My Ranz des Vaches


Apparently we’d taken a wrong turn onto some dark back road in Sandusky. My sister’s boyfriend reached into the cooler in the back seat and then smacked himself lightly in the face with ice-cold water to stay awake.

I was maybe twelve years old, on the way back from a day trip to Cedar Point, and this was perhaps the first time I’d been more than an hour from home. The darkness was disorienting and we seemed lost during a time before personal GPS.

During the drive, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” came onto the radio. I broke down and wept.

Other songs have had a similar effect on me. Danny Boy. Shenandoah. Fiddler’s Green. Nimrod from the Enigma Variations. Ashokan Farewell. There’s another song that is my kryptonite, which I’ll let you know about in a minute. Lately I wondered why songs like these had such a strong effect on me. It turns out that people have experienced this response to music for a very long time, and it was the subject in discovering the concept of “nostalgia.”

During the Renaissance, Swiss mercenaries were viewed as invincible. They traveled throughout Europe and were known for their use of the pike and their ruthlessness in defeating enemies who were better-armored than they. Yet life as a Swiss mercenary wasn’t easy. The men frequently traveled throughout Europe without knowing when they’d be able to return home. Invincible as they were viewed, the Swiss mercenaries proved to have a weakness – music.

As they marched across Europe, the Swiss soldiers heard and sang songs from their homeland, called “Kuhreihen” or “Ranz des Vachez.” The songs were traditionally played by herdsman in the Alps, and it reminded the troops of home. Ranz de Vaches had such an impact on the mercenaries that men began to become ill or run away. Their leaders banned the songs from being sung or played for fear of losing entire armies to desertion.

Each sense reminds you of home in a different way. When I smell freshly painted and stained wood, I remember the smell of the gym at Holy Cross High School. It was the smell of hard work. Every now and then I’ll drive through a neighborhood in Michigan that reminds me of Euclid Avenue in Covington where I rode my bike for years. But while sights and sounds remind me of home, it’s music that gives me that punch to the chest.

Listening to Dad play the guitar was always a special moment. When he did, I knew what songs were coming. Each time he played, he played “The Boxer,” another Simon and Garfunkel favorite. Of all the songs he played, Dad sang this one with a little extra passion, as though he were singing the song that always spoke to him most deeply. That’s why every time I hear or play that song, I’m transported right back to my first home on Highland Avenue, sitting in the bedroom without a care in the world.

“The Boxer” is one of my Ranz des Vaches. Mike Masse’s cover of it grabs me by the heart every time, and I recommend giving it a listen:

What is your Ranz des Vanches? What song makes you think of home?

Photo: “My Guitar” by Vladimir Agafonkin

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