Favorite Song, 1953, by Margo Hoff (American, 1910-2008), 1955-57-10

Time Traveling through Music: A Pandemic Story

Jackie Killian, Grants Manager

On finding solace and creating togetherness through a playlist

Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” was playing in the background at the pharmacy when I received my first COVID-19 vaccine. This encouraging soundtrack is all I remember about an experience that would have been forgettable in 2019 but felt landmark because I had survived 2020. I’d had a similar feeling when I returned to the museum last September for its first weekend open after nearly six months of pandemic-induced silence.

It was an emotional return. The museum isn’t simply where I work; it houses art I turn to for joy and inspiration, to be challenged, to find solace, to learn. While I was in the building, I came across Margo Hoff’s print Favorite Song, which was included in the exhibition Woodcuts: Groove and Grain. I reflected on it as a representation of music’s outsized presence in my life and how it continued to sustain me in my personal experience of an incredible global struggle.

I recognized my teenage self in the pose struck by Hoff’s blocky, abstracted figure: hugging my knees to my chest, sitting in one place for too long, my Walkman in front of me, listening intently, lost in thought. Hoff’s figure looks out from the scene, but not at the viewer, a corner of their mouth pulled up into a soft, barely visible smile. In this tight composition, Hoff captured someone’s internal world, cocooned by the music or the memory it recalls.

Maybe the turntable’s tonearm is at the end of the song. I wonder: Where was the listener transported? I listened to music during the pandemic to pull myself out of dark, uneasy thoughts, or to jazz up the monotonous daily dishwashing and tidying as weeks bled into each other. A dear friend experienced heartbreak during the pandemic, and for catharsis he created a playlist of 250 of his favorite songs. Max, my cat and Zoom-meeting companion, passed away in January, and my friend urged me to try this healing exercise. I spent contented hours tuning into my memories: MCs rapping on my brother’s boombox in Baltimore, Pet Sounds playing while I planted flowers in my mom’s rose garden. Making that mix was a passport to happiness at a time when it felt beyond my grasp.

My boyfriend celebrated his second pandemic birthday in March—his fortieth. How could I make this milestone a real celebration and not just an event to “do over” post-pandemic? Rather than foist another virtual gathering on him after twelve months of them, I took my colleague’s advice: make a playlist. My boyfriend’s family, friends, and coworkers contributed songs that reminded them of him, along with a memory each song conjured. The songs were like a wormhole that carried us to a Colorado stream he fished as a boy with his uncles and grandfather; to a college rec hall where he filled in for a touring band’s guitarist; to Fenway Park while flyballs sailed overhead during a playoff game. I knew these stories, but the songs slipped me easily into these moments as though I had experienced them myself.

The figure in Hoff’s woodcut invites us to curl up with music like we would with a good book, to get lost happily in our distant memories. Tell us: Where does your favorite song take you?

Jackie Killian is a grants manager in the Development department. When she’s not at the museum, she’s happily growing plants, browsing flea markets, and going to shows.