Song Spotlight: “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”

I work in eldercare settings, but that doesn’t mean all of my clients love Frank Sinatra and Hank Williams. In fact recently, I’ve been learning a bunch of of songs from the 1970s, so I can have new ways to connect musically with people in their 50s and 60s, who might be caring for loved ones in their 80s and 90s or on hospice or long-term care services themselves.

One tool I’m using is The Grammy Awards Song of The Year 1970-1979. As the title suggests, this songbook includes all of the songs nominated for the Song of the Year during the 1970s. Does that mean these are the best songs to use in music therapy for people who were young in the 1970s? No. But it’s an excellent place to start an exploration.

The song that has struck me recently was a 1977 hit for Crystal Gayle: Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue. Written by Richard Leigh, this song has a jazzy piano line that probably helped it to become Gayle’s first and biggest crossover hit. This song reached #1 on the country charts and #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it won Gayle a 1978 Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

Uneasy senior woman praying for sick manThere are a few things about this song that work really well for clinical and caregiving situations:

Sing-ability. Another fun fact? This song was recognized by ASCAP in 1999 as being one of the ten most-performed songs of the twentieth century. That means a lot of people are doing live cover versions of this song, and I bet that’s because its narrow range makes this song pretty easy to sing.

Honest feelings and unanswered questions. This song is about someone leaving and the person being left not quite understanding why. One thing is clear: the singer is sad and lonely and trying to cope with it all. Beyond that, though, there is plenty of room for interpretation about the details of what happened. The listener can put a lot of their own feelings and experiences into this song.

Simple, repetitive lyrics. When you’re dealing with difficult feelings, sometimes all you can do is say how bad it feels. The repetition of the line “don’t it make my brown eyes blue” underscores the sadness and loneliness, while making the song more singable, too.

That crossover appeal. Because this song was popular with country and pop music audiences, chances are a lot of people will be familiar with this song. That makes it a good one for opening a discussion about love and loss, or starting a deeper musical exploration.

Try This: Songwriting Experience

This song also works quite nicely for a simple fill-in-the-blank songwriting experience.

Especially for family caregivers, this song could be a great container for some of the difficulties you’re experiencing in your caregiving work. Try adding your own words to this framework:

I don’t know when I’ve been so blue

Don’t know what’s come over you

You’ve __________________

And don’t it make my brown eyes blue

I’ll be _______________ when you’re gone

I’ll just ____________ all night long

Say it isn’t true

And don’t it make my brown eyes blue

Tell me ________________ and tell me ___________

Give me ________________, give me _____________

Tell me you love me and don’t let me cry

Say _____________ but don’t say ________________

I didn’t mean ____________________

I didn’t know ____________________

But honey ______________________

And don’t it make my brown eyes

Don’t it make my brown eyes

Don’t it make my brown eyes blue

Some of those phrases sound just like what I’ve heard from people who are caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s Disease or other forms of dementia:

I don’t know what’s come over you.

Tell me…

… you love me.

… you know my name.

… I’m doing the right thing.

I didn’t mean…

… to make you upset.

… to leave you alone.

… to get so angry.

I didn’t know…

…it would be this hard.

…it would end like this.

…how scared I’d feel.

I think there is comfort in having our deepest thoughts and feelings expressed through music. Perhaps using the framework of this song can give you some comfort in expressing your own experience.

What do you think of this song? What lyrics would you fill in the blanks? Leave a comment below, and let us all know.

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


Fred Stobaugh, “Oh, Sweet Lorraine,” and the Therapeutic Value of Musical Expression

Fred Stobaugh

Fred Stobaugh

If you haven’t already heard about Fred Stobaugh and the love song he wrote for his wife of more than 70 years, then you are in for a treat. This is a story of love, loss, an outpouring of creativity, and support from the community to bring that creative effort into a beautiful musical form.

Ninety-six-year-old Fred Stobaugh met his wife at an A&W Root Beer stand in 1938. They were married for almost 73 years before she died, just a few months ago.

Let’s take a pause here to acknowledge the enormity of that loss. Sometimes I think we younger folks assume (or hope) that dealing with the loss of loved ones somehow gets easier for older people. It’s so much more routine then, right? In reality, though, anyone who has been through the loss of a spouse or partner or child or sibling or dear friend knows how hard it is to get back to “normal” life after that. (I wrote another post on that after my grandmother’s death.)

So Fred Stobaugh had just lost his partner in life, with whom he had spent the vast majority of his life. On a lonely evening about a month after her passing, the words to his song “Oh, Sweet Lorraine” came to mind. He wrote them down and submitted them to a local songwriting contest sponsored by Green Shoe Studio in Peoria, Illinois. The studio had been expecting a slew of online submissions, but the one big envelope arriving at the studio courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service caught the attention of the studio’s CEO, Jacob Colgan.

Colgan helped Stobaugh set his lyrics to music and made a professional recording for him. When you watch the video at the end of this post, you’ll hear Stobaugh’s reactions as he first hears his lyrics brought to life. (I dare you not to cry.)

As things sometimes happen these days, the video and Stobaugh’s song went viral. He recently became the oldest artist to have a song on the Billboard Top 100, even beating out 85-year-old Tony Bennett. His song also made the iTunes Top 10, alongside Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Miley Cyrus.

This is a beautiful story.


First, instead of sinking into a pit of despair, Stobaugh created something out of his deep love for his wife and grief at her loss. Creativity can be healing.

Second, Green Shoe Studio’s CEO recognized how special Stobaugh’s creative work was and was willing to help him finish his song, at no charge. There are good people in this world, who care for others at no obvious benefit to themselves.

Third, the world has recognized the beauty of Stobaugh’s marriage, the song he wrote, and this sweet story. No matter what they say, many of us still love and respect our elders and their stories.

Everything that is beautiful about being human is in this story – the way we love, the way we grieve, the way we support each other during the darkest times. If this doesn’t give you hope, I don’t know what will.

To hear “Oh, Sweet Lorraine” and Fred Stobaugh’s story, watch the video below:

By the way, music therapists are quite skilled at helping people set their lyrics to music, as we know how much healing can happen in this kind of creative act. If you’re in the Kansas City area, I would love to help you express yourself in this way. Contact me for more information.


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Professional caregivers: Find more ideas for music in caregiving at Soundscaping Source, our dedicated site for eldercare professionals.

Community Thanksgiving Song (with free download!)

© Elena Kouptsova-vasic |

I know it’s a few days late, but I wanted to share the Thanksgiving song composed by the community, with ideas from seniors I serve as a music therapist and readers of the Soundscape Music Therapy newsletter.

I asked seniors about how their feelings of gratitude have changed over time. We talked about how as children we are thankful for different thing than when we are parents and working adults. Gratitude shifts again as we move into our later years. Each verse of our song addresses a different stage of life.

You can listen to our Thanksgiving Song or download it for free!

Here are lyrics for the final version:

When I was a kid, I was thankful for my dog and cat

I was thankful for my mother

I was thankful for my father

For my brothers and my sisters

For parties and treats

For all of these things, I gave thanks


When I was an adult, I was thankful to give those treats

For seeing kids’ costumes

For seeing people happy

For education and going on vacation

For all of these things, I gave thanks


Nowadays, I am thankful for my health

I am thankful for family

I am thankful for this nice place to live

I’m especially thankful for no more cooking

For all of these things, I give thanks


Well, of course, I’m thankful for more

But I think I got all that’s important.

The End.


Happy Thanksgiving!

A Creative Christmas Songwriting Experience

We needed dental floss to make our tree presentable. Creativity counts!

‘Tis the season to decorate for Christmas! My family and I will be trekking out to a tree farm this Saturday to find our Christmas tree, and we’ll be making ornaments and decorating the tree this weekend. We’ve already got lights up on the house (which my little girl cannot stop talking about!)

I am pretty excited about Christmas this year, and I am grateful for the time I’ll have to spend with my family. The holidays can be quite stressful, though, especially  when you’re missing loved ones, or when you’re trying to find meaningful things to do as a family when you can’t quite match the ideals portrayed by Hallmark. Sometimes it takes some creativity and spontaneity to get through a season that has too much pressure to be perfect.

So, in the midst of holiday preparations, why not stretch your creative muscles with a songwriting exercise? This is something you can do on your own or with the whole family – kids and grandkids included – and it can work well with your loved ones who have dementia or other cognitive challenges.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Start with “Deck the Hall.” You know that song, right? With the fa-la-la-la-las? Sing it through a time or two to remember the tune.
  2. Write a new verse about the decorating and Christmas preparations you are doing. Don’t worry about being a lyrical genius – we’re going for a personalized version here, not a top 40 hit. There is no pressure to be picture-perfect here, just an aim to try something new.

Here’s what a new verse could look like:

Decorate the house with lights and wreaths
Fa la la la la la la la la!
Put the Christmas tree up and hang the ornaments
Fa la la la la la la la la!
String some popcorn and put it on the tree
Fa la la la la la la la la!
Don’t forget the star on top
Fa la la la la la la la la!

(Underlined words are newly composed.)

That’s it! You could make up as many new verses as you like. If you want, write them down for posterity, or make a video to share with family and friends on YouTube. And don’t underestimate how precious the sound of your own voice is. This could be a special gift for your loved ones for years to come.

You could try a similar song re-write with many other Christmas songs. “O Christmas Tree” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” have worked well for me and my clients.

Okay, now that you’ve done some creative exercise, maybe it’s time for a Christmas cookie?

P.S. If you do write a new verse to this song and want to share with the world, I’d love to hear how it goes! Please post in the comments section below.

“Still a Child” – A Caregiver’s Song

Last week, I received an email from Bakhus Saba, a caregiver who wants his song to be heard. Nine months ago, he placed his mother in a retirement home. She has Alzheimer’s disease, and he had lived with her for all of his 52 years and been her caregiver for seven years. He wrote “Still a Child” together with John and Michele Law, about what he went through as a caregiver when he placed his mother in full-time care. Continue reading

Song Spotlight: “Danny Boy”

  • Mood: Sentimental, Wistful
  • Themes: Ireland, Saying Goodbye, Missing a Loved One, Death
  • Tempo: Slow to moderate
  • Genre/style: Ballad


Photo courtesy

“Danny Boy” is one of those songs that is at once ubiquitous and mysterious. I’ve been singing this song a lot in the last week for music therapy sessions leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, and two clients reacted in ways that prompted me to do a little more research into this song’s background.


The first surprise happened when a client came up to me at the end of a group session at a nursing home and said, “You do know ‘Danny Boy’ is Scottish, don’t you?” I probably looked a little confused and responded that I hadn’t heard that and that I should probably look up more information.

Well, it turns out that this signature Irish song has both Irish and English roots. The melody is definitively Irish – it’s an anonymous folk tune known as “Londonderry Air.” Continue reading

Song Spotlight: “Hound Dog”

Our newest family member - Duke the Basset Hound

  • Mood: Upbeat, full of attitude
  • Theme: Dogs and/or freeloading gigolos
  • Tempo: Moderate
  • Genre/style: Rhythm and blues/Rock and roll

We have a new family member in our house! This one gets around on four legs and has very long, droopy ears. His name is Duke, and he’s the adorable basset hound pictured above. I alluded to the inevitable canine addition to our household in this previous song spotlight post, but I thought his arrival was worth another song spotlight. Fortunately, that means I get to feature one of my go-to songs for elders both in group music therapy and in one-to-one interactions: “Hound Dog.”

“Hound Dog” is a 12-bar blues written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller in the mid-1950s. Elvis Presley’s 1956 version is by far the best known, but the song was first recorded by Big Mama Thornton in 1952. To me, her recording has a more improvisational, blues-y feeling, with Thornton’s vocal interplay with the instruments and all of the musicians barking and howling like hound dogs at the end of the song. Big Mama Thornton’s version drew a lot of attention and was followed by no fewer than six cover versions by country musicians in 1953. You can hear one by Billy Starr here. Continue reading

Song Spotlight: “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?”

My husband wants one of these!

  • Mood: Silly
  • Themes: Pets, Relationships
  • Tempo: Relaxed
  • Genre/style: 1950s novelty song

My sweet husband has been lobbying hard over the last several months for our family to get a dog. I have never really been a dog person, but since one day soon we will probably be adding a pooch to our family, I have been paying extra attention to the variety of dogs around me, especially those that live with and are loved by my older adult clients. There are many beloved dogs around, and they are sure to draw attention from even some of the most quiet and passive people. Visits from these canine companions almost always call for one of my favorite songs for music therapy: “(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window.” Here are the lyrics for the chorus:

How much is that doggie in the window?

The one with the waggly tail

How much is that doggie in the window?

I sure hope that doggie’s for sale

This song was written in 1952, with the iconic recording by Patti Page released in December of that year. The song was one of a string of successful novelty songs in the 1950s and 1960s, which also included one of our previously spotlighted songs, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” These songs are lighthearted and goofy, so they’re great for drawing out smiles, winks, and nods.

One of my favorite ways to adapt this song is to change the words slightly to match a description of the client’s pet. For example:

How much is that doggie in the window?

The one with the black and white fur?

How much is that doggie in the window?

I think that I will call him Buster.

Of course, you could change the words to be about any kind of pet. Here are a few good questions/prompts for getting the information to fill out the verses:

  • What kind of pet did you have? Tell me about it.
  • What was its name?
  • What color was it?
  • What did it like to do?
  • Did it do any tricks?

Creating a verse for each person’s special pet is an especially good way to get a discussion going in any size group. (P.S. Animals and pets are always great topics for discussion in intergenerational groups as well!)

What do you think? Could you use this song with seniors in your life? Let me know in the comments section!

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


Help Seniors Write a Song for Labor Day

With Labor Day coming up next week, I wanted to share a simple songwriting exercise that I have used frequently with older adult music therapy groups. One trick to successful songwriting interventions with groups that include seniors with memory impairments is to base the group’s song on a familiar favorite, leaving the melody and harmony intact and changing as few of the words as possible. You get from the steps of songwriting to the performance quickly enough to let more people feel the joy of creation. (I shared another songwriting exercise for Thanksgiving last year.)

Here are the steps for this songwriting exercise:

1. Start with the familiar folk tune “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Sing it through once with the group to let everyone recall the melody.

2. Tell the group you are all going to add new verses to the song about the kinds of work they have done in the past.

3. Ask individual group members what kind of work they did. Make this a conversation, and give them a chance to reminisce for a moment, too! Some folks can share this information more readily than others. Here are some questions that might help them along:

  • What kind of work did you do when you were younger?
  • Did you work outside the home? Were you a homemaker?
  • What were your responsibilities at that job?
  • How did you get that job?

If participants aren’t able to answer these questions themselves, use the information nursing staff know about the resident’s occupation or what might be in the resident’s chart.

4. Fill in the lyrics with individuals’ names and occupations. Change words as you wish to make the lines work. Here’s an sample verse:

Mary’s been working at the schoolhouse all the live long day.

Pete’s been working at the Boeing factory just to pass the time away.

Joe’s been selling shoes. Sylvia’s been watching kids.

Everybody’s working hard. We’ve all got work to do.

Advantages of this activity

You might get to learn something new about a participant’s background.

Participants will likely share something that they’re proud of, and it might be different than you expect. For example, I had a client once who worked as a stewardess for a few years before getting married and spending the next few decades as a homemaker. She loved sharing the stories from those few years as a flight attendant, even though it wasn’t the occupation she had for a lifetime.

Using participants’ names keeps them actively involved and reinforces their importance as a member of the group.

You can involve all the members of a large group in this activity since four people can be mentioned in each verse. For a smaller group or one-on-one activity, you can add more detail about individuals’ job responsibilities, where and when they worked, etc.

This activity would be great to include as part of a Labor Day party, a nursing home sing-along, or a Labor Day-themed music therapy session.

What do you think? What interesting stories have you heard about seniors’ working lives? Please share below.

Song Spotlight: “(What a) Wonderful World”

  • © Sandra Cunningham |

    Mood: Relaxed, Romantic

  • Themes: Love/Romance, School, Lack of Academic Knowledge
  • Tempo: Relaxed walking speed
  • Genre/style: 1950s soul

If you read my latest newsletter, you already know that I’ve been thinking about songs to celebrate the beginning of the school year. Among my favorites is Sam Cooke’s song “(What A) Wonderful World.” It starts with these words:

Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the French I took
But I do know that I love you
And I know that if you love me too
What a wonderful world this would be

These words were originally penned under the pseudonym Barbara Campbell, who was Sam Cooke’s high school sweetheart. (Now everybody say it: “Awwww!”) Along with songwriters Lou Adler and Herb Alpert, Cooke published “(What a) Wonderful World” in 1959, and his version of the song climbed to #12 on the Billboard charts in 1960. After Cooke’s death in 1964, Herman’s Hermits released another popular recording of this song, which reached #2 on the U.S. charts. This song has also been performed by artists as diverse as Art Garfunkel, Johnny Nash, Rod Stewart, and Rockapella.

Of course, this song is a great springboard for discussions about school subjects. You can ask seniors about their favorite subjects in school as well as the ones they didn’t like much. You can even ask about specific subjects (“Who doesn’t know much about biology or trigonometry?”) This song is also a love song, of course, so you can ask older adults about sweethearts from their school days, or when they knew that they loved their husband/wife.

Musically, this song’s steady, relaxed tempo makes it appropriate for accompanying instrument playing or as a background for expressive movement to music.

This song could also work well in a songwriting exercise for people with memory loss, especially early to mid-stage dementia. Try filling in the blanks to these lyrics:

Don’t remember much                                        

Don’t remember                                                   

Don’t remember much                                        

Don’t remember much                                        

But I do know that I love you

And I know                                                             

What a wonderful world I see

For people who are dealing with the emotional difficulty of experiencing early memory loss and knowing it will only get worse, this could help them acknowledge the memory loss and reaffirm the important memories they still have, especially the emotional memories of who cares for them. (As always, no exercise or song is right for everyone. Please use your judgment on whether this activity is appropriate for your loved one.)

What do you think? Does this song bring back memories of your school days? Please feel free to comment below.

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