Once a month, I work in the memory care unit of a nursing home. My business partner and I have a couple of hours to squeeze in massages between everything else being done to residents after they eat lunch. ( Despite some recent person-centered training, this staff still does most things “to” residents rather than “with” them.)
One thing that happens every time we visit is the Sing Along. The activity aide puts in the same familiar VHS tape with the same familiar songs. She goes around trying to cajole residents into singing, moving, dancing, or shaking one of the many bells-on-a-stick things they have floating around. For the most part, this is effective because music itself is enlivening. I have seen people who can’t speak their own first names sing every word of some obscure song that was popular in their youth. I fully expect that when I am in memory care, the staff need only mention “Friday” and I will be off with my own warbling rendition of “Friday I’m in Love.”
As I am trying to finish up some massages with less responsive people during the Sing Along, I don’t often listen to the music or pay attention to the video. Today, I found myself facing the overly gigantic TV screen as the video played. I was mesmerized by the home basement office green screen effects and the main singer’s unfortunate porn star mustache. This video also featured the lyrics to every song as subtitles. I tried to concentrate, but the person I was working with had fallen asleep with his hand gently, but firmly, wrapped around mine. He seemed content with simple human warmth, so I watched the video a little more. I looked up just in time to learn the full lyrics to “Tom Dooley.”
Holy. Domestic. Violence.
Did you know “Tom Dooley” is about some guy who lured his poor girlfriend to a secluded place so he could stab her to death? The song is about his upcoming public execution. It’s a deceptively cheerful little earworm. I used to find myself whistling it in the car on the way home from the nursing home. Today I realized how deeply strange it was — this song about a murderer playing on the big screen while one woman sang along with every word in a bright, clear soprano, tapping out the beat on the arm of her chair. On the other side of the room, the activity aide had another woman up, dancing a shuffling two-step while Mustache sang about the “white oak tree” where Tom Dooley would hang. To death.
Music pulls us together and is powerful enough to expose our hidden humanity, as this recent video shows so powerfully. On the other side, though, music tells our darkest buried stories. (“Strange Fruit,” anyone?) It gives us a framework to relate in the daytime things that would make us cower in shame or fear if we tried to speak of them in conversation alone. Music wraps our nightmares in foam and crash pads so we feel safe enough to fall right into the middle of them.