Julie and Billy

Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow

On Friday afternoons I go to a singalong in the Alzheimer’s unit of a life-care facility. Thirty or so of us sit in a big circle and sing old songs, many from the early Twentieth Century. Most participants are in wheelchairs, and hardly any speak a word. A dozen of us, not afflicted with the disease, lead, and some of us sing solos to the group. I usually prepare two songs—I have a full baritone voice and like to sing in that big room because I can sing with a full voice without deafening my audience, which is truly a captive audience—nearly all are trapped in wheelchairs. I am usually not permitted to use my full voice in smaller rooms (I can fill an auditorium with it), or people just get up and leave, including some members of my own family!

I always download the lyrics to my songs and keep them in my hand because I cannot be sure I will remember the words. However, on some songs, that is not a problem. These tend to be bravura performances like “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof, or “Some Enchanted Evening,” from South Pacific, which I have performed for family and other small groups since I was a teenager. Now the Alzheimer patients are also my family. They appreciate songs from old musicals.

Last Friday I had the pleasure of singing “Soliloquy” from Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical Carousel starring Gordon MacRae as Billy Bigelow and Shirley Jones (movie version). It contains 661 words and takes about seven and a half minutes to sing. I love it. Billy is imagining his unborn child—first a boy, then a girl. “I wonder what he’ll think of me? I guess he’ll call me the old man. I guess he’ll think I can lick every other fellow’s father. Well, I can!”

One man in my audience—I’ll call him Carl—is about seventy-five, and has the appearance of having been a bank president or lawyer in his past life. But he never speaks or sings. Sometimes he whistles the tunes while we sing. He is a good whistler. While I was singing Soliloquy—”I’ll teach him to wrastle and dive through a wave when we go in the mornin’s for our swim”—I noticed that he was mouthing every word. I was amazed. There was a mind inside that person.

After the sing, I went up to him and asked, “Do you know that song?” He astounded me by saying, “Yes.” I asked, “Have you ever sung it?” He replied, “Yes.” I asked, “On the stage?” He shook his head and said, “No.” I shook his hand and started away, and he said, “Thank you for singing that. Thank you.” His voice had a desperate tone, and I wondered if he would ever hear it sung again. “You’re welcome,” I replied, and I could imagine him going to see the play in years past, sitting with loved ones, and singing to them in his living room the way I used to do. I was so delighted that he had found the words to speak, and that we had communicated. Words can be a powerful force, which is why I enjoy writing novels and songs.

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2 Responses to Words

  1. M Gollin says:

    You never know who you will connect with but when you sing from your heart you are sure to connect with someone. Beautiful story.

  2. Stephanie Byers says:

    Very touching.

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