What Are Songs For


First Person

Willard Cummings, Barracks Concert (detail), ca. 1942.

This was not quite what I’d expected.

I’d come to the psych wing of Butler Hospital, in Providence, Rhode Island, to present a music seminar or, more properly, a sing-along, as part of a community service requirement for my college. This was in the late seventies. I was in a brightly lit dining hall that smelled of tobacco and medicine. There were twenty-five or thirty folding chairs but only thirteen or fourteen patients, all of them sad and doughy, middle aged or older. I sat facing them on a gray wooden stool and looked out at the assembled not-quite crowd. They looked like retired firemen, metalworkers, or lunch ladies; men with mustaches, pensions, and bad habits; women with secrets; people who rode the bus, who stood in line and then stood in the same line again. I’d read The Bell Jar, some Randall Jarrell, and I had a vaguely romantic, if ill-defined, sense of life on the other side of what passes for sanity. But this was not a good advertisement for crazy.

Earlier I’d been ushered into the office of the director. I explained how I thought I could talk to the patients about writing songs, how they could express themselves through words and music. I thought we could take a simple melody, an old folk song, and take turns making up new verses to it. There could be a prize. Or no prize. Everyone could be a winner. At the end we’d have cake.

The director stared at me.

“Not everyone,” he said. He stopped there and took out a cigarette. Then he put it back in the pack and stared at me again. “Not everyone,” he continued, “should be encouraged to express themselves. Not everyone should be encouraged to be in touch with their feelings. Let’s leave it at that. Play them some goddam songs and go home.” 

In the dining hall, long wooden tables and benches had been pushed against a wall. On a blackboard at the far end, someone had written in yellow chalk, and then smudged out, HAPPY BIRTHDAY SANDI. A nurse in a white apron sat off to the side in a high-backed chair and nodded at me to get going. A lunch lady was clipping her nails. I took my guitar out of the case and tried to look cheerful. One of the firemen was reading The Providence Journal.

“Mrs. Rodrigues!” The lunch lady straightened up and fumbled the clippers into her handbag. The nurse nodded at me and pointed at her watch. Twice.

“Do you like music?” I asked the group. I sounded like a chipmunk. No one responded. “I thought I’d play some songs, maybe some you already know … ”

“What are songs for?” the fireman asked.

“That’s a stupid question, Mr. Ferdinand,” the nurse barked.

“No, it’s a good question.” I had to take control from the nurse or I was sunk. “So … do any of you have dogs? Do you like dogs?”

There was a general mumbling. The nurse muttered something unpleasant and waddled off, her absence lightening the mood in the hall.

“So … what are dogs for? They’re loyal, devoted, they’ll go for walks with you, sit by your side, guard your house, protect you. You’ll forget they’re even there. You’ll go into a funk or feel tired or blue, get lost in a memory or drink too much or have a fight with someone you love or someone who doesn’t love you anymore. And suddenly your dog is by your side. And you remember who you are. 

“And that’s what songs are for. To remind you. To ground you. They get into your head and pop up at odd moments. They keep you company. They bring you back to another time or another place, and they drift through your mind when you’re trying to go to sleep. They’re like prayers. Or like road maps.”

Not bad, I thought. I pulled that off.

“On Top of Old Smokey,” said the man in the red cardigan. “That’s some fucking prayer.”

Well, at least I had their attention.

“What do songs cost?” the man with the mustache asked. He was serious. The nurse was walking back in. She seemed pissed.

“I’m not supposed to tell you,” I whispered, looking either side of me. I was out of nurse’s earshot, but just. “You’re not supposed to know, but … they’re usually $3.75 each. There are places around Fox Point,” I lowered my voice, “where you can get them three for ten dollars. But those aren’t always the best quality songs. You know? $3.75, that’s the going rate.” 

There was a general nodding in agreement. I had told them something. They could file it away somewhere safe. They exchanged smiles. They looked at the nurse and stopped smiling. They seemed older, frailer, with her nearby. She blew on her coffee and settled back in her chair.

I started to sing “The House of the Rising Sun”:

There is a house in New Orleans
They call The Rising Sun

“What’s it made of? Wood or brick?” the metalworker wanted to know.

“New Orleans is a swamp,” the fireman said. “Brick would sink. Unless it was in the Garden District.”

“Wood,” I confirmed, and the fireman leaned back contentedly.

“I was in New Orleans on leave after the war,” he said. “I got drunk every night.”

“Probably every day, too,” the lunch lady pouted.

And it’s been the ruin
Of many a poor girl
And me, I know, I’m one.

“You’re not a girl!” 

“No. But it’s a folk song,” I explained. “I’m singing it as a girl.”

“You don’t sing like a girl!”

“Hey, come on. Sing it like a girl,” the fireman cackled.

I went into a falsetto and got a round of applause. Cheers, even.

And on it went. It must have taken the better part of an hour to just get through the song. 

My mother was a tailor. 

Did she work out of home? Have a shop? Didn’t they call women tailors seamstresses? What happened to your jeans, she had to sew them? 

My father was a gambling man.

Was it cards? Dice? Did he cheat people, he the slippery sort? Or could he just not help himself like that poor man on Elmgrove Avenue, lost his house betting on the chariot race in Ben Hur, figured the wheels couldn’t always come off the poor bastard’s buggy?

And then the nurse pointed at her watch, and it was over. People smiled and clapped me on the back and asked what I was studying and where did my folks live and had I ever been to New Orleans, and everyone was in good spirits. Two men in overalls started moving the tables and benches back into place. 

I went to get my community-service papers stamped, then picked up my guitar and started for the parking lot. There was a bus to Federal Hill at six twenty-five. The nurse waved at me on the way out.

“Mr. Ferdinand left this for you.” She handed me an envelope. Inside, in quarters, dimes and nickels, there was $3.75.

Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.