Song Spotlight: “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy”

November is National Hospice and Palliative Care Month in the United States, and in discussing the particular place that music therapy has in hospice and palliative care, I have been looking at special songs that have led to significant moments in care at the end of life. Previous posts were dedicated to the spiritual song “The Beautiful Garden of Prayer” that was significant for spiritual and emotional support and a set of Filipino folk songs that helped bridge cultural boundaries with a client with dementia. In this post, I’ll discuss another favorite song of mine for hospice music therapy: “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy.”

It is a common misconception, I think, that the most therapeutic music in hospice is the slow and relaxing kind. It is true that many patients referred for music therapy in hospice and palliative care need relief of pain and anxiety, and music therapists do structure music for relaxation for many patients. Music therapists have the ability to address many other needs through music, however. Two common goals are to help patients with dementia connect with their family members or other caregivers and to provide emotional support to those caregivers as the patient’s illness progresses. A variety of music can help address these needs by changing the mood in the room or sparking discussion or reminiscence.

In supporting verbal interactions, one technique is to choose songs that are familiar to the listeners and personally significant in some way, as was discussed in this previous post. Another technique is to choose songs that might not be as familiar but that are useful in their musical elements and in their lyric content. “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy” is one of these songs. It is upbeat and lighthearted, and it is in the big band style that is popular among many older adults. I have not had many clients who knew the lyrics well enough to sing along, and many family members have not been at all familiar with this song, but the lyrics lend themselves to reminiscence – about the special treats someone’s mother used to make, about the cooking a patient did herself, or even just about the normal routine of a family.

I had a hospice patient recently who was in the end stages of dementia, and while she was alert and responsive to music in most sessions, she spoke very little. Her daughter was present during one session in which I sang “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy” as a change of pace from the dozen or so songs the daughter had requested in previous sessions. My patient’s daughter did not know this song, but it did lead to a conversation about her mother’s love of baking and how she always had some sort of baked good for dessert each night at the family dinner table. We talked more about the routines of her family growing up and the things she and her mother like to do together in more recent years. Our discussion led to other song ideas and more singing, which helped to keep both the patient and the daughter engaged with each other in the moment during the session – both were smiling at each other, holding hands, with the daughter stroking her mother’s hair. The music helped to bring about a tender mother-daughter moment that was less focused on the difficulties of the present than on the loving relationship they had enjoyed for so many years. As a music therapist, this was a need that I could identify and a musical intervention that I could facilitate.

What are the special songs in your family? For music therapists, what songs have been surprisingly powerful in your sessions? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

This post is part of an occasional series on special songs to share with your loved ones. For more song spotlights, click here.

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5 thoughts on “Song Spotlight: “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy”

  1. Jessica Edwards, MT-BC says:

    I used hundreds of songs, all different styles, when working in hospice for more than 4 years, Rachelle, but I never came across this one! I’ll have to give it a listen now, even though I won’t likely use it any time soon with my current work. Along the same lines, I used a lot of big band era songs and even some before that time (Five Foot Two Eyes of Blue, Yes Sir We Have No Bananas, etc) that provoked lighthearted discussions and memories of family gatherings, dancing, practical jokes, even though some of them were old enough to have them saying “that was something my parents danced to!” I had one patient who used to sing, play the piano, and perform all the broadway shows, so I did a lot from “The Sound of Music” and “Oklahoma,” which always provoked a great deal of positive reminiscing between she and her daughter (this lady had end stage dementia also). Most of the songs that stick out to me, however, are the slower paced ones that provoke thoughts and memories. “Daddy’s Hands” and “You Can Close Your Eyes” (the latter by James Taylor) are two, as well as “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” and “The Rose.” Aaah – good memories for me, too. Thanks!

    • soundscapemusictherapy says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jessica! Those are all great songs – I’ve never used “You Can Close Your Eyes” or “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” – I’ll have to look those up. Thanks!

  2. Michelle Erfurt says:

    You make a very important point about different music therapy techniques and the knowledge of the music therapist. We don’t really have to play patient requests or songs that we are confident the patient enjoys when working with older adults. Music/songs can be used to facilitate and/or support discussions and life review. And, it takes the trained, board certified music therapist to have the background knowledge and insight to be able to carry out these therapeutic interventions. This is an important point to consider when reviewing the pros/cons of any company looking into having a music therapist or musical volunteers.

    Bravo to you for sharing this point to the world.

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