You should know that this first paragraph was written after I wrote what follows below. So that you don’t scratch your head and wonder what the hell I may be thinking about posting this on a website devoted to the topic of roots music, the idea for this piece actually began to germinate two weeks ago as I sat beside my ninety-three year old mother and watched a local bluegrass band perform. If you can just bare with me, I’ll get back to the topic of music shortly.
Growing old seems often be paired up with the notion of wisdom, as if simply making it through another day and another year will give you greater insight and context. Forgive me for not putting some of these quotations in quotes, or bothering to cite their source, but generally this is how it’s been described by those who have a way with words:
Wisdom begins at the end. He who devotes sixteen hours a day to hard study may become at sixty as wise as he thought himself at twenty. The years teach much which the days never knew. The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions. How can you be a sage if you’re pretty? You can’t get your wizard papers without wrinkles.
For myself as the years have tumbled by, wisdom seems to have eluded me. In it’s place has crept cynicism. And it’s something that I work hard to chase away every single moment, because I don’t think it’s a very healthy state to live in. But truth be told, it’s hard to escape.
As I watched on my television the town of Ferguson Missouri begin to burn and saw the tear gas canisters being hurled back and forth between the crowd and the police as if they were simply having a friendly game of catch, my first thought was of a smiling Bill Cosby. Out of the headlines in time for the holidays, his past misdeeds slithering back under the rock that they had crawled out from the week before. Hey hey hey. Hello cynicism. Hello in there.
I’ve been thinking recently about this notion of heroes; a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities. Our initial thoughts when we talk about such people are often tied into some sort of celebrity or accomplishment. And when I was younger, it seemed that they were easier to find. Or at the very least, their status endured over time.
Today we are able to lift the veil in record time, discovering the lies and deception behind the myths we create. From Pee Wee Herman to Tiger Woods, OJ Simpson to Oscar Pistorius, Gary Hart to Larry Craig…and it’s not only people that have disappointed us. I used to trust the newsmen and the newspapers, like Walter Cronkite and the New York Times. But today we have Fox News, which has begat a new CNN…twenty four hours of non-stop babble from experts and pundits who know nothing more than you or me, but who are simply there to incite, titillate and entertain. After centuries, we seem no more wiser…the story of feeding lions (be it real or imagined) comes to mind.
If you’ve stayed with me this far, let me share a more upbeat thought I had recently.
When people grow older and become unable to take care of themselves for whatever the reasons, a nursing home (or some euphemism that seems much more palatable to their family) often becomes the last stop. My own mother is now living in such a place; a ‘home for the aged’ they call it. There are residents who are alert and active, and those who are not. It sits on the banks of the Hudson River, with a beautiful view of Manhattan to the south, and there is a huge lawn with benches that sits empty most of the year.
The minutes and hours and days roll along slowly. Meals seem to be the high points of the day. Much of the conversation centers around what was last eaten, and what will be served next. And there are activities for those who choose to partake. Bingo is the mainstay, but you can go to the library to hear a lecture, the art center to paint, make jewelery or do some sort of craft, check your email in the computer room, exercise or just watch television.
Every Sunday at two there is a concert.
Recently while visiting, I tagged along downstairs with my mom to see a local bluegrass band. They were probably about my age, and I’d venture to guess that they don’t have a record deal, aren’t heard on the radio and rarely perform outside of venues such as this. But they were talented and entertaining, and it made me wonder. How many musicians are there who live in our communities do this sort of thing? The answer is…more than I could ever have imagined.
I plugged this into a Google search: ‘local musicians who play at nursing homes’...and got 31,300,000 results. Sifting though the pages, I found news stories and profiles of so many musicians that I was astounded. Many are people you might know of, having seen them perform or heard them on records from another time. Most are unknown; from that local bluegrass band I enjoyed to wannabe rock n’ rollers, jazz players, dinner theater singers, symphonic and classical musicians. And there is a common theme among all of them.
Meet Barry Dye from Bowling Green Kentucky.
Out in California, there is a fellow by the name of Gary Gamponia who heads up a group of musicians under the name of Pay It Forward Volunteer Band. They’ve been around almost five years, playing exclusively in skilled nursing homes. With a rotating roster of 140 musicians in Los Angeles alone, they’ve got branches in other cities as well.
In an article I found on a website called McKnight’s, Gamponia told the reporter that ‘We’re out there for that 90-year-old lady who’s been living there for three years, whose husband is dead and has very little to live for. These are people who built this country after the Great Depression, the people who defeated fascism and kept this country a democracy. When we do a show, we say that this is our way of saying thank you to that generation. We want to thank all the people who came before us.’
Keeping that in mind, this particular organization focuses their music on the thirties through the fifties. For the ‘younger residents’, maybe they’ll throw in a Sinatra classic. In twenty years, if you or I are the ones sitting there on a Sunday afternoon, wonder what we’ll want to hear?
Should you be a musician yourself, and think that maybe you’d like to donate some time to play for a nursing home or hospital, there is no shortage of groups that can help you connect. Musicians On Call has branches in fifteen cities, many of the websites that hook people up for jams feature a volunteer section, and local musician unions often are involved within the community.
In a world where it’s easy to become enveloped in cynicism, and where heroes seem hard to find, I’m glad to have discovered something I didn’t know about, or maybe just took for granted. To the thousands of musicians out there who take the time to share their talents to those who are easily forgotten…you are all heroes in my book.
To close it out, the Merry Musicians of Caloundra in Queensland are an amazing group of talented older Australians with an average age of 79. They play at nursing homes, retirement villages, and seniors events. They are “young at heart” and they will perform wherever there is a “free cup of tea and a willing audience.” Stella, the leader of the group is nearing 90 and as piano player Ted says “we’re just spring chickens”.