Songs of Old
Roz Brown is the ultimate oldies act.
"Let's go back to 1905 for this one," says Brown, his blue eyes gleaming from beneath a dusky hat. Sitting on a bar stool in an assisted-living center in south Denver, he gently strums an autoharp, filling the room with the sonic sweetness of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." His audience, made up of five seniors, sits on a row of couches before him, close enough to feel the texture of his ranch-hand tenor, a blue-sky voice as supple as saddlebag leather.
Brown knows that gigs like these yield varying responses. Of the more than forty shows he does around the Denver area each month, a large portion are for elderly crowds: By night, Brown plays for folks at the Buckhorn Exchange, singing cowboy songs to tourists hungry for a taste of the Old West. But five days a week, Brown plays real Americana for people confined to retirement centers.
At this particular show, one woman naps, her chin buried in her chest. Another gazes a bit blankly at Brown as he plays, a distant smile creasing her wrinkled face. Occasionally there are listeners who recognize material from Brown's oeuvre and respond enthusiastically; today a guest named Mike -- who holds the hand of his 103-year-old wife, Florence -- beams in Brown's direction. When Brown moseys into "Back in the Saddle Again," Mike lets loose with a spirited "Yippee!"
"You remember that one?" Brown asks.
"Sure I do," Mike says proudly. "I'm an old man!"
Indeed, Mike is just a few weeks shy of his 100th birthday, a fact that Brown has some fun with while working through his show.
"This one's older than you, Mike," Brown says, launching into a medley that includes snippets of more than twenty songs from America's soundtrack. Tunes like "Buffalo Gals," "When it's Springtime in the Rockies" and "It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary" drift into goofy sing-alongs such as "The Old Grey Mare" and open-space numbers like "Don't Fence Me In." Brown ends each song with an anecdote about its creator or history, something that often stirs the brains of Brown's listeners.
"What was Gene Autry's horse's name?" Mike asks.
"Champion," Brown answers politely.
At 64, Brown is, in many ways, a champion of antique folk music. An autoharpist who didn't take up music until his thirties, he plays everything from cowboy songs and rural ballads to patriotic ditties and odes from the dawn of America. Brown's is vintage music for vintage people, with tunes as time-honored as his audience.
"He's the last of the real folksingers," says legendary troubadour Utah Phillips. "There aren't many like him left anymore."
Phillips's summation helps to explain why Brown does what he does.
"If you don't sing these songs, they're going to get forgotten," Brown says. "And some of us don't want that to happen. Folk music is the music of the folks."
Brown's life in Colorado dates back to the mid-'60s, when he moved here from his home state of Wisconsin; he came to take a job as an electrical technician at a high-altitude research center atop Mount Evans. ("We measured cosmic rays coming in from other galaxies," Brown recalls.) After three years, Brown came down from the mountain, married and moved to Minnesota. When his marriage failed (in part because he yearned for life in Colorado), he moved to Evergreen. In 1972, Brown, like so many of Colorado's veteran musicians, bought a guitar from Harry Tuft at Tuft's legendary Denver Folklore Center. He pursued folk music with vigor and immersed himself in the city's then-rich folk culture, catching three or four sets a night from various local and visiting folk performers. Along the way, he tackled his own gigs and helped found the Swallow Hill Music Association.
In 1975, Brown started playing a mix of volunteer and for-pay gigs at hospitals. The idea came to him after he spent time in one while recovering from surgery on his knee. He did the gigs on autoharp, which he was inspired to play after seeing Bryan Bowers, an eminent autoharp-playing folkie who regularly visited Denver. Brown was eventually so taken with the instrument that he gave up the guitar altogether, eventually selling his acoustic six-string back to Harry Tuft.
In a hospital setting, the autoharp was powerful medicine.
"It was magical," Brown recalls. "People were astounded by the sound of it."
At St. Anthony Hospital, Brown would go from room to room in the hospital's orthopedic and geriatric wards. A nurse once invited him into the hospital's surgery recovery room and asked him to play for unconscious patients hooked to life support. "I was worried that the sound of the autoharp would give them all the feeling they had passed on and gone to heaven, that it was the angels playing," he says.
Brown has kept up his senior-set gigs for nearly thirty years and amassed a mailing list that includes more than 400 nursing homes. And although he remains enthusiastic about making the retirement-home rounds, he admits they can be challenging.
"Some of these people don't remember what they had for breakfast," he says. "But they'll remember these songs and clap their hands and move a foot. It's those onesies and twosies that give you the energy to keep going. I wouldn't do it if it weren't for them.
"It's boring, I'm sure, sitting around in a nursing home," he adds. "I've done them for 28 years, and I haven't found one yet that I want to live in."
For residents, Brown's music serves an especially valuable purpose.
"They get to hear the stuff they thought everybody forgot about," Brown says. "When you sing, 'She'll be Coming Around the Mountain,' it'll bring back the grade school or something like that. They'll remember their dad, their mom or the farm."
The gigs also ensure that Brown can keep working at an age when many people begin to think about retirement themselves. "I've created a niche for myself, because not too many people want to do this kind of music," he says. "There are a lot of seniors these days, so I never have to worry about work. Besides, the real payoff is not monetary. My quality of life is so much better by making somebody else's life better. I'm having so much fun doing folk music."
Buckhorn Exchange general manager Bill Dutton says Brown will never want for work at his place. "He's so valuable to us," Dutton says. "[His music] fits with the Old West thing in our restaurant and adds incredibly to the Buckhorn experience. Twenty years ago, he walked in and asked if he could put his hat out and play music. I've loved him every night ever since."
Thomas Lee, a potato farmer in Hastings, Florida, first heard Brown ten years ago when he stopped at the Buckhorn on a Colorado business trip. Lee became a diehard fan after Brown played a folk song dear to his heart.
"'Red Wing' was something that my grandmother played," he says. "She'd play the song on the piano. It was about the only music we were raised on." But his grandmother only knew a verse of the song and, before meeting Brown, Lee had made a habit of asking older musicians if they knew the tune, in hopes of hearing an entire version of it: "Roz was the first guy that knew how to play the whole thing."
Lee slipped Brown a $50 bill and asked him to record the song and send him the lyrics. The lyrics sit on Lee's desk at his farm today, and he's trying to get his granddaughter to learn the tune. Lee and his wife also own several of the six recordings Brown has made over the years. (A full discography is available at rozbrown.com.)
"I'm kind of country. I've come up the hard way -- never had anybody give me anything," Lee says. "I just like that type of music. I don't listen to any of this modern mess."
Brown's older fans feel the same way, as evidenced by the hums and handclaps that issue from the south Denver senior center as he winds down his set. Brown closes with Woody Guthrie's "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You." In a voice as comforting as warm milk, Brown sings of "the people I've met and the places I've been/Some of the troubles that crossed my mind/Lot of good friends that I left behind."
"How's that for today?" Brown asks, while slipping on his Buckhorn Exchange jacket and packing up his autoharps. Before he leaves, Mike calls him over. "You know," the 99-year-old says, "every time you come here, I get younger."
"We've brightened his day," Brown notes, once outside. "Bingo -- that might not be something that really excites him. But a song? A song by Roy Rogers or Gene Autry? For one hour, he's off in some other world in his mind. And that's the satisfying thing about doing this."
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