Austin Culture of Giving 2012
music as medicine

Swan Songs: Filling terminally ill patients' final days with music, joy and life

Swan Songs: Filling terminally ill patients' final days with music, joy and life

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Swan Songs fulfills musical wishes at the end of life by organizing private concerts for individuals with a terminal illness. Courtesy of Swan Songs
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In 1994, local folk musician Christine Albert gigged regularly at Waterloo Icehouse. At the time, it still stood next to its sister record store on Lamar and 6th Street, and John Swann was a regular attendee.

Swann had loved Albert’s music for years, following her to the Kerrville Folk Festival and her regular slots around town. One evening, Albert noticed that her dedicated fan struggled to walk. His wife called and explained that Swann had suffered a slow developing fatal aneurysm. Soon after that he stopped showing up.

The aneurysm took away Swann’s ability to speak and walk. At this point, his wife called Albert with an unusual request: a pop-up show in the Swann’s living room. Albert agreed, and family and friends gathered in the home. Albert brought guitar and mandolin players along for a show that was as much about reuniting as it was a farewell; because of Swann’s condition, his stream of visitors had slowly dwindled. The 20-member audience filled the living room as Swann listened to a local favorite play one last time.

Inspired, Albert left with an idea.

Swan Songs, taking its name both as a tribute to John Swann and the ancient Greek belief that the Mute Swan sings only just before its final moments, officially filed as a non-profit in 2005. The organization sends Austin musicians to the homes of terminally ill music enthusiasts who are unable to attend shows, funded by donations that help provide artist honorariums. The initial idea was for patients to request specific artists, but it has evolved into era and genre requests.

“The requests are always eclectic,” said Albert, who now serves as the company’s president. “Irish songs, classical, mariachi — they’re varied, but we can always find something.”

Although she collaborates with hospice workers to find recipients, Albert continues to stress the need for more community awareness.

“I want people to think and know about the program earlier in the process. It is for terminally ill patients, but you don’t need to wait until you’re in the final days or weeks. There’s nothing sadder than a patient dying before we can organize the concert.”

But sometimes the timing is spot on. Albert recalled a woman who requested to hear her favorite Irish folk tune. She learned it from her parents in Ireland and passed it down to her daughter. Local Celtic singer Marc Gunn played for her while she held her daughter’s hand. When the song finished, she quietly passed.

“It was the music of her childhood. There she was listening to it with her daughter. There couldn’t have been a better way to go,” Albert said.

Swan Songs will hold a benefit Dec. 4 with Austin Music Awards’”Best Folk Musician” Eliza Gilkyson at the Gibson Showroom. Tickets and more information are available at swansongs.org.