The title of this post is a lyric from an absolutely brilliant song on Josh Ritter’s 1999 self-titled, debut album, entitled “Stuck to You.” Aside from stating the obvious about love and Teflon, there is a story behind this particular song that might, depending on how you read it, shine an interesting light on vocational discernment.
Ever since reading David Fuentes’s chapter, “To whom do I sing and why?” in Vocation Across the Academy, I have wanted to examine Josh Ritter’s musical career — and a sliver of his actual music — from the vantage point of vocation. For a singer/songwriter who can’t seem to be written about without making references to Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, or Bruce Springsteen, I am convinced that Ritter is the greatest musician you have probably never heard of. Unless, of course, you listen to NPR during the day or happen to be a fan of Chris Thile’s A Prairie Home Companion/Live From Here:
The song by Ritter that lends itself to a discussion on vocation — “Stuck to You” — opens with the following verse:
Well there’s one thing Mama, I think you should know
It is not love that makes the flowers grow
But a complex electron transfer process known as photosynthesis when chlorophyll reacts with the light of day
Since you’re gone, the light has gone away
Two more verses explain that love is responsible neither for the stars that shine (leave that to fusion) nor the turning of the tides (“the net difference in the gravitational pull between the Earth and the Moon as it is acted out upon the waves” will take care of that — now imagine putting that to music). Since his love is gone, though, “stars don’t shine so bright,” and he “feel[s] washed away.” Next, in a very clever bridge, Ritter laments that things might have worked out better if he had been a mathematician and devoted his career to studying rockets. Perhaps then, after breaking all the laws of physics, he might have a chance to be reunited with his lost love. The final verse establishes (forever!) the disconnect between love and the non-stick frying pan. After describing what my children refer to as “some very complicated science,” the song ends with “Since you’re gone, I wish I’d stuck to you.” The studio version of the entire song is definitely worth a listen.
Josh Ritter recorded this song, and the entire 1999 debut album, while still a senior at Oberlin College. Unable to settle on a major from the catalog, Ritter developed his own and graduated with an individual major in American History through Narrative Folk Music. Ritter’s path was hardly direct. His father, Dr. Robert Ritter, and mother, Dr. Sue Ritter, (both graduates from Valparaiso University) are neuroscience professors at Washington State University. When Josh began his studies at Oberlin in 1995, he was planning to follow a similar path and, ultimately, earn a PhD in neuroscience. He provides some interesting insights into his discernment process in a 2011 feature in Oberlin’s alumni magazine:
“At a time when I was struggling and looking around for something, and feeling like I wanted to do music, and not doing all that well in school, I had professors who helped me stay here . . . They realized that I was working diligently and trying to do something different. They gave me the latitude to let me make my own major and gave me a lot of patience and time, and introduced me to many of the people who I work with today.”
From neuroscience to American history through narrative folk music? Imagine that! Even more startling, imagine a single institution — the academy and all the people who dedicate their lives to it — with the capacity to impart the intellectual infrastructure necessary for a career in neuroscience and a career as a singer/songwriter. Not to mention the hundreds (thousands?) of other options in between those bookends. At the same time and in the same place. But what about the emotional infrastructure required to discern which path is yours? I hope that we — the academy and all of us who dedicate our lives to it — are thinking about both of these capacities and how critical it is to achieve some degree of alignment between them. Who else has the patience? Who else has the time?
One final note about Ritter’s whimsical song. It isn’t often that a musician lays out explicitly “To whom do I sing and why,” but Ritter’s own description adds clarity to a piece of music that might otherwise be difficult to wrap your mind around.
I will end with one simple (but hardly whimsical!) question: How would you tell your mother that you were abandoning neuroscience to pursue American history through narrative folk music?
Jeff Brown teaches engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. His essay, “Unplugging the GPS: Rethinking Undergraduate Professional Degree Programs” is part of the collection Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2017).