by Peter Mehren
SING ALONG IF YOU KNOW THE WORDS
The sing along if you know the words, wasn’t some attempt at bonding. Both of us liked playing music in groups, so my son, Matthew and I, were in different sections of the community orchestra, and one weekend afternoon we were playing a concert at a Retirement/Nursing Home. A young teenager, it was his first time in such a collection of elderly. His grandparents were alive and pretty much still with each other, and suitably alert and spry, and his mother, Kay, and I were fledgling seniors.
But the range of ages and appearances and abilities in our audience seemed sobering to him. Some wide awake and reacting to and with the music. Some sitting up on their own. And some clearly not actively in this world.
During the intermission, he came to me and asked, seriously and with some evident concern, “Do women live longer than men?”
“Yes. In general.”
Later that day, as the orchestra joined the residents for coffee and cookies, one of the volunteers at the facility sat at the piano and began to play.
Some of the people took seats or moved their wheelchairs nearer to the upright, at which the smiling female had started playing Hits From The War To End All Wars. She waved her left hand in rhythm and exhorted the folks to “Sing along! You all know the words.”
As did their parents and, likely, their grandparents. Safe, easy songs, with big, simple lyrics. Songs about bicycles built for two, merry Oldsmobiles, canoes that would row, row, row, how the veterans might be kept down on the farm, and being taken out to the ball game. (Fun fact: the fellows who wrote the words and music for that last song had never been to a baseball game. Just like Stephen Foster had never seen the Swanee, actually Suwannee, River.)
We saw, among the singers, proof of the poignant fact that some people whose mental facilities seem to have worn out, who seem unable or unwilling to acknowledge, recognize, or speak to others whom they’ve known for years, perk up slightly and sing, sometimes with great gusto and excellent pitch, the lyrics to songs already in the Public Domain.
Several years later, enjoying the inexpensive lunches at the nearby Seniors Activity Center, I heard yet another smiling middle-aged female pianist playing the same songbook, with others there for the lunch gathered around the piano, merrily singing… just like they’d seen people do in black-and-white movies. The English have always been fans of “sing-alongs”; and Stephen Colbert picked the Vera Lynn classic “We’ll Meet Again” for the climax of his final Comedy Central show, with dozens of his previous guests arriving and joining in, just as the audience, presumably of British soldiers, do on the most popular recording by Dame Vera.
Others at our lunch table rolled their eyes at the musical selections. “When we finally move into a retirement center,” I ventured, “I hope that Kay,” and I pointed at my wife who had been Musician/Pianist for her Job’s Daughters group and other less formal ensembles, “will play songs we actually sang while growing up. Beatles tunes, Beach Boys, Motown, rockabilly.”
“Some of those are pretty complicated,” ventured another at the table.
“Well, the arrangements, the recordings may be, but the simplified versions are easy enough.”
“And some of the lyrics now sound a bit… spacy.”
“Yes, there may have been some altering of minds. But do we care what Lucy was doing in the sky, and where the diamonds came from?”
“Wasn’t it about a picture John Lennon’s son made of a kindergarten classmate?”
“Let’s not get into a trivia competition,” said another.
“There was a hootnanny at the art center last week. Janis Joplin songs, with
free sheets of the words and chords for people who wanted to sing and play
“People born after she died.”
“She needed a body guard, a babysitter.”
“As have so many others.”
“And the music of the ‘Sixties was the greatest ever.”
“Not than the late ‘Fifties.”
“Well, both are great. That’s why there are “Timeless Hits” radio stations.”
“And those reunion concerts.”
“And replicas of the bands, playing at casinos. One guy from the original band, and four musicians in their twenties.”
“But, hey, the Rolling Stones are our age, and they’re still touring.”
“And making babies.”
“Let’s go up and ask her to play Hey, Jude.”
“And Just Like A Woman.”
“And that Leonard Cohen song.”
“I don’t know all the words.”
“No one does.”
“Or what it means.”
“But it’s pretty.”
“Yes. But for singing along? Let’s stick to the ‘Sixties.”
“Of course, the ‘Sixties started half-way through the ‘Fifties, with Bill Haley.”
“And the Penguins. Earth Angel.”
“Wasn’t that the Crewcuts?”
“No, they were White guys from Canada, covering Black groups.”
“Oh, like Pat Boone did.”
“Yep. But the real stuff, late ‘Fifties, Elvis.”
“The Everly Brothers.”
“The Isley Brothers.”
“And the Supremes.”
“Oh, and James Taylor.”
“But you know what? The ‘Thirties and ‘Forties had great, simple songs. I’ll See You Again.”
“I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
“The Great American Songbook. That’s why young singers, as they get older, sometimes record those songs.’
“The Nobel Prize winner.”
“The only one whose stuff I’ve read. Or at least heard.”
One of us began, softly, “Once upon a time, you dressed so fine.” And almost instantly, all of us at the table, waiting for our tuna sandwiches and fruit punch, joined in: “Threw the bums a dime….”
And the tradition got closer to our reality.