Last week-end I attended a family celebration – a golden wedding anniversary – up in the North-East of England. At these events I usually get hauled on to the nearest piano or guitar, and do the human juke-box thing. Last week, however, I had a throat infection so I was relying on others to carrying the singing. I’m grateful for the fact that, thanks to a childhood piano teacher who positively encouraged me to play by ear, and a father who insisted I accompany him on beery Saturday nights as we trawled through the Great American Musicals, I learned to ‘hear’ chord patterns from an early age. So, I can usually handle most songs people throw at me – with the exception of Stephen Sondheim’s oeuvre, but you don’t get many requests for ‘I’m Still Here’ at Whitley Bay Social Club.
It was an all-age gathering, so we had the usual 70’s/80s/90s catalogue. Over the years, I’ve learned to talk people down from starting songs like ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ or ‘The Wonder Of You’ from their middle register, because it’s usually an ambulance job by the time they get to the closing line. So, all was going well. And then someone with the lungs of a blast furnace grabbed the microphone and whispered “Be My Love, in G”. Now this is always a dead give-away that you’re now in the presence of someone ‘who can hold a tune’ (it’s a delightful phrase, isn’t it?) And so it proved to be. Sadly, I didn’t do him justice on the ivories because Mario Lanza is just, well, before my time. In the event, it made no difference because he’d wrestled that song into submission well before the end of the first chorus…..
But, as I looked up at him, carotid artery bulging, I suddenly thought “he’s only about 10 years older than me, how does he know this stuff?” And then I recalled that, in over 30 years of visiting care homes, the songs which seem popular with residents have more or less remained the same – they’re usually war-time songs. But over a 30-40 year span the songs we grew up singing have changed dramatically. So what happens? Why is it that when today’s 30-somethings are living out their final years in the Happy Valley Rest Home, they’re going to be singing ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’, as voiced by Gracie Fields, and not Eliza Doolittle?
Maybe there’s some mysterious process takes place when you enter old age: you lose your short-term memory, but gain an ability to sing songs made popular 20 years before you were born. Perhaps, it just appears in the post on your 65th birthday: pension book, your free bus-pass, and the collected works of Vera Lynn?
(Oh and by the way, this is NOT me in the following extract – I just include it, because the comments show the song’s capacity for triggering early-onset dementia)