Everybody has a story. One of the things I like best about playing music is meeting people and hearing some of their stories. Even better than that, is when the music we play invokes a story so meaningful to the teller, that it transports them back to that scene. You can see it in their face and hear it in their voice. It changes them for a little while and makes their life better.
A good example of this was a few nights ago at a retirement village/nursing home in Hershey. It's October, the busy season for German bands like The Happy Wanderers, and we were there to give the residents a concert of traditional German music. The concert room was a hub at which several hallways intersected, so people were passing through right up until concert time. We had our lederhosen on and were getting set up to play when an elderly gentleman came into the room. With a noticeable Dutch accent, he told us that he loves polkas and traditional music of the sort, and that our outfits remind him of his days in Holland during the war. Curious, I asked him to elaborate, which he did.
He was living in Nazi occupied Holland in 1942, attending a school that sounds comparable to an American high school. Sometimes outside musicians would come in and give concerts, in addition to the usual slate of student performances. The repertoire at these concerts was very regulated by the Nazis. Only music that was found favorable by the German government could be performed. In fact, to insure this, the school had several Nazi representatives on staff who had to pre-approve the selections. The same was true for literary texts, visual art presentations, and pretty much everything else.
So here was our new friend, hanging out with some classmates, at a concert, excited to hear some good music. At some point right before the concert began, a few of the musicians began warming up by playing a Glenn Miller tune. Miller was nearing the height of his popularity in America and many in Europe were just as enthralled by the sound as Americans were. As the crowd of young people heard the murmurings of Miller, they got excited and started to clap.
"No! No! You cannot play that music!" shouted someone of Nazi authority. Whether in bravery or foolishness, other musicians began to join in and play the impromptu Glenn Miller warm-up tune.
Our new friend didn't remember the name of the tune they played but he did remember the feeling in the room as most of the band joined in and ignored the Nazi authority figure. They played the entire song and the crowd went crazy. He said the feeling was like having your hands untied from behind your back, realizing that you can jump around and wave your hands in the air again, maybe even fly around. His face was bright with joy as he told us this and through his laugh you could tell that, in his mind, he was right back at school in 1942.
He didn’t mention what happened after that- whether the concert was ended or if anybody got in trouble. I don’t think he cared either way. It happened and it was great, and that was good enough for him.
During that same concert a lady was asking us if we could play "Eins, Zwei, Suffa". Well, we weren't sure what she meant, but we know three songs that have those words. Unfortunately we only realized 2 of them at the time, and although we played them both, we found out after the concert that it was the forgotten song she wanted to hear. She told us a story from her youth and why she loved that song so much. When I played it for her by myself, with the audience out the door and the band halfway packed up, her face lit up and her story became as real in that room as it was when she lived it.
Not every musician enjoys playing nursing home gigs. But stories like these are why many of us really do.