David Oke
Grace McKellar House, Geelong, 1979

Mum and Dad were both excellent singers and members of choirs. Both sang solos and their duets together were memorable.

One of their regular charitable acts was to sing to elderly audiences in nursing homes. When Aunty Mabel helped me out in buying my first acoustic guitar back in 1979 Mum and Dad asked if I could come along to Grace McKellar and accompany a few songs. I hesitantly agreed and learnt some songs.

Mum and Dad’s usual accompanist was a man who played piano. He attached an ancient keyboard wired to a valve amplifier to the front of the piano to make the melody more prominent. It had a heavy vibrato and Mum called it ‘The Blowfly’.

Part of the repertoire was some old Christian Sunday School songs. One from the hymnal was Jesus Bids Us Shine, first published in 1868.

The room at Grace McKellar was overheated and had a strong stench of wetting accidents, but the residents were dutifully lined up in rows for their afternoon entertainment. Some were lucid and knew what was going on. A couple of ladies kept repeating the same phrases over and over – “Just had lunch” and ”Gonna sit in this chair”.

A number of residents were silent. They had vacant stares and looked lost. Being new to this kind of audience was confronting but it gave me a further appreciation of the good work my parents did.

I strummed a chord introduction and Mum and Dad launched into the lyrics of the first verse:

Jesus bids us shine with a clear pure light
Like a little candle burning in the night
In this world of darkness,
So we must shine
You in your small corner and I in mine

 I could not believe what happened next. It was as if the pause button was switched to play. All of a sudden some of the residents with the fixed vacant stares had ‘resurfaced’. Some were mouthing the words and joining in. For a brief moment there was a reprieve in their condition. Something deeply familiar had come back to visit. Experts say that music ‘fires up’ the brain.

I was a teenager and it was first awakening as to how powerful and deep set the musical experience is. I witnessed how song memory can be locked away, or partitioned, in a brain that is ravaged by deterioration and confusion. I saw first hand how music briefly rekindles some clarity and cohesion – similar to the vision of a clear pure light in stark darkness.

Post-script

Nowadays, iPods help Alzheimer patients to connect with their favorite music and re-discover themselves, as in the case of Henry in this example from Music and Memory.

David is a Melbourne musician, music teacher and primary school teacher. His debut Stereo Story was about playing Great Balls of Fire at Sun Studio in Memphis. He has assisted in the organisation, and leading of gospel music workshops and Sunday gospel celebrations at the Anglesea Music Festivals, and is a member of The Seddon Jammers. His son Dan is the creative force of the band Jarrow.