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Saturday 23 September 2023

Hobgoblin, Nor Foul Fiend

One day each week, my wife goes happily off to her dementia group. For clarity, and to avoid the kind of misconceptions our children adopt deliberately in the mistaken belief they are being witty, I should add that she runs it. They have a different theme each week, around which they talk, play games, and have a cooked meal and lots of laughs.

Members engage to varying degrees. Some are very lively and on first acquaintance you would not think anything was wrong. You might mistake them for volunteers, but all have memory problems. Others, you wonder whether they get any benefit from attending at all. One elderly lady, I will call her Dolly, sits head down all day long in her wheelchair, saying very little.

Most grew up in England during the decades before, during and after the Second World War. Like me, they have no difficulty in joining in the hymns at church services or at those weddings and funerals that retain some semblance of religiosity. It was part of our shared culture. We had the words and tunes drilled into us daily at school assemblies, Sunday School and church. How inspiring they can be, especially when the organ chords, descants and harmonies reverberate round. We can reel them off: For Those In Peril, Jerusalem, The Day Thou Gavest, To Be A Grim Pill as we used to sing in assembly, and so many more. Younger people don’t know them. When my cousin’s daughter’s husband was on University Challenge, he was the only one to know that ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’ is the 23rd psalm, and only after we had been yelling it at the television for 15 seconds. The young deride these things as small-minded and exclusive, although I don’t perceive many other creeds as much better.

Last week at the group, the theme was harvest. They talked about what they remembered of it. Some worked on the land, and one member is old enough to have been in the women’s Land Army. They talked about the old traditions, harvest festival services at church, and harvest festival hymns. They began to sing “We Plough the Fields and Scatter”. Incredibly, Dolly burst into life. She raised her head high and sang out in her trill warbly voice, leading the singing. The transformation was astonishing. After the “All good things around us” middle eight, she started on the next verse, “You only are the maker”, then the one after that, “We thank you then Creator”. No one else knew them.

When my wife later told me the story at home, she said this was the only harverst hymn they could think of. After a while, I said “Isn’t there one about all is safely gathered in?” It stirred a memory. “Yes,” she said, but neither of us could quite remember it. It was not one we sang very often, and not in the school hymnal. Not enough about God in it. A bit too Baptist. We had to look it up. It is ‘Come Ye Thankful People’.

https://youtu.be/t3n7IUCdqAM?si=FHKbdeg-6EwplKzg

What a descant (verse 4)! Even if it is over the top. And is that who I think it is at the front of the congregation (see verse 3)? Well, that’s all right. We are a broad church on this blog. She is well turned out as ever. 

This week, I was interested to hear whether Dolly also knew ‘Come Ye Thankful People’. She did, and sang it. 

Hobgoblin, nor foul fiend, can daunt the spirit.

Then she sang “We Plough the Fields and Scatter”, again. She could not remember having sung it the previous week.

37 comments:

  1. Oh it was always incredibly, incredibly moving to me see people so lost to Alzheimers that they had not spoke for months, not one word, to hear a familiar song, lift their heads alertly, and begin to mouth the words. My own mother died of liver failure 12 years ago. Rising blood ammonia levels had addled her mind. In the quiet room, as she lay in a coma, we played her favorite songs. Her head turned toward the music.

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    1. Music seems to use different parts of the brain from other things. I remember seeing on tv a programme about a pianist who could play a wide repertoire from memory despite having forgotten almost everything else.

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    2. This ALWAYS makes me cry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlAXKJfesBM

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  2. This video is glorious, I enjoyed it and sang along. Nice to see the church full of people and intriguing how the lady with dementia perked up and sang at the meeting run by your wife.

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    1. The church is St George at Windsor, often used by royalty and in the video by senior politicians. An extremely well-heeled parish. It might have been a special occasion. But, yes, a bit more full than most churches now. I found several videos of this hymn, and this is my favourite.

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  3. Music and song seem to be able to pierce the veil, as it were. I really enjoyed reading that Dolly was able to participate.

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    1. People at the group were amazed. Music does reach out when other things don't.

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  4. Yes, I have read that musical memories from the past often endure the longest in the memories of people with dementia. And wow, Dolly is a perfect example of that!

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    1. She really is. Sadly, it seems unlikely that she will be able to attend the group for much longer. One of the most difficult aspects is the "turnover".

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    1. Not sure whether you mean the story or video. The video is glorious, and I would argue that the wonderful words and music of these hymns can be enjoyed whether one is religious or not.

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  6. Dementia is a cruel end to a life, but it is remarkable what can remain whole amongst the moth-eaten memories it creates. Thanks also for the music. My partner grew up with no religious input at all (not even school assemblies!) and cannot put so much of his own cultural history into a context. I wonder how people can be left so bereft of a way to understand their culture, and what will happen to them when they get dementia.

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    1. I feel that children miss out on an awful lot by not growing up with these traditions. I recognise the problems of having what are essentially Christian assemblies in schools, but they have been removed and replace with nothing. The words and music of the church are still important even if one is not a believer.

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  7. This post provided a perfectly fitting Sunday morning read for me. Thank you! Until my late teens, I was part of first our school's choir and then the church choir; then work and Librarian School started, sending me away for four weeks at a time, every four to six weeks, making such things impractical and hard to fit in. I still think I want to start singing again, but lack the drive to actually do something about it.
    Dolly's reaction to this particular hymn is very moving. She must have an especially firm association with harvest time.
    My Dad was still at the early-ish stages of dementia when he died, but we'd noticed the signs for some years. He often preferred breaking out into song or reciting fragments of a poem or popular saying instead of working out his own phrases.

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    1. What you say about your dad is another example, and very interesting and moving. As regards the video, it must be fantastic to be able to sing like those girls in the descant at the end of the fourth verse. I have been walking around singing their line, except it is not anywhere near a descant. Are there no choirs you could join near you?

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    2. There are plenty, but I hesitate to commit myself to a regular date in my diary - it is already so full, week after week.

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  8. I have read that dementia may be accelerated in those that are deaf or hard of hearing. It would certainly be hard to spark reactions to music and song.

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    1. Isn't it because of lack of social contact rather than lack of music? I would also guess that those who have a lot going on inside their heads are less prone to memory loss. From your blogs, I'm sure you have lots going on in your head.

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  9. Your story about Dolly underlines just why Dementia Groups are so worthwhile. I used to play with a Ukulele group in a Care home once a month. Being yorkshire and only about ten miles from the Richmond of 'Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill' we played and sang the firt verse. David, an old man sitting in the corner shouted out - what about the second verse? We din't know it so we played and he sang it as a solo. After that it was a monthly event for him!

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  10. Thank you for the video clip - uplifting:-) I saw a video a while ago about a lady with dementia who had been a ballerina. When a piece was played that she had danced she started moving her hands in the gestures for the dance - it was most moving.

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    1. It's strange that some parts of the brain seem relatively unimpaired, while others are completely destroyed.

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  11. I admire your wife giving time, energy and interest to the group, and to hear that the recipients enjoy it is good.
    To remember old songs (often with all the words) sits deep in us - I am having so many tunes/words from the Beatles and Rolling Stones in my head, where more higher cognition could be :-)

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    1. My head it full of all kinds of rubbish, songs and other things.
      Running the group draws on what she did before retiring. She was an occupational therapist.

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  12. I heard a beautiful version of “We Plough the Fields and Scatter” on Radio 4 very early this very morning. Of course, I know it as well as Dolly does because we sang it at school and I was also a choirboy in the village church. If I met Dolly, there's one thing I would like to say to her and that's "Hello!"

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    1. Oh! How the gentlemen and ladies of the congregation did swoon at the sight and sound of the adorable little choirboy descanting to the heavens.

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    2. Being in a choir is all about teamwork Sir Tasker. No space for prima donnas when you are venerating The Lord through holy songs...
      We thank you, then, Creator,
      for all things bright and good,
      the seed-time, and the harvest,
      our life, our health, our food.

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  13. What a great story. I'm reminded of visiting my mom, who had dementia, in February. She could not longer speak and it's hard to know what she was thinking, if anything -- but when the bells at her retirement center chimed out the hymn "Holy Holy Holy," she and I sang along with it. My brother wasn't there and he doubts this story to this day, but I swear it's true.

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    1. I think from the comments so many others have made here, it is entirely believable.

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  14. A wonderful and inspiring post! I recognize the title ‘We Ploughing The Fields And Scatter’ but don’t know the words or the tune. However, ‘Come, Ye Thankful People, Come’ is very familiar to many Americans. I have never thought of it as a Baptist hymn.

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    1. A bit of googling into the origins of these two hymns seems in order. The title of the piece is from yet another hymn, "Who would true valour be" which is originally Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress" but it seemed fitting.

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  15. The 'sweet lass' was actually Frances I'Anson and was born in Leyburn, where I live. The house where she was born is now a paint/wallpaper shop and the date it was built and the name I'Anson is over the door.There is an animal food company locally called I'Ansons - I don't know whether this is a continuation of the family or whether it iss a common name up here.

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    1. I used to work with someone from Shipley whose middle name is I'Anson. Wrongly, I always thought the song was about Richmond in London. My songbook, by the way, has 3 verses.

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  16. That is strange about the name I'Anson, I worked with someone with that name and always thought it French. But I would recognise 'The Lord is my Shepherd' (I do not want) and think of it as the death hymn. My favourite is 'There is a green hill far away'. As a child I probably lapsed into thought about that green hill and missed the message of the hymn!

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    1. Who needs google when we have Weaver!
      It has always been the music rather than the words that has captivated me. I often took little notice of the words. Some hymn tunes are fantastic, but I have always preferred the 12 or 16 bar ones like "Plough the fields" to the 8 bar ones like "Green Hill".

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