Them there eyes

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.

Don’t get around much anymore

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.