Sing along

Last updated 05:00 08/03/2014

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Good songs are like poetry and tell stories, says Blenheim musician Neil Wilson.

He has 300 "poems" in a song book and he plays them regularly at 90 minute concert sessions in town.

Describing himself as primarily a "party pianist", Neil also sings and plays ukulele, guitar and the piano accordion. For nearly 20 years, he has been a Thursday afternoon fixture at Blenheim's Redwoodtown Retirement Village.

It started playing piano there when his mother was a resident at the village and when she died in 1996 he asked if he could continue. "I wouldn't miss it for quids," Neil says at his home this week.

"I enjoy it. I meet a lot of wonderful people."

Most of the songs in his book were written in the 1940s and 50s and a universal favourite is the New Zealand military marching song, Maori Battalion.

"Everybody knows it, everybody sings it."

Other favourites are Pack Up Your Troubles, Bless ‘Em All, and and Irish Eyes are Smiling. Once the first chords are recognised, audience members start singing along, he says.

"Music is a great leveller."

Each month he takes his music to the Alzheimer's Marlborough Centre in Blenheim and even people who no longer talk will start singing along when they hear an old song they enjoy.

Neil, who will be 80 this year, wonders what sort of music today's young people will be listening to in their senior years. He and earlier generations grew up without televisions or digital music recordings. When hotels closed (at 6pm until 1967), friends often headed to each other's homes and gathered around a piano to sing songs.

In fact, Neil says, music was not allowed in hotels in those years.

"Pity," he rues, "we could have made a fortune, singing in the pub."

Growing up in Blenheim, he attended the convent school where nuns taught him to play Irish songs on the piano.

"But like all children, I hated every minute of it.

"As an adult, I wished I had listened to what they were telling me."

Trying to make up for it, he started learning "by ear" and joined a skiffle band. Songs by British musician and "king of skiffle" Lonnie Donegan, were among its repertoire, like Tom Dooley, Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight?), and My Old Man's a Dustman. New Zealand had its musical stars, too, and a Redwoodtown Retirement Village resident, the late Shirley Hammond, often requested Neil play Ruru Karaitiana's 1949 Blue Smoke.

Shirley and Ruru had gone to the same school, says Neil, who met the singer-songwriter once at the Criterion Hotel in Blenheim. When Shirley died Neil was asked to play at her funeral in the Church of the Nativity.

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He played a string of old songs on its piano for half an hour before the service then, as the coffin was carried down the aisle, he started to play Karaitiana's Blue Smoke.

- The Marlborough Express

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