Amos Lee: My Page (Music as Medicine)
Photo by Harper Smith
Five years ago, I was approached by friends at radio station WXPN in Philadelphia to become involved with an organization called Musicians on Call. MOC connects those who are in hospitals and hospice care with musicians who are interested in performing at the bedside of patients who are otherwise too ill to leave their rooms. I was a little wary at first, not because I didn’t feel drawn to the mission, but rather because it seemed like such a sensitive time for people and their families. I felt my presence might be a bit extraneous.
What I missed in my calculation was that it wasn’t me that was going to the hospitals—it was me and the music that I make. As I have come to find, people tend to value my presence a lot more when I have a guitar.
Since I was first introduced to MOC five years ago, I have made quite a few visits. I have played and sang at general hospitals, children’s hospitals and veterans’ hospitals. Every visit has etched deep visions in my soul. Here is one of my most memorable visits
It was MOC’s first visit to this particular veterans’ hospital and my friend Mutlu and I were asked to be the ambassadors for the program. Most of the elderly patients here served in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
I like to pick appropriate material, but I’m not as versatile as I’d like to be with knowledge of “pre-war” songs. We did “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers, “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley and “Bring It on Home to Me” by Sam Cooke. We went room to room and, for the most part, I think we warmed some hearts. A lot of the time, families would be with their loved ones and we would walk by and respectfully ask if they’d like some music. Based on our fairly random and somewhat uninspired selection of clothes, they were usually hesitant, but as soon as we started singing, heads would turn.
As the day was ending, we made a stop to one final room. This room was occupied by an elderly African American man with a beautiful gray beard. The nurses explained to me that he was unable to move much do to maladies and complications from his time served but that he was a musician and had recorded earlier in his life. We entered his room gingerly and the nurse asked if he would like us to play. He nodded softly and we went into “Bring It on Home to Me.”
When the song started, he was staring at the ceiling. And from what I was imagining, he was hoping these silly fellows would finish up and leave him be. But as we got into the tune, I noticed him arch his eyebrow, tilt his head ever so slightly and start to bob his head a little to the rhythm. After the song, he smiled at his nurses and said that, “We’re allllriiight. ”
I asked if he had anything he wanted to hear and he inquired if I knew any church songs. I knew a few and chose to sing “Up Above My Head” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I got through the first verse, which is the only verse I knew, and noticed that he had started to sing softly with us. By the end of the next go round, he was almost full voiced— harmonizing in a rich, velvety baritone that gave me chills and made me want to cry at the same time. After the third time singing through that verse, he stopped and I wondered if he was done with the experience—instead he informed me that I had forgotten a verse or two. He peeked over at his nurse and gave her a wink. She started to laugh.
I asked if he’d teach me the verses—which he did—and we all three sang those last two verses together, with the nurse clapping right along. When we were done singing, I thanked him for teaching me the song properly and walked out of the room humbled not only by his strength, but also by his patience, wisdom and willingness to open up to us.
There are times when I am on the road feeling low, rundown or lost that I recall that moment, which was as true a moment as I have ever spent with music. It reminds me that music is not a means to an end but rather an ever-flowing body that nurtures us, challenges us and connects us all.
Amos Lee has just released his fourth album, Mission Bell, on Blue Note Records. For more information about Musicians on Call, please visit www.musiciansoncall.org.
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