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Pauline Lerner


May 23, 2008 at 11:17 PM

A friend of mine (“D”) died about two weeks ago. We were not close friends, and I didn’t expect his passing to trigger a strong emotional response in me, but it did.

We knew each other through a local folk music group, which was founded in the 60s and substantially rebuilt in the 70s. The people who worked on getting the group going are now like the Old Guard of the group. They form a closely knit group which functions as an extended family, perhaps because they jointly participated in the birthing of the group. They sing at each other’s weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals, and they help each other out whenever necessary. D was a member of the Old Guard, and they took good care of him. D seldom missed a music event sponsored by this group, and he worked hard on organizing them, too. His love and knowledge of folk songs were immense. He could tell you a lot about the history and meaning of any song, sometimes more that you wanted to hear.

D was certainly a character. People who didn’t know him could easily write him off as weird. He was hard of hearing, so he shouted everything in a raucous tone. He often enjoyed some humor in what he was saying, so his speaking was interrupted by his own loud, raucous, guffaws of laughter. Often his listeners did not catch the joke and were put off by his laughter. He did not know when it was time for him to stop talking and let the rest of the group continue their music or conversation, so someone would call out, “Somebody start a song and make him shut up.” He sang in a loud, raucous tone and was always off key. He played a fiddle given to him on long term loan by someone else in the Old Guard, and his playing was loud, scratchy, and always out of tune. Once when someone was singing a song I liked and D’s fiddle was right next to me, I picked it up and played along. Afterwards, someone said to me, “I never knew that D’s fiddle could sound so good.” D also played a wooden hurdy gurdy that he had made, and its tone was similar to that of his speaking, laughing, singing, and fiddling. In spite of his outward idiosyncrasies, he was quite a nice guy. I never heard him speak an unkind word about anyone and, as far as I know, he showed no malicious intent towards anyone.

For most of his adult life, D was unemployed. In spite of his intelligence and willingness to work hard, potential employers could not see past his idiosyncrasies and lack of people skills. His Old Guard friends gave him some money, probably not enough for him to live on, and he lived on less money than anyone could understand. He went to all the group events and planning sessions by public transportation, frequently long and inconvenient, or by rides from his friends in the Old Guard.

About 2 ½ weeks ago, D went into the hospital for some surgery. The surgery itself was successful, but two days later, he had a heart attack and died. We were all stunned. No one had expected this. When people started looking into things, they found that one of the forms he had filled out upon entering the hospital asked for the name and number of a person to call in case of emergency, and D had written his own name and number. He had no family except for one sister, and the two of them had not spoken to each other for 12 or 13 years. He had only a few possessions, most of them probably very old and in very bad condition. What to do? Fortunately, there were some lawyers in the Old Guard, and they started doing whatever needed to be done. There was no memorial service, but the Old Guard decided to have a memorial concert for him and secured a hall for some time in June.

In retrospect, I can see that D had a hard life. If not for his love for folk music and the support of his friends, I think he could not have survived.

Who will Sing for Me?
from the Virgil O. Stamps hymn book Precious Memories

Oft I sing for my friends,
As death’s cold form I see
When I reach my journey’s end
Tell me who will sing for me

I wonder who will sing for me
When I come to cross the silent sea
Who will sing one song for me?

When friends gather round
And look down on me
Will they turn and walk away
Or will they sing one song for me?


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