“I wanna hear Clementine.” Norman plainly stated his wishes before I’d even set down my bag of sheet music. “I used to sing that in boy scout camp,” he told the others already gathered around the piano.
So I started my program with “Clementine,” and took the repeat a couple of times. A lanky man I’d never seen before happened to be walking by, and did a John Cleese-ish silly dance for us, raising his right arm high and pointing his index finger down onto the center of his head as if he were a spinning top. He continued on his way without saying a word, leaving the residents chuckling.
Norman sang along on the chorus, but could only remember the words to the first verse (In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mine…). And while the chorus might be sad (You are lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry, Clementine), multiple verses later it’s hard to take the story seriously, as Clementine dies of a splinter in her foot—a foot so big (size 9) she had to wear herring boxes instead of shoes—and the narrator continues:
In my dreams she still doth haunt me,
Robed in garments soaked in brine;
Though in life I used to hug her,
Now she’s dead I draw the line.
How I missed her! How I missed her,
How I missed my Clementine,
So I kissed her little sister,
I forgot my Clementine.
For a long time, I resisted playing traditional American songs for my senior audiences. I worried they would find “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” and “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” condescending, childish. They don’t. Quite the opposite. Even men who rarely sing will join in on these songs from their youth, especially old cowboy ballads like “Red River Valley” and “Home on the Range.” I suspect these tunes have the same effect on them as songs they associate with years in the military: the music brings back welcome feelings of camaraderie. Whatever the personal reasons men warm to the genre, the ladies love their deep-voiced serenade.
I don’t play whole programs of these songs. But I mix in a few, aiming for variety, hoping to offer something for everyone. I must have hit the song-selection nail on the head the day I was playing “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” (borrowed from Scotland) and overheard 90-year-old Marcella say to the man seated next to her, “This music makes me feel younger. Does it make you feel that way too?”
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.