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American Singers

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By Sean Dietrich

 

We played music for a nursing home. It was a sterile room with fluorescent lights and a funny smell. People kept asking our guitar player to turn up the volume.

 

That was a first.

 

It bears mentioning. We have taken the stage in some ugly places.

 

We’ve played for motorcyclists with names like, “Bruiser,” “Snake Eyes,” and “Ernie.”

 

We’ve played clogging dances, barroom weddings, family reunions, 60th birthday parties, crawfish boils, car dealership sales, shoe stores, one bar mitzvah.

 

This was our first nursing home.

 

So we chose songs the radios quit broadcasting around the time of Harry Truman. Our crowd of white-hairs gave an enthusiastic applause that was as loud as an oscillating fan.

 

One woman asked if we knew “Keep on the Sunny Side.” Another asked for “Dixie.” We had three requests for “O When the Saints Go Marching In.” One for “Viva Las Vegas.”

 

A man named Benny—suspenders and hearing-aids—asked for “I Saw the Light.”

 

We played it quiet and slow; he sang all four verses with his eyes shut. Blessings of higher value I have not received.

 

There was a lady who called me Danny and kept asking, “Did you find my Curly?”

 

I answered, “No ma’am, I didn’t.”

 

“Well, did you even go look?”

 

High and low, ma’am.

 

I met a man who played trumpet. He was half black, half white. Skin like caramel. They tell me he’s got some stories.

 

Midway through our medley, one of the nurses asked us to play “America the Beautiful.”

 

“They like American songs,” she said.

 

We started the tune, but never got to sing a word of it. The room beat us to the punch.

 

A man in back stood. He wore an orange cap with a blue “AU” on it.

 

The rest stood with him, their voices weak but sincere. They sang about Purple Mountains Majesty and Fruited Plains while the band kept steady time.

 

These people are my friends. My neighbors. These are not elderly patients. They are men and women every bit as important as those who wear younger skin.

 

These are hometown folks from various lifestyles. People who the world has more or less forgotten. But, by God, they’re still here.

 

There are former bankers, grocers, peanut farmers and battleship sailors. Women who birthed families, mamas who kept backyard gardens.

 

And when we finished singing, the man in the orange hat approached me. His head and arms shook. He could hardly stand still from Parkinson’s.

 

He said, “My son used to play the guitar.” It took all he had to pat my shoulder. “I wish I’d gone to hear him play before he died.”

 

I pumped his hand. He had a remarkably strong grip for someone in his condition.

 

“Will y’all stay for lunch?” he asked. “Any American is a friend of mine.”

 

Well sir.

 

That makes two of us.

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