Solo gigs allow me the freedom to perform any song I feel like singing. The decision about what to play in a given situation is mostly spontaneous. I have a binder with song lyrics and chord changes, but it doesn't serve as a set list. I just go with what seems right at that moment. Sometimes I make a great selection and other times I totally miss the mark. It comes with the territory.
My volunteer gigs with Musicians On Call present a unique challenge in song selection. I am escorted to a hospital room occupied by one or more patients (sometimes with visitors or family members). I need to size up the situation quickly and select the one song that might go over best. My repertoire largely consists of what I call "songs you can sing wearing a cowboy hat." Older patients might hear "Back In The Saddle Again" or "Don't Fence Me In." Younger folks appreciate songs by Elvis, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly or Johnny Cash.
The other day, I was doing a gig at a large nursing and rehab facility in central Queens. I had been there several times and have come to know many of the patients. I felt the need to bring out different material, so I was trying a few of the songs in the back of the binder: Motown, Sam Cooke and other songs that I simply enjoy singing. I had just done a decent job with "My Cherie Amour" and felt confident that I had my high notes that day.
My escort Willie is usually waiting for me when I'm done singing, but this time he was not there. I looked up and down the hallway and didn't spot him. I did not feel that I should look into other rooms, so I just waited and pondered what song to try next.
He came out of a nearby room a few minutes later and looked downcast and forlorn. Apparently the patient in that room had just received some terrible news about her condition, delivered by a doctor lacking in compassion. Willie is a gentle and caring man and he had taken the time to help this poor woman come to terms with what she had just been told.
So now it was up to me to sing the right song for this person. A decision that normally has no great consequence was now fraught with strong emotions. What do you sing to someone in this situation?
I thought about the Musicians on Call guidelines: avoid songs about death, dying, heaven, etc. That eliminates a whole lot of cowboy songs right there. Somehow I couldn't bring myself to sing a chipper, upbeat song to this woman at this moment. It would be emotionally dishonest and even disrespectful of her feelings.
Then I glanced down at my binder and saw "The Tracks of My Tears." My mind was racing: When was the last time I sang this song? I don't remember doing a very good job with it. And it's impossible to sing like Smokey when you're getting choked up yourself. What are the changes? Oh yeah, the song starts with a simple progression in G. Well, here goes nothing.
I hit the high notes all right, but I'm sure it wasn't the best rendition of the song. However, it didn't really matter. The woman sang along, quietly at first; more confidently by the end. Her spirits appeared to be lifted, perhaps just a little. I saw a genuine smile of gratitude as she thanked me.
At the end of the gig, Willie was effusive in his complements. "I hope you know you made a lot of people happy today." I am always grateful for his kind words, but I felt that there was a lot more going on that day than simply brightening someone's day with a song or two.
I thought about how music has the power to express the inexpressible and how a song like "The Tracks of My Tears" carries a deeper meaning beyond the literal story of the song. What did the song mean to that woman? "Outside, I masquerading/inside, my hope is fading." Was the smile I saw really out of place? I will likely never know.
[The song has new resonance for me with the recent death of Robin Williams. How sad that someone who brought us so much joy could not find it himself.]
I didn't write "The Tracks of My Tears" and goodness knows others have sung it better. As a musician, my job was simply to connect that song to that person at that moment. I will take credit for the choice and a passable singing job; everything else is between Smokey and her.
Any performance, whether it's in a stadium or a hospital room, has the potential to generate strong feelings in an audience. I generally traffic in nostalgia; other musicians deal with excitement, love, rage, wonder and the full range of human emotions. This ability to reach people deep inside is a wonderful, powerful tool and we must always treat it with the respect it demands. It is what makes a music career worth all the sacrifice and hard work.