the country to the city in Asia in Africa and Australia might have exactly the same experience.

JAD: Yeah, but these songs are sung in English. If these people in these faraway places don't speak English, what are they hearing?

ROBERT: Well, it's important to understand English and the real enthusiasts around the world are English speakers. However, one explanation for its popularity elsewhere is that even if you don't speak English, the message is literally in the music itself. There is grammar here in the vocalization, the singers, this is a very normal country western thing they actually make a croaky sound that is very distinctive, you know, it's called…

JAD: Like an—guuh? [Jad vocalizes yodeling sound]

[Jad and Robert vocalize together]

[MUSIC CLIP, Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues”: That last long day, she said goodbye.]

AARON FOX: One of the principal vocal articulations is what country singers call a cry break. 

[MUSIC CLIP, Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues”: Well Lord, I thought I would cry.]

In my book, I parse the cry break into dozens of different specific articulations.

[Collage of music clips featuring cry breaks]

ROBERT: It's not just the voices, by the way, says Fox. It—it's the instruments. The instruments seem to be crying.

AARON FOX: In fact the steel guitar is the signature is sound of country because it's recognized as iconic of a crying human voice. It's called the crying steel.

[Music in, steel guitar instrumental]

ROBERT: You can hear the lonesomeness. And what seems to come through is things just aren't what they were before. And all over the world where people are leaving from the country to the city, and they are in enormous numbers. This is a story all kinds of people can understand.

AARON FOX: Country is just as much Grenadian music as it is Kentucky music. It's just as much Hawaiian music as it is West Virginia music.

ROBERT: Is that when when you fill a football stadium with Dolly Parton listeners, are we saying that they're there, in part because the song she's seen are their stories, too. 

AARON FOX: Yep. Yep. This is our music.

[CLIP, Dolly Parton at concert: I've written a lot of songs about the Smoky Mountains where I grew up. We had a good laugh back there in heels and…]

AARON FOX: We're all going through some version of, you know, one to two or 300 years of change from being essentially peasants to being moderns.

[CLIP, Dolly Parton singing “My Tennessee Mountain Home”: I remember sitting on the front porch on a summer afternoon, in a straight back chair on two legs, leaned against the wall.]

ROBERT: Professor Fox has a book on this subject, “Real Country Music and Music and Language in Working-Class Culture.”

JAD: You can find more information about that on our website,

CASEY: This is Casey calling from Fort Myers Beach, Florida. Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation, and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at



JAD: Hello, I'm Jad Abumrad. 

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich. 

JAD: Today on Radiolab our topic is the music in our heads. How does it get there? Where does it come from? 

ROBERT: And why won't it go away? 

JAD: Yes. Now, you think that the music you listen to is your music. It comes from the place you live. But there is such a thing as everybody's music. And we offer the next story as a as a kind of proof. It comes to us from reporter Gregory Warner.

ROBERT: Gregory Warner you won a journalism fellowship, and they said to you, you could go anywhere in the whole world, where did you decide to go? 

GREGORY WARNER: So I went to Afghanistan. 

Have you ever been to a war zone before, by any chance? 

GREGORY WARNER: Yeah, well I mean, no.

ROBERT: But have you done any international reporting before? 

GREGORY WARNER: Well, actually, earlier that year, I had been in Estonia covering an accordion festival. So that was a prime piece of…

ROBERT: So you play the accordion? 

GREGORY WARNER: I play accordion. 

ROBERT: Are you an accomplished accordionist?

GREGORY WARNER: No, no, no, no, I'm just an amateur accordionist but but—

ROBERT: So when you go to Afghanistan, do you bring your accordion with you? 

GREGORY WARNER: Yeah, I brought my accordion. 

ROBERT: How did that work out?

GREGORY WARNER: Well, I show up in Afghanistan, I'm carrying my accordion and I'm thinking, “Maybe this wasn't the smartest idea.” 

ROBERT: Because…? 

GREGORY WARNER: It wasn't an accordion playing crowd. I mean, I was going down the street and women in burkas are holding their babies and little boys will actually sob—sob, begging you to sort of buy a piece of gum. Here I am with my shiny red accordion and it's just not very appropriate.

ROBERT: Does there come a time when you're actually willing to use the accordion?

GREGORY WARNER: Well, it was a weeknight and was in my living room. I find the Najib, who is my fixer and translator—he's working for me. He's lying on his back, and he's flinging his legs up into the air. A guard is catching his legs and flinging them back down. 

[man grunting and groaning]

ROBERT: Why are they doing that?

GREGORY WARNER: Well, this is a kind of ab crunches.

[man grunting and groaning]

ROBERT: That's where we're listening to now? 

GREGORY WARNER: Yeah, there he's throwing his legs up and back down. [man grunts] Back down, [man groans] so I figured I'd help him out. So I started playing my accordion for him…

[sound of accordion mixed with grunting and groaning] 

GREGORY WARNER: And it’s going well, Najib’s bopping his head tune, and then he kind of looks at me. He says, “Hey, how do you know Afghan music?” I say, “I'm not playing Afghan music” and he says, “Yes you are.” I say, “No I'm not.” “Yeah, you are.” I said, “No, no, that's like a folk song from the 60s called, ‘Those Were the Days, My Friend’—some song that my mom used to sing. 

GREGORY WARNER’S MOM: [singing and playing on acoustic guitar “Those Were the Days, My Friend”] Those were the days, my friend. 

GREGORY WARNER: Yeah. That’s my mom. 

GREGORY WARNER’S MOM: [singing and playing guitar] We thought they'd never end. We'd sing and dance forever and a day….

GREGORY WARNER: He says, “No, no, that's an Afghan song.” And then he's back to the ab crutches. [man groans] And I'm like no, no, no wait! Please tell me the story of “Those Were the Days, My Friend.”

GREGORY WARNER: [speaking to Najib] So what's the story of “Those Were the Days, My Friend” That's what we call it. Tell me about that song.

[Gregory hums tune]

NAJIB: [while doing ab crunches] That song is from the singer who was famous for being a Casanova. His name is Ahmad Zahir—

GUARD: Ahmad Zahir. Famous singer in Afghanistan 25 years ago.

GREGORY WARNER: How do the lyrics go in—

NAJIB: [sings in foreign language] 

ROBERT: Wait, wait that's—that's not…

GREGORY WARNER: Okay, it's it's true. He did get it wrong. So I forgot about it. I thought he was crazy. Then it kept happening. I would bring my accordion, play it for some people every time he would say, “Hey, isn't that Ahmad Zahir song?”

ROBERT: How do you—how do you spell his name? 


ROBERT: I mean, who is he? 

GREGORY WARNER: Well, that's what I wanted to find out. So the first thing that Najib gave me was his entire CD collection. And one night I sit down listen to it. I'm hearing one Western riff after another—John Lennon, Nat King Cole, definitely a lot of Elvis. Like I realized that on this tune…

[MUSIC CLIP, Ahmad Zahir song plays]

GREGORY WARNER: It’s an Ahmad Zahir tune. You can actually overlay the Elvis version—

[MUSIC CLIP, Elvis’ “No More”]

[Zahir and Elvis versions mix]

GREGORY WARNER:—Right on top of it.

ROBERT: Is he stealing these tunes? Is that what you're saying?

GREGORY WARNER: It's more like he Afghan-ized them. Like here's one of his biggest hits, "Tanha Shodam Tanha"

[Najib sings Ahmad Zahir’s "Tanha Shodam Tanha”]

GREGORY WARNER: You remember this is the song that Najib sung to me. But it did sound familiar. So I emailed this tune to an old friend in St. Louis. He immediately said, “Oh, yeah, that's that Western disco hit, “El Bimbo.”

[MUSIC CLIP, Claude Morgan’s “El Bimbo

ROBERT: That's amazing.

GREGORY WARNER: Now this is the Western version. It's the same melodies as the Ahmad Zahir version. Same key even. Now let's just go back to the Ahmad Zahir version for a second.

[MUSIC CLIP, Ahmad Zahir’s "Tanha Shodam Tanha”]

GREGORY WARNER: Now listen to this violin. So this is East Meets West, Ahmad Zahir style, and this was like the mega hit in Kabul in 1973. This the sound of Afghanistan in the ‘70s. 

[Najib sings Ahmad Zahir’s "Tanha Shodam Tanha”]

GREGORY WARNER: So I begged Najib to tell me more about this Ahmad Zahir guy and finally he says, “Okay, I'll take you to meet the old childhood friend of the man himself.” So we drive up to this gate. This guy with white hair opens the door—him and Najib chat for a bit. This guy called Sadat Dardar.

[men talking in foreign language]

ROBERT: Sadat Dardar.

GREGORY WARNER: He's been friends with Ahmad Zahir since the fourth grade. And he takes us inside, he closes the gate behind us. And the scene changes. Suddenly, it's a garden, birds are chirping. And then Sadat stops and he points to this old fountain in the courtyard and he says something to Najib and Najib starts laughing. And Najib says, "You know, this is the fountain where Ahmad Zahir used to play his accordion." Ahmad Zahir plays accordion just like me.

NAJIB: He's saying that 40 girls were lying down there and he was playing accordion here, you know?


ROBERT: 40 girls?

GREGORY WARNER: Well, they -- they did call him Casanova for a reason.

ROBERT: But was that okay? Because in Afghanistan maybe girls and boys are supposed to, like, be hanging out.

GREGORY WARNER: Well, yes and no. Because Afghanistan was a pretty different country in those days. It's something I didn't even realize until I got there. This is the '70s. The women were wearing skirts and Jane Fonda haircuts. The men are wearing sideburns and they're doing their James Dean. And it's not just what people are wearing, it's that there's this sense of possibility in the air. Things are opening up finally. And the poster boy for all this is Ahmad Zahir. He's a bad boy.

[SADAT speaking in Dari]

NAJIB: When he had a concert, everybody, all the boys and girls would come to his concerts wearing new clothes. And not only all the girls of Afghanistan, but the foreign girls they also were in love with him.

GREGORY WARNER: Let me just play one little clip from one of his shows, and I want you to hear a little scream that comes right in -- right here.

[Crowd screaming]

GREGORY WARNER: For young Afghans at the time, especially young Afghan women, Ahmad Zahir, he was like a god.

[SADAT speaking in Dari]

NAJIB: No mother will give birth a child as good as Ahmad Zahir.

GREGORY WARNER: And this is where the story gets a lot darker. It's 1973. The Russians start to move in. And the new president that they put in, he doesn't really like Ahmad Zahir at all.


GREGORY WARNER: Well, it was really in their interest that Ahmad Zahir would come out publicly praising the government, and he always refused to do it. Anything political, he wouldn't play the show. And some of his songs, especially the later songs started to actually have coded anti-government lyrics in them.

ROBERT: Ay-yi-yi.

GREGORY WARNER: And then he would have other lyrics about how freedom is the most important thing.

ROBERT: So what did the government do to him?

GREGORY WARNER: They banned his songs from the radio, they started throwing him in jail kind of regularly. But even when he gets out of jail, he refuses to play any of the Communist Party events, but he plays plenty of his own shows. In fact, after one concert he meets this beautiful woman named Fahira. The way she tells the story, he taps her on the shoulder. He says, "Hey." 

FAHIRA ZAHIR: He says, "Hi. Can I talk to you?" I turned my face, I said, "Yeah." He said, "No, never mind."

GREGORY WARNER: He tapped you on the shoulder and he said, "Can I talk to you?" And then he said, "Never mind," and he walked away?

FAHIRA ZAHIR: And he just walked away.

GREGORY WARNER: That was a pretty good seduction technique.

FAHIRA ZAHIR: I guess he was very good in it. He got lots of girls like that.

GREGORY WARNER: And he got her. And they got married, and she got pregnant. Meanwhile, the political situation was getting worse and worse. All his friends are fleeing the country. There are murders, tortures.

FAHIRA ZAHIR: Somebody came to our house, knocked the door. And he said, "Can I talk to Ahmad Zahir please?" Ahmad Zahir offered him, "Can I get you a drink?" He said, "No, no, no. I've just come from the Ministry of Interior. There is a plan for you. I don't know what they're going to do to you. That's all I want to tell you. To be careful."

GREGORY WARNER: But Ahmad Zahir and his wife, they don't do anything.

ROBERT: They don't?

GREGORY WARNER: They don't leave.


GREGORY WARNER: He says, "Oh, we'll go after the baby's born."


GREGORY WARNER: Five days later, it's his birthday. June 14th, 1979. He's actually signing a contract for a concert that day.

FAHIRA ZAHIR: He went to sign a contract.

GREGORY WARNER: And as he's driving away, he tells her to make some lunch.

FAHIRA ZAHIR: He said when we come back we'll go shopping, and then I will make lasagna and then we'll go out.

GREGORY WARNER: So she makes lasagna, and she waits for him to come back. And she waits, and then she falls asleep.

FAHIRA ZAHIR: I had a very weird dream. I'm somewhere very high in the mountains, and I have no shoes and there is a very strong wind blowing and my hair is everywhere. And I see him not the way he went in the morning. His beard is out like he hasn't shaved for the past two days, and he has something white around him. And something is pulling him. And he's calling to me that "I don't want to go." And suddenly I woke up. I run down. I saw my father-in-law. He wouldn't talk. He was just bending, you know, like shaking himself and bending and just holding my hand. I didn't know anything what -- what happened.

ROBERT: So what happened then?

GREGORY WARNER: Well, the government says that Ahmad Zahir had a traffic accident, but everybody else tells me he was shot in the head, probably by government operatives. And the news spreads through all the neighborhoods in town. So you have Tajiks, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, they're all getting up and not really knowing what else to do. They come walking to Ahmad Zahir's house. The courtyard starts filling up with people. 50, 100, 200. They're inside the house, they're outside the house, they're on the street. At this point the body comes, born by six policemen on a stretcher. People start to wail, they start to push. In fact, all the windows break, the doors break. They bring the body through the courtyard into the living room, and Fahira pushes through the police, and she sees her husband's body on the stretcher.

FAHIRA ZAHIR: So I thought he was hurt or something. And when I pulled the sheet from his face, that's when I fell down on top. When I fell, they took me to the hospital and that's how Shabnam was born.

ROBERT: So does she go into labor?

GREGORY WARNER: She goes into labor.

ROBERT: Right there?

GREGORY WARNER: Yeah, yeah. And she almost dies in childbirth, but her baby's saved, she's saved. And her baby has the same birthday then.

ROBERT: Her baby was born on that very day?

GREGORY WARNER: That very day.

ROBERT: So then what happened?

GREGORY WARNER: Well, then the music basically stops. It's that winter that the Russians invade, starts a long period of war. You have the jihad, then the Mujahideen, then the Civil War. When the Taliban come in, they just ban music entirely. I mean, no instruments. We're talking 20 years where the cultural life of this country basically is frozen. I can't even imagine what that's like. I can barely go a day without hearing some tunes. 2001, the Americans come in. Afghanistan's opened back up.

[Radio frequency sounds as a radio is tuned to a channel]

GREGORY WARNER: The radios turn back on. And who comes out of them? Ahmad Zahir.

[MUSIC CLIP, Ahmad Zahir’s "Tanha Shodam Tanha”]

ROBERT: So Greg, when you turn on the radio today in Kabul, do you hear Ahmad Zahir?

GREGORY WARNER: I'm telling you, it's my main way that I connect with taxi drivers. Invariably, they're listening to an Ahmad Zahir song.

ROBERT: Even now?


ROBERT: Why? Because they're just not been a chance for new artists to emerge? Or it's just, you know, it was a deep freeze?

GREGORY WARNER: And also Ahmad Zahir reminds everybody of what Kabul used to be. I had this experience with my accordion again and again myself. Even when I played people my music, they'd get this smile on their face as if I was reminding them of something they knew before me. In fact, there was one time I was up North and there was this big music festival, and I had brought my accordion. And they said, "Well, why don't you play?" And I said, "Well I mean, I could play for you, sure." They said, "How about right now?" And so they kick the band that's on there off, they send them to drink green tea. They shove me up on stage. I'm standing in front of 300 Afghans, and these guys, they're not from Kabul. They don't speak English. They're not wearing suits and ties. This is a very Afghan crowd. So I figure I should play some Johnny Cash. 

ROBERT: [laughs] Of course!

[GREG WARNER on Kabul stage playing Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” while audience claps and cheers]

ROBERT: But they're going crazy!

GREG WARNER: [singing and playing accordion]: I fell into a burning ring of fire. Down, down, down and….]

GREGORY WARNER: It was the best crowd I've ever had.

GREG WARNER: [singing and playing accordion] The ring of fire. The ring of fire. The ring of fire…

[Audience cheers and whistles]

JAD: Greg Warner traveled to Afghanistan with support from an international reporting project fellowship from the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. And if you visit our website,, you can see video -- actual video footage of that Johnny Cash concert. It's worth checking out.

ROBERT: Yeah, he shot it, so there you see them all in their strange non-country western clothing.

JAD: Well, we should -- we're out of -- we're out of time. When you're on our website, you can also send us an email: I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: Thanks for listening.

[AARON FOX: Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad, Lulu Miller, Rob Christensen, Ellen Horne and Tony Field. Production support by Sally Herships, Sara Pellegrini, Arielle Lasky, Heather Radke, Jesse Banco, Anna Brocko-Wayrock.]

[FAHIRA ZAHIR: And to Everett and Soren Wheeler. Thanks to Ellen Horne and Falling Tree Productions. Josh Kurtz and Dan Hershey.]




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