Hyperbole alert! Music is magic. It can work wonders. It connects people. It moves and inspires. It stirs memories. I somehow inherently understood all of this when I was bopping my little ten year old head to “Sir Duke” on my crappy record player. Or rocking out to my older brother’s Led Zeppelin records. Of course, the soul-numbing realities of adulthood can make you stop believing in magic. Or the power of music.
So I was a bit surprised at some of the reactions I got when I first started playing senior centers. Catatonic old ladies with heads drooped sedately on their chests would start to perk up. As I sang to people on locked-down dementia floors, folks who probably don’t recognize their own loved ones would mouth the lyrics word-for-word with me. Here is a striking example of this power that made the rounds on the Internet a while back.
At the end of my visits, I always ask the residents if they have a favorite song I can learn for next time. Gladys wanted me to play “They Call The Wind Mariah.” She lives in a large senior complex with so many residents that they rotate me through a couple floors each month. So it’s usually four months between visits to any given floor. When the time came to hit Gladys’ floor again I was in the middle of a busy week. I forgot to check my notes for requests until late the night before I was supposed to play. When I saw her request I’m sorry to say I tiredly blew it off, thinking “she’ll never remember anyway.”
When I got to Gladys’ floor, I spotted her right away and went over to say hello.
“Hi, Gladys. How are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m pretty good.”
Then without missing a beat she asked “Did you learn that song ‘They Call The Wind Mariah’ for me?”
After getting over my shock and shame, I apologized and promised to play it next time (which I did). Ever since then I’ve taken my musical responsibility a little more seriously.
By the way, the shot above (and those in my new gallery) were taken by Mark Wojahn, a filmmaker and photographer who was kind enough to donate his services when he heard what I was doing. I guess volunteering is contagious. Thanks, Mark.
“They Say It’s Wonderful”, by Irving Berlin for the musical Annie Get Your Gun (1946). Covered by everyone from Sara Vaughan to Doris Day, but my version was inspired by to Johnny Hartman’s rendition with ‘Trane.
The holidays can be tough, even if you’re not old, infirm and stuck in a nursing home. So I always try to bring a little extra cheer to my December volunteer gigs. This year, as I entered the dining hall and started to set up on one side of the room, a resident nearby barked “Go play over there!”
So I obliged and moved over to the other side of the room. As I got out my guitar another resident looked at me and said “Asshole!” Now, I’ve done enough of these to know that dementia patients say the darnedest things, so I try not to take it personally. But it was looking more like a “Silent (but deadly) Night”.
I started with a few light holiday tunes – “Here comes Santa Claus”, “Winter Wonderland” and the like. I think it was at that point that the woman who so joyously greeted me upon arrival barked at me again: “Play some hymns!” After reassuring her that I had hymns-a-plenty on the way, and dodging a few more “A-bombs”, the cheer continued to flow like slightly curdled egg nog.
Of course, it wasn’t all bad. I managed to get a few residents singing along with me, including a gracious daughter visiting her mom and a pair of incredibly lucid 90-something sisters. And folks got a kick out of a story I shared about “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”. According to the Source of All Knowledge (Wikipedia), when Sinatra was recording the tune he complained to songwriter Hugh Martin that the lyric “until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” was too depressing. “Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?” asked the Chairman. The Chairman gets what he wants, so it was changed to “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
However, after muddling through my set that night I couldn’t help but feel that Martin might have gotten it right the first time. Wouldn’t you agree, Judy?
I wish you could see Neola’s smile. However, senior home privacy policies prevent me from sharing photos of residents here. It’s a smile that radiates brightly all the way to her lively, dancing eyes. At the risk of taking a Cliff Clavin-esque trivial detour here, I’ll tell you that Neola means “young one” in Greek. And for a woman of advanced years, there is still plenty of vitality in Neola’s eyes. I always look for her when I’m playing to see if she’s smiling and singing along. She usually is and seems to know all the words.
The first time I played at this senior home Neola showed me just how much spark she has. She was seated demurely in her wheelchair in the front row, looking every bit like a quintessentially kind, tender grandmother. As I sang, a woman with dementia next to Neola was talking loudly to herself. Neola smiled up at me sweetly, then turned to the woman and with surprising authority barked, “Shut up!”
And so it went through the whole song. Neola smiled up at me. The woman rambled. Neola turned and told her to shut up before flashing a smile back at me. I thought I was going to have to break up a scuffle at one point when Neola threatened to throw her plastic cup of water on the woman. Luckily, a staff member intervened and wheeled the poor woman to the back. The octogenarian catfight was averted and the show went on.
So, this one’s for you, Neola. May you keep smiling and singing the rest of your days.
“Them There Eyes” written by Maceo Pinkard, Doris Tauber and William Tracey (1930). Recorded by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and countless other greats.
One of the best parts of my volunteer gig has been the chance to take a deep dive into the archives of American pop music. Rather than a dusty drawer of oldies, I discovered a rich and invigorating variety of rhythm, melody and expression that I hadn’t fully appreciated.
However, in picking songs to perform for the oldsters, some practical considerations came into play. First, was it a song to which I could do justice as one man with a beat-up acoustic guitar and a virtuosity slightly below Django-level status?
Secondly, there was the subtext of the song. I found myself worrying that in the confines of a senior home dining hall, even the most innocent little ditty could take on a whole new set of associations. I mean, could I honestly play “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” to an audience dependent on wheelchairs and walkers? While we all grew up with the music from The Wizard of Oz, is it cruel to sing “If I Only Had a Brain” to someone’s poor grandma suffering from dementia?
The list goes on and on:
“Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” (‘This one’s for all you pacemaker lovers…’)
“Straighten Up and Fly Right” (Osteoporosis)
“Let’s Get Lost” (a painful reminder to those who had their driver’s license taken away?)
Eventually, I told my inner cynic to shut up and I played these songs because they evoked happy memories for the residents. And that’s why I started doing this in the first place.
I’ll sign off with my version of “Slap That Bass”, a jumpy number that made me realize the Ink Spots were really a rock ‘n roll band years before the world knew what that was.
“You gonna be our Elvis?” asked the old, freckled gentleman. As if I wasn’t nervous enough without being asked to live up to the King. I guess it was the somewhat shiny vintage sport coat I wore to make a good first impression. After months of procrastination and idle talk, I was finally playing my first volunteer gig at a senior home. I’d spent weeks mining the “Hit Parade” cds at the library for gems from the great American pop music canon. Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Hoagy Carmichael and lesser known songsmiths along with a healthy amount of Johnny Cash and yes, Elvis. Now it was show time.
Frankly, I was surprised when I got an applause after my first number. I guess I wasn’t expecting such an enthusiastic response from a room full of sleepy, frail looking folks in wheelchairs. I was also pleasantly surprised when they spontaneously sang along with “Georgia on my mind”. Maybe this gig would be more fun than I thought.
These were the first of many surprises I have experienced while trying to help soothe the pain, lethargy, sadness, crankiness, loneliness and boredom of old age with the simple, yet powerful salve of rhythm and melody. Hecklers. Octogenarian catfights. Getting pinched by dancing dementia patients. You’ll hear about all this and more in future posts. Who knows? It just might inspire you to volunteer at a senior home near you (or at least visit your grandma more often). Until then, how about a tune?
Here’s my take on the Gershwins’ “Nice work if you can get it.”