Guitar 101: Jingle Bells

talley_rsIt’s early September as I write this and it is 80 degrees, so I’m not quite in the holiday spirit yet. However, as nights get cooler and days get shorter, I begin to get nostalgic for the “good old days” when I was a boy in Memphis—wishing for the rare “white Christmas” on Kelley Circle. We hardly ever got snow, and when we did, it didn’t last long. It was totally unrealistic to have a sled, but we did have cardboard boxes to slide down the hill just in case. As I grew older (and more cynical), the commercial aspect of Christmas aggravated me more and more. I never suspected that the most meaningful Christmas I would have so far would be when I was in my 50s. What made it so meaningful to my entire family revolves around music.

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Music was always a big part of the holiday season, of course, but this time something happened that made me think about music in a whole new way. A few years ago, my grandfather Rex Talley was in a nursing home following a devastating stroke. He was 93 years old and could no longer speak, feed himself, or get to the bathroom. In fact, he usually didn’t seem to recognize immediate family members. Sometimes he’d laugh and sometimes he’d cry. We never knew why. He didn’t seem to be aware of anything that was going on around him. He remained in this condition for a couple of years with no change. We felt like we’d already lost him.

I was visiting Memphis for Christmas, and we went to visit Grandaddy on Christmas Day. I took my dad’s acoustic guitar and a bunch of us piled into the room, just about filling it. I got out the guitar and we began to sing Christmas carols. No response from Grandaddy. “Silent Night.” No response. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Nothing. In fact, he didn’t even appear to know we were there.

Then we started “Jingle Bells.” His face transformed completely. He went from a blank stare to the happiest, goofiest grin I’ve ever seen. And to our surprise, he started singing along, in perfect tune! He couldn’t pronounce the words at all, but the melody and the rhythm were right on the money. It sounded like “ZHIGGA BAH, ZHIGGA BAA.” He hadn’t said a word in two years! As he sang, he looked around the room, acknowledging every single face, grinning that toothless grin. The nursing home staff couldn’t believe it. One girl ran down the hall, summoning her co-workers to see “Mr. Talley singin’ his head off.” The room was overflowing in a minute, people craning their necks to see “the miracle.” After five or six minutes of “Jingle Bells,” we stopped. Everybody was crying and hugging and Grandaddy was still smiling. We were all amazed by what had happened. What was it about “Jingle Bells” that turned on something in his brain? Was he back with us? Could he speak? Was this our “Christmas Miracle?”

We started singing “Jingle Bells” again. He didn’t sing this time. The smile gradually faded. We tried other songs. We talked to him. A little bit of the smile remained, but no other response. That was the last time Grandaddy sang.

The healing power of music is vast. Music therapy is in its infancy in Western psychology. If we knew more, we’d be able to do amazing things, maybe even make permanent changes in the brain’s mysterious workings. With a simple song and four chords, you might be able to do something useful, even life-changing. With all the songs you know, you might be a virtual, veritable medicine chest for the right person.

The year after Grandaddy sang “Jingle Bells” he passed away. My Grandmother soon followed. That same year, a friend of mine in Nashville committed suicide. He was a “struggling” musician. The “music business” didn’t provide him with anything but frustration and rejection. He’s not alone. I kept thinking: What if he knew that one mile from him, at the time he ended his life, was a nursing/assisted living home where singing a simple four-chord song could have really made a difference? What’s music for anyway? Sure, making money and being “accepted” can be part of it, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

All music is valuable to somebody. Maybe for the holidays, at least, we can try to focus on the ability we have as guitar players and singer/songwriters to enrich someone’s life in some way. Music didn’t start out by being a product, did it? I think not.

Learning Christmas songs is an education in itself. Many of the standards were written in the ‘30s and ‘40s and there are some great chord progressions in them that you could learn. Learn Mel Torme’s standard “The Christmas Song.” You know the one about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire?” Lots of nice chords. And lots of Christmas songs, like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” have just three or four chords.

Classics like “Sentimental Journey,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Goodnight, Irene” are perfect for older audiences, too. You could throw in an original now and then, but remember, it’s not about you. They’re going to respond to songs that they know, especially songs that were popular when they were younger. It’s helpful to print up lyric sheets (LARGE print) and pass them out.

During the holidays, churches and charitable organizations often sponsor meals and/or beds for the homeless. Another good place to donate your music. Other options are playing at a hospice, homes for the mentally impaired, or just neighbors who are house-bound for one reason or another. There are great programs in many cities that collect used instruments for disadvantaged kids, and teach them to play.

Think of a way to give some music to someone this holiday season. It’s a win-win proposition.


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  1. Hi Gary,
    I have had similar experiences to you when working as a music therapist in nursing homes in Sydney, Australia. For example, after hearing a familiar song from the 1930s one woman clearly reminisced about going to dances with her musician brother when she was young. She had severe dementia and usually only spoke unintelligible ‘word salad’ – e.g. “dit dit dit dat dat dat.” The music appeared to both stimulate this woman’s longterm memory and also enabled her to regain the ability to speak – albeit temporarily.

    It’s great that you are encouraging other musicians to use their talents for therapeutic purposes. I hope more and more people realise that making music together – as a community – can be incredibly satisfying. Success doesn’t always have to equate with being on stage in front of an audience. Some of my most fulfilling musical moments have been working with children and their families in hospital. There’s really nothing like a vocal improvisation with a baby who understands you’re singing their language!

    All the Best


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