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Dolly Will Never Go Away Again

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“Why don’t you come and play for us here?”

It was a request that came from my mother.

“Here” was a senior community/assisted living facility where my mom had resided for about a year in independent living. 

In my time as a free-lance piano player, I had played in many settings over the years, including music for seniors, but I hadn’t done it in awhile since I took a full-time job as a music director at a church.

I wasn’t thinking along those lines, but it was mom asking. So I called the activities coordinator and said I wanted to volunteer to play some music for the residents. 

I was eventually scheduled to come out on a Friday night and play for about an hour. 

I pulled together music that I had used mostly for cocktail lounge gigs over the years, and basically kept the set list to songs that were popular around the time or before I was born, which I had always vaguely considered one basic entity. 

A decent number of residents from both assisted living and independent living showed up, and they seemed to enjoy it. I ended the night with “Hello Dolly”, which was basically my mom’s song, being that it bore her name. 

Growing up, we automatically associated that song with her, particularly the Louis Armstrong version, so it felt like a fitting way to end the night. Mom was pleased.

“Music Night” became a regular monthly thing, and the audience started to slowly grow in numbers. 

I noticed that the residents enjoyed singing along when they knew a song, and I started singing with them, until eventually I was singing on every song, something I had not done often with that style of music in the past.

I also noticed that the participation was usually most robust when I played songs from the 30s and 40s, and that there was a distinct difference between the songwriting of that era of music, the jazz era, and the decades that followed. 

These folks were no different than me when it came to music. 

The music that is popular in our younger years tends to hit us like nothing else does. There were certainly crowd pleasers from the latter decades, such as “Edelweiss” and “Moon River”, but I found my wheelhouse with this group with the earlier stuff. I realized my repertoire from those years could use some expanding. 

I started asking myself questions I had never asked before. 

  • Based on their median age, what songs would they have heard on the radio growing up? 
  • What songs could they have fallen in love to that would become “their song”? 
  • What songs were playing at the dance halls they frequented? 

I started listening to some Mitch Miller sing-along albums of hits from the era, and taking a cue from Stereogum’s “The Number Ones” column, of which I was already a frequent commenter, I researched what was topping the charts in the 40s. I found the answers that my audience (and commenters like Link Crawford) already knew. There were some great songs out there that I had never even heard, or I was only vaguely aware of them.

I started adding songs to my repertoire, such as:

  • “I’m In the Mood For Love”
  • “I’ll Never Smile Again”
  • “I’m Beginning to See the Light”
  • “Nice Work If You Can Get It”
  • “Side by Side”
  • “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”

And one that became a personal favorite: (I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.” In addition, the residents would request songs for me to learn, such as “Harbor Lights,” “All the Way,” or “My Heart Belongs to Daddy…”

… the latter of which I just played instrumentally as the lyrics weren’t something I felt comfortable singing.  

In experiencing the music with people that had a special connection with it, I began feeling the songs on a deeper level myself. 

Singing a song like “Stardust” with its gorgeous melody and vividly descriptive lyrics, I found myself getting transported back to those days right with them, as if I had been there too.

I began to see just how great some of these songs were and concluded that the old cliché, “they don’t write ‘em like that anymore” was so very true in this case, something I hadn’t really thought about before. 

I would tell the residents how meaningful it was to share this music with people that resonated with it and cared about it. I meant every word. No matter what kind of day I was having, hearing those voices singing along made me know I was exactly where I was supposed to be in that moment, and everything felt right.

Most of the time it was just me, but my niece Hannah would join me to sing a song, and my daughter would sometimes come and dance or sing. On those occasions, I would become completely overshadowed, which was perfectly fine with me. 

The joy that would fill the room and the connection across generations that was happening was simply life-affirming. One woman would often stand up at the end and thank me for taking them back to their youth. The same woman also said “yeah, right” in amusement when I announced that the next song would be “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”

Through it all, my mom was right there in the front row. And when we would end with “Hello Dolly,” people would cheer for her and come up to her afterward. It was as if she were the belle of the ball.

Always the quiet and unassuming one and not used to the attention, nevertheless, I believe she was getting a kick out of all of it.

As her Parkinson’s progressed and signs of dementia continued to increase, she moved from independent living to memory care and eventually to healthcare.

Bringing her down to music night became more of a challenge, as she wasn’t always in the mood to see anyone or to be seen, or was just too tired. But more often than not, she took her place right beside me in her wheelchair and could still be seen singing, clapping, and smiling ear to ear. On a good day, her joy at hearing the music seemed to be greater than ever. One night, during an upbeat number, a spirited resident grabbed her by the arms, pulled her up out of the wheelchair and began dancing with her. It was both terrifying and exhilarating to see. I felt tears in my eyes. 

On the nights when she wasn’t up for it, the other residents would ask where she was and how she was doing, out of genuine concern. I was moved by the care and camaraderie they showed toward one another, and they way they felt about my mom was truly moving. 

Even when she wasn’t there, they would insist that we end the evening with “Hello Dolly.”

When mom could no longer be easily understood when she tried to communicate, we still had the music, and when I would sing to her, she would sing along or tap her fingers to the beat.

Sometimes she would even name the songs.

“Blue Skies” was one that she never forgot. 

As difficult as it was for her, and hard for us as her children to watch her struggle and slowly change into someone quite different, in some ways those last years brought us all closer together than ever and had a beauty all their own. As I once told her, “I do miss the old Mom, but Mom 2.0 is pretty great too!” Amidst the changes, her dry sense of humor never left her, and even when she couldn’t throw out a classic zinger out of nowhere, a withering look said it all.

When it became clear she was in her final days, my sister Marybeth and I were able to sing a chorus of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” with her while her eyes were still open.

Sure enough, she sang along.

Not long after, she drifted into a state of semi-consciousness, and within a few days she slipped quietly into the next life. All six of us siblings were there in and out of that room, around the clock, playing her favorite songs, sharing memories, and sitting by her side in those final moments we had with her. We all had a chance to say goodbye to her, each in our own way. A month later, family and friends stood around her urn at the end of the funeral and sang “Dolly will never go away…” to her one last time.  She was no longer physically present, but she would never leave our hearts.

Just a few days after her passing, I was scheduled for my monthly music night with the residents. I fully intended to go, but at the eleventh hour, I knew I just couldn’t do it and cancelled. A few days later, I received a sympathy card in the mail, signed by a good number of the music night regulars, expressing their condolences.

We shared good times together, and now they were there in a time of deep sadness. 

They hadn’t forgotten. 

I took time off from music night indefinitely and wasn’t sure when I would be ready to come back, but I always thought I would eventually.

I could still hear my mother’s voice saying “why don’t you come and play for us?” I believed she would have wanted me to keep doing it if I could. 

Finally, after about a year absence, I returned early last year. I wasn’t sure who would be there waiting for me, but sure enough, there were some familiar faces, along with many new ones, all ready to share in some of the greatest music ever written. 

Without Mom there, I wasn’t sure how to end the evening. 

Those who knew of the tradition told me in no uncertain terms: that there was only one song to sing.

So I shared the story of my mother and how music night came to be and launched into a rousing chorus of “Hello Dolly” as the residents sang and clapped along. 

It was bittersweet, as I so wanted her to be there sitting in that front row, but I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be in that moment. 

And I still feel that way every time.

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rollerboogie

Music is what brought me here, but I do have other interests. I like ill-advised, low budget movies that shouldn't even be close to good, but are great, and cats too.

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cstolliver
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cstolliver
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May 8, 2024 8:37 am

So lovely, rb. A lot of this hits home for me, so my heart’s out to you and your family, and I’ll say a prayer tonight for Dolly.

Phylum of Alexandria
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May 8, 2024 8:48 am

Powerful piece, rb. Hard to read at times, as I think about my own aging parents (and my grandmother-in-law, whose dementia is steadily getting worse).

How wonderful it is that you could connect with your mother well past the point of coherent conversation, via the medium of cherished music? I must admit I envy that gift.

And how lovely that you’ve chosen to return to the center to continue sharing your gift with others there. It’s truly a beautiful thing you’re doing.

Hats off to you, sir. And hello, Dolly. I know you’re proud.

Virgindog
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Virgindog
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May 8, 2024 9:07 am

I didn’t expect to get all teary-eyed this morning. I’m passing this along to my friends Duette who regularly play in senior centers, as a reminder of how important their work is. Music is such a fundamental part of who we are whether we know it or not, and what you’ve done for those folks may in fact make them healthier.

You’re a good man, rollerboogie. I wish you many, many years of music.

Low4
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Low4
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May 8, 2024 12:41 pm

Damnit, RB, I’m sitting at work sobbing like a child with a skinned knee. Thank you for sharing that story. A couple of my favorite memories of my mom is my wife and I gathered around her at her piano singing songs from the O’Brother soundtrack, and then of my wife singing over her during the grim deathwatch. A small moment of beauty in a painful time. (Another favorite memory is the time her false teeth flew out of her mouth during a mixed doubles match. She snatched them up, threw them back in, and we won the point.)

It’s become a cliche to thank GIs for their service, but I’d like to thank you for your service to these folks. I’m sure you enriched their lives (and your own).

P.S. It’s called the GREAT American songbook for a reason.

Low4
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Low4
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May 8, 2024 2:44 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

Pardon my subject/verb agreement errors. I type too quickly and think too slowly. Alas (Same as it ever was, same as it ever was . . .)

lovethisconcept
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May 8, 2024 1:01 pm

What a beautiful story.

I am reminded of my last visit with my grandmother. We had a birthday party for her in the activity room of the facility where she was living. My sister played piano, and we all sang some of her favorite songs. We also sang “Happy Birthday” and had a big birthday cake for her and the other residents. She wasn’t really sure who we were, and she was unaware that it was her birthday. She did realize that there was a big fuss being made and that she was the center of attention. She loved every minute of it.

I’m so glad that you were eventually able to make your way back to music night. The joy that you give to some special people is priceless.

JJ Live At Leeds
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May 8, 2024 3:25 pm

Thanks for this RB. A beautiful piece of writing and a wonderful thing to have that connection with your mom and make a positive difference through a difficult period.

I’m sure it can’t have been easy going back to the home but it’s such a lovely thing to do.

Zeusaphone
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Zeusaphone
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May 8, 2024 6:52 pm

“They don’t write ‘em like that anymore”

Back in the day there a delineation between songwriter and performer. Professional songwriters would labor over a song for weeks/months/years before it was ready. Performers were interpreters of songs, each one bringing their own spin while keeping the structure.

The worst thing the Beatles did to popular music was normalize the idea that performing artists should also write all their own songs. Writing and performing are very different skills and it’s very rare to find someone that can do both at a high level, especially for an extended period.

LinkCrawford
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LinkCrawford
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May 8, 2024 10:03 pm

Rollerboogie, you are a gem. That service you provide is so priceless. And what a touching story about your mom. Having watched my mom go down a similar path I know how hard that is.
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And I can’t deny that I am terribly jealous of your talent, and that you get to use it to play old music for folks that appreciate it. I can’t tell you how much I would love that experience. It sounds wonderful.

One of the things that I get a little sad about as I age is that there are fewer and fewer people that know and appreciate music from the 30s and 40s. I talk to “old” people and they like the Rolling Stones! And then I look in the mirror and remember what decade it is. *sigh*

Thanks the sad but wonderful feelings today. 🙂

mjevon6296
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mjevon6296
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May 8, 2024 11:38 pm

How did it get so dusty in here? So beautiful!

You have those music night memories to remember for the rest of your life now.

Pauly Steyreen
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May 9, 2024 12:04 am

Jerk these tears, rollerboogie.

Seriously, thank you for sharing. This story really made my week.

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