A canoe floats in the water near the title "Recorded History: Hospice Patient Revives Century-Old Folk Songs"

Recorded History: Hospice Patient Revives Century-Old Folk Songs

When Bob Whaley was born in 1926, home radios were a rarity in Southside Virginia. Instead, his mother’s voice shaped the soundtrack of his early years. She filled their home with song, serenading Bob and his four siblings.

Nearly a century later, those songs would return to Bob, thanks to Clara George, an accomplished musician from The Front Porch, working in partnership with Hospice of the Piedmont.

A Lifetime of Adventure

The son of a country doctor, Bob grew up during the Depression, often dining on food bartered for his father’s medical services. In the final years of WWII, he enlisted in the Navy, serving in the Pacific campaign. After graduating from Virginia Tech on the GI Bill, Bob married the love of his life, Sally, enjoying nearly 71 years together. While his professional life was dedicated to book manufacturing, it was his passion for canoeing that truly defined him.

A family photo from the 1930s
The Whaley Family in the 1930s

“He was kind of a legend among canoeists in Virginia and elsewhere for all the different streams that he canoed,” shares his son, Robert. Bob’s adventures spanned the streams of Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina. He’d even canoed extensively throughout the Yukon, Labrador, and Quebec.

Navigating Life’s Final Rapids

Active in canoeing until age 84, Bob’s later years were marked by health challenges, including bladder cancer and heart failure. Bob was admitted to the hospital three times for three different problems in November of 2022. And so, the next month, Bob enrolled in hospice care with Hospice of the Piedmont at the age of 96.

“He was having a fairly tough end to his life, I would say, with all kinds of different medical problems,” says Robert. “Still, he always said his life had been wonderful despite his health problems.”

Enter The Hospice Volunteers

The decision to onboard at Hospice of the Piedmont brought some new visitors.

“Shortly after we got into hospice, we started receiving visits from people with service dogs and such. These visits helped so much by distracting them from their troubles. Then, one day, there was a knock on the door, and there was Clara with her guitar,” says Robert. “We bonded with her right away.”

Musician Clara George wears a green T-shirt and trucker cap with "The Front Porch" logo. She holds an acoustic guitar.
Musician Clara George

Thanks to generous community philanthropy, Hospice of the Piedmont provides music to patients and families in partnership with several local organizations and individual volunteers.

Clara George also remembers meeting Bob and his family. “I really adore that whole family. It’s a wonderful reminder that our visits are not solely for the patients.”

When Clara meets a new patient, there’s typically a discussion about the types of music the patient likes. “Sometimes they have a collection of CDs, and I’ll just take a picture of their entire CD collection. I figure, if you’re holding on to those, then that’s the music you’re emotionally connected to,” she says.

Reviving Childhood Melodies

Bob did not have a box of CDs. He had something more unique.

“We mentioned to Clara that my dad had some songs that he had grown up listening to that were not commonly known,” says Robert.

Amazingly, the family had recordings of the songs. In the early 1960s, Bob’s mother (Robert’s Grandmother), Vera “Truth” Lambdin Whaley, recorded some songs on a reel-to-reel tape deck. Later, Bob’s nephew Stephen transferred the recording onto an MP3.

Four generations of one family as seen in a black and white photo from the 1950's. A baby, his father, his grandmother, and his great grandmother
Four Generations captured in the 1950’s. Robert as a baby, his father (Bob), his Grandmother (Truth) and Truth’s Mother.

Instead of a box, Robert passed a single CD to Clara.

The CD contained two songs, To Be a Farmer’s Son and Our Gallant Ship. (You can listen to these recordings by using the linked song titles.)

“It was a kind of scratchy recording, and she had a very thick southern accent,” explains Clara. “There was no musical accompaniment, so I just listened to her phrasing and the melody.” From there, she worked out the key she was singing in and the chords.

The lyrics posed an additional challenge. “I was not familiar with either of the songs, so I wanted to do a transcription of the lyrics she was singing,” says Clara.  She did her best but couldn’t make out all the lyrics on the scratchy recording.

Finding the Right Words

She brought the lyric sheet back to the family the following week and explained, “I learned these songs, but a couple of lyrics I just couldn’t grab.”

Bob was intrigued.

Clara continues, “We started singing through the song. We made our way through the whole thing. And then Robert, his son, would say, ‘Dad, what’s the lyric on this part?’ And his dad would close his eyes and sing it.

“So, at the end of the week, we had these lyric sheets that were scratched up and edited. I retyped them all. And then, we’d sing those songs every week.”

The songs had traveled through decades of advancements in audio technology and finally come full circle: a living room sing-along.

Songs That Were Uniquely His

The songs are, of course, part of Bob’s personal history. But they’re also an interesting part of American folk history. Although Bob grew up with a song he called “Our Gallant Ship,” it may be closely related to another song called “The Mermaid,” variations of which are cataloged in this Library of Congress blog.

“They aren’t lullabies, per se. They’re folk songs. Yet, they were sung to the children to calm them down, get them to sleep, that kind of thing, I guess,” says Robert.

Clara investigated the origins of both songs. But historical folk songs are tricky. “They can be sung so many different ways. I would find versions where the timing was the same, and there were elements of the melody that were the same, but there were verses that were completely different than how she sang it.”

These songs were not mass-produced platinum best sellers of today.

These were her songs.

These were his songs.

A Personalized Concert

Clara’s visits became a source of joy for Bob and his family. “We always looked forward to her visits,” says Robert. “Clara is such a wonderful person to listen to and sing along with. These personal songs added immensely to the experience. It took his mind off all his woes.”

Clara agrees, “In those moments, it felt like the music was a good distraction from the situation at hand. I can’t imagine what feelings come with knowing that you’re going to die. Just to be distracted from those feelings by a song or a memory is amazing. It was just this beautiful time.”

Looking back on the experience, Robert recognizes how important it was for his father to have this experience at the end of his life. “To have someone come in and interact with him like that was incredibly enriching,” says Robert. “It was tremendous to have someone as talented as Clara come in and give him a personalized concert.”

The Music of a Lifetime

Bob Whaley’s journey down the river of life concluded peacefully on July 4th, 2023, at the age of 97.  He is survived by his wife, his son, and the music of his childhood.

To learn more about the full range of music services Hospice of the Piedmont provides, visit Our Services page.

Please join us for a special concert at The Front Porch on Sunday, April 28, 2024. Local Musicians Clara George and Devon Sproule will share songs, stories, and experiences from their work providing music for Hospice care patients. They will also welcome conversation and questions from the audience after their set. You can purchase tickets here.

An older couple canoes down a river
Bob Whaley and his wife, Sally, Canoeing in 2002