Group Singalongs Provide Comfort For A Livelihood Lost

Jan 6, 2012
Originally published on January 10, 2012 6:05 pm

For the past several years, a group of friends has gathered every week in the living room of a suburban home in Logan, Utah, to sing long-forgotten songs. It's a fun way to spend the evening, but it's also therapy for a dear friend.

Until several years ago, Barre Toelken was a folklorist at Utah State University. He'd spent much of his life preserving sea shanties and other antique songs, but then he had a stroke and was forced to retire.

"I used to know 800 songs," Toelken says. "I had this stroke, and I had none of these songs left in my head. None of them were left."

But, Toelken says, he soon discovered that, with a little positive reinforcement, he could remember some of the forgotten music after all.

"A little bit at a time, I realized I still had the songs in my head," he says. "So now I meet with this group of friends once a week a week, and we sing.

"This group doesn't use any musical instruments, because I can't play the guitar since the stroke hit me," Toelken says. "And they did that as a sign of respect, I think. But they've all said how much they've learned about the songs since they quit using the guitar because instead of concentrating on their hand moving, they have to concentrate on the words."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For the past several years, a group of friends has gathered every week in the living room of a home in Logan, Utah, to sing some long-forgotten songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M A LONG TIME TRAVELING")

SIMON: A fun way to spend the evening, sure, but it's also therapy - therapy for a good friend who spent much of his life preserving folk songs - only to lose them one day several years ago, as we learn in this "What's in a Song?"

BARRE TOELKEN: My name's Barre Toelken, and I used to be a folklorist at Utah State. And then I had a stroke, and I retired.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WADING THROUGH DEEP WATERS")

TOELKEN: I used to know 800 songs. I was once counting them and I got to 800, and I decided to give up at 800. And I had the stroke, and I had none of these songs left in my head. None of them are left.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WADING THROUGH DEEP WATERS")

TOELKEN: I was still in the hospital and the phone rang one day. It was a friend of mine in Germany. She started this conversation, and we went on for about 20 minutes in German. And I didn't know anything in English at that time, but I knew all these German words - 'cause I had it in high school, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WADING THROUGH DEEP WATERS")

TOELKEN: And a little bit at a time, I realized I still had the songs in my head. They weren't out of my head, they were in my head. That sounds strange to say, but that was a big surprise to me at first. And so now, I meet with this group of friends once a week a week, and we sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WADING THROUGH DEEP WATERS")

TOELKEN: This group doesn't use any musical instruments because I can't - use any music. I can't play the guitar since the stroke hit me. And they did that as a sign of respect, I think. But they've all said how much they've learned about the songs since they quit using the guitar. Because they - you know, instead of concentrating on their hand moving, they have to concentrate on the words.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WADING THROUGH DEEP WATERS")

SIMON: "What's in a Song?" is produced by Hal Cannon and Taki Telonidis, of the Western Folklife Center. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WADING THROUGH DEEP WATERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.