His music lifts their loneliness
By Hank Lohmeyer
Published Thursday, November 5, 2015 11:45 am
Photo by Hank Lohmeyer Phil Ellsworth shares his self-taught musical skills on the harmonica with nursing home residents every week.
The idea that anyone in this world would feel alone is an idea that Phil Ellsworth has not become reconciled to.
Phil is the affable man whose gentle strains of sweet harmonica music are heard at the doorway of FoodTown whenever Cedaredge Rotary Club stages a fundraiser raffle ticket sale there.
But a lot of people who know Phil might be surprised to learn that his seven years of self-taught musical skill playing the harmonica has since last April been enjoyed also by local nursing home residents every Friday afternoon.
"I do it for the people who think they're all alone in the world, and I don't want them to feel that way," Phil says of his personal musical ministry to local nursing home residents.
The melodies of "Let me Call You Sweetheart" and other favorites begin wafting through the wings and commons areas as nursing home residents gather round at 2 p.m. Phil's concerts continue for about an hour. One staff aide said, "He comes in here every Friday like clockwork, I just adore the man for doing it."
As he paused between songs last Friday, he noted one of his listeners by name: "She sometimes likes to strum with her fingers on the edge of the table as she listens to the music," he said. Then, another one: "She will sometimes remember words to a song and sing along."
Another resident sat silently in her wheelchair nearby. Phil recalled the time he played "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," a show tune from Oklahoma that ends with the lyric "Everything's going my way." At the conclusion of the musical piece the resident looked up and said, "Wouldn't that be nice if it was really so."
A fan of Phil's performances named Joan, who lives in the memory support unit, rolled her chair up close and listened with rapt attention as Phil serenaded her, caught up, perhaps, in memories of a happier time in her life. Then he read a poem from one of the several slim volumes he had brought in with him. The poem he read for Joan was by Emily Dickinson titled "Hope." Phil said, "I think, really, that I get more out of this than they do."
Another of the staff aides at the facility said, "It's a good thing. They like it. They just all gather around and listen until he's finished playing."
There is hardly time in an hour for Phil to even begin digging into the extensive catalogue of popular favorite melodies that he has learned by heart. His song list contains dozens and dozens of titles that he can choose from among, or almost certainly play in response to any request should he get one.
His concert last Friday included songs that everyone will recognize: Somewhere Over the Rainbow, What Now My Love, Yesterday, Beautiful Dreamer, Amazing Grace, You Are My Sunshine, Let Me Call You Sweetheart, America the Beautiful, and others.
Phil, a man who doesn't want anyone to feel they are alone in this world, certainly will not be feeling alone this Sunday, Nov. 8, from 1-4 p.m. That is when his many friends will gather with him to mark the occasion of his 90th birthday.
His friends request that no gifts of any physical nature be brought to the event for Phil. That is an entirely appropriate way to honor the man who many consider Cedaredge's poet laureate and who has written the following lines titled "Legacy:"
"Days of Joy and none of sorrow,
No power of mine can will these things.
My gift to you if love were power,
In joy or sorrow a heart that sings."