Sarah Vowell and the Recorder



Of the five books that American writer Sarah Vowell (pictured) has published so far, I’ve read exactly four (multiple times). Her take on Americana and choice historical subjects is fun, entertaining, and truly unique.

I would add that the books are educational, which they are, but I hesitate to stigmatize them as such. Let’s just say, in process of her unfolding a story, you learn an immense amount about the subject without being conscious of it.

There is, however, something better than reading one of her books.

Vowell delivering a story on the Public Radio program This American Life for which she’s a contributing editor, is a memorable experience in and of itself.

My favorite* is the episode “Music Lessons,” which featured her in act 2**, telling us about the instruments she played in high school and the extracurricular musical activities she participated in, forcibly or otherwise.

She organized the story into five (life) lessons learned from all of that music-making. The fifth and final one, “Birth of Cool,” centered on the recorder, an instrument she came to love after recognizing that she was “doomed at the trumpet, acceptable at the baritone, shaky on the xylophone, and putrid on the piano.”

Her tale is an absolute scream.

Vowell finished act 2 by playing on the recorder the Willow Song, an Elizabethan composition.

Listen (lesson five starts at 1:40):

Learn More:

* Admittedly, I have more than one favorite, with the feature on her taking a driving lesson from host Ira Glass coming in a very close second.

** This American Life is organized into acts preceded by a prologue.

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