Q&A with Bob Cilman of Young@Heart - age, race, ethnicity, and class not be a barrier to making great music

"I think one of the keys to a life well lived is doing some of your greatest work at the end of your life."

Bob Cilman:

Wonderful Young@Heart People

Young@Heart is an entertainment group created by and for the elderly, comprised at present of people at least 70 years of age. Some have prior professional theater or music experience, others have performed at amateur level, and some have no experience whatsoever. They are particularly noted for their unconventional covers of rock, blues, punk, and other modern pop music songs. Founded in 1982 in Northampton, Massachusetts by Bob Cilman, the members all lived in an elderly housing project, The Walter Salvo House. The first group included elders who lived through both World Wars. Bob Cilman is son of a kosher butcher and the store’s bookkeeper, Cilman was born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., where he dabbled in rock bands since age 11. His first band, the Torn Souls, had a corner on the local bar mitzvah party market. In summer camp, it was BC and the Knights and after college, the Self-Righteous Brothers. He spent a few years at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, eventually receiving a (bachelor’s degree) in American History from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, but has learned much more from the members of the Chorus.                           (Photo: Bob Cilman)

Young@Heart started out in 1982 at a Western Massachusetts elderly housing project to joyfully pass the time instead of passing before your time has developed into the stereotype-defying, generation-crossing musical extravaganza better known as the Young@Heart Chorus. In collaboration with No Theater, Young@Heart has performed in the trilogy of theater shows — Road to Heaven, Road to Nowhere, and End of the Road. The Walker George documentary Young@Heart, originally broadcast on Channel 4 television in the UK, won two Rose d’Or awards, the LA Film Festival Audience Award, screened at Sundance and SXSW Festival before it was released in the U.S. and Canada. The Young@Heart Chorus strives to present a positive image of aging through music. Born of a belief that the often-marginalized elderly can make great contributions to art, we perform songs not commonly sung by older people to build bridges between communities and create shared musical experiences for young and old alike. Young@Heart works to show that age, race, ethnicity, and class need not be a barrier to making great music, and that no life circumstance should act as a hindrance to participating in or enjoying it.

Interview by Michael Limnios / Transcription by Katerina Lefkidou

Photos Courtesy of Young@Heart & Bob Cilman Archive)

How did the idea start, what is the story behind the idea of the name Young@Heart?

Bob: Young@Heart started back in 1982. I was a director of a meal site for the elderly and a woman that came by played the piano and said, “can I get some people together”, you know if we could just sing some songs. And then twenty-five people showed up and we’ve been rehearsing like this ever since, for the last, now it’s gonna be forty years next year. And it was really a way to just pass the time, initially. You know, most of the songs that we sang in that first period were songs from their era and their era was actually not even a World War ΙΙ era, they were the World War Ι era. We had somebody in the first chorus who fought the battle of the Somme in France in World War I. So, it was interesting for me, because I was learning a lot of their music and then eventually, we started working on music that I liked and we did a lot of different theater projects and then back in ‘97 we were invited to perform in a festival in Rotterdam, Holland and we put together a piece that was really well received and we toured throughout Europe and Asia and Australia and New Zealand for about, close to twenty years. And the last few years we’ve been working in the local prisons a lot and during the pandemic we made a lot of music. I don’t know if you saw any of the stuff that we created during the pandemic, so I’m not sure how familiar you are with our work

The name Young@Heart "talks" about the young in heart or in soul?

Bob: I’ve never been a fan of the name to tell you the truth, I think what’s interesting about these people is that they’re old. And they’re living their lives really gracefully at the later part of their lives. And I guess what they show is the energy of youth and I mean rock ‘n’ roll, it needs that kind of energy to be successful. So, yeah, you’re right, it may not be as much in the heart as it may be in the soul, but it’s definitely amazing to see that the people, I mean we have five of our people that are over 90 years old. It’s amazing to see the energy that they can still express.

"I want people to take it seriously as art. I don’t want people to think of it as something gimmicky, or cute, or isn’t that sweet, that old people are singing these songs? I want people to have an emotional experience to the way we’re presenting the work." (Bob Cilman / Photo by Ellen Augarten)

Too many experiences with this project, what are some of the most important lessons that you have learned from your experience?

Bob: Well, I gotta tell you, when I started doing this, I was twenty-nine years old. Now, I’m sixty-eight and I think one of the things I’ve learned about this, is, how much you change as you get older. I never really appreciated it enough, when I first started this group, I took a lot for granted, but I think you have to be really attentive to what these folks have to say and, I’ve learned a lot from people, life experiences, man we run the gamut, it’s a really diverse group of people. It’s not just one type of person that joins Young@Heart it’s both geographically, but also racially diverse.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Bob: Keep moving. Somebody said you just gotta keep moving. You have to keep doing things, you have to keep making things. I think that’s why this was a successful project, because they’re not singing songs they know, they’re not just singing songs from memory, they’re learning new songs, they’re using their brain in a very different way and for people of my age, people who grew up with this music, it’s thrilling to hear it re-invented by people who didn’t know it and are learning it now. And I think that I really like the expression keep moving, because it really is what they do.

How has the music influenced your views of the world, the journeys you have taken in your life?

Bob: A lot of it is the music that I grew up with, although we have young people coming into work with the group that are introducing me to music that I hadn’t really been that aware of. But you know, it’s very interesting it’s like, I grew up with the Rolling Stones for instance. But, to hear the Rolling Stones at twenty years old sing “What a drag it is getting old”, is very different than people in their eighties singing “What a drag it is getting old”. So, they just take this music and they give it new importance and a lot more significance, I think.

Bob Dylan, Talking Heads, Stones, Grateful Dead, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Sinatra, Pink Floyd, and many others… how do you choose the songs?

Bob: Well, some of it has to do with who’s singing it. We do look for songs that will sound interesting coming out of the mouths of individual chorus members, because we play solo a lot obviously. But it’s also the words. And what’s cool about this group of singers is that they grew up during an era where words were everything, the lyrics of songs meant a lot, they grew up in a period where melody and rhythm were really important, but at times you kind of missed the words, because they were hard to hear or understand. They really make a point of making you listen to the words of songs, you know, singing an eighty-five-year-old singing “Wish you were here” by Pink Floyd, is just you really focus on the lyrics of that song when she sings it.

"Young@Heart started back in 1982. I was a director of a meal site for the elderly and a woman that came by played the piano and said, “can I get some people together”, you know if we could just sing some songs. And then twenty-five people showed up and we’ve been rehearsing like this ever since, for the last, now it’s gonna be forty years next year. And it was really a way to just pass the time, initially." (Young@Heart, 2019 at the Academy of Music Theatre / Photo by Julian Parker-Burns)

How do you want this project to affect people?

Bob: I want people to take it seriously as art. I don’t want people to think of it as something gimmicky, or cute, or isn’t that sweet, that old people are singing these songs? I want people to have an emotional experience to the way we’re presenting the work. I know that people, when they first hear about this think this sounds like such a gimmick, but I think when people really spend the time with the work that we’re presenting, I think they get much more out of it. I want people to discover the depth of what these people are doing.

What is the impact of Young@Heart on the sociocultural implications?

Bob: Well, I would tell you that we just went through a pure year and a half where these people weren’t leaving their homes very much and the fact that we were able to get together twice a week on Zoom was everything to these people, was a huge lifeline. But that’s the case also when we get together and rehearse every twice a week. It’s like this is a very important part of their lives and they’re being rewarded by being able to tour all over the world. That’s kind of a cool byproduct of it. But the nitty-gritty, where lies the essence is getting together twice a week and really trying to make something new, I think that’s a social impact, it really has a strong impact and it has an impact on people who see it, who witness it. You know older people are very proud of Young@Heart. Because older people are typically made to be in the audience, watching theater, you know, not typically meant to be seen on stage. So, the fact that people young and older come into theaters to watch older people is a real point of pride for their generation.

What is happiness for Bob?

Bob: Happiness is when you work on a song and over and over it’s not going anywhere and it’s not going anywhere and it’s not going anywhere and all of a sudden, something clicks. And you realize that this idea that you had initially which took forever to pull together actually was a good idea. I’ve had that experience so many times in this group. Where I’ve gotten frustrated to the point, I’ve said maybe this isn’t a good idea and eventually it clicks. That’s happiness for me.

Are there any memories from the studio, or on the road, which you would like to share with us? What makes you laugh?                     (Photo: Bob Cilman)

Bob: I get the biggest, funniest memory I can remember is the King and Queen of Norway, attended one of our performances when we were in Bergen, Norway and in advance of the show we had learned that a song was basically the national anthem of the western part of Norway, of the Bergen area. And the King and Queen were seated in thrones on the stage right in front of us. And in back of them was an audience of two thousand people. We started singing the song and the King and Queen didn’t recognize it as an anthem for the western part of the country where everybody stands up. And we started singing it and people were kind of like, trying to get up, but you’re not allowed to stand up, because the King and Queen, until they’re standing. And at some point, early on in the song, the Queen recognized it as the anthem, and she poked the King with her elbow and they got up and immediately two thousand people stood up right back of them. A pretty wild aesthetic actually.

What do you miss most from the past and what are your hopes and fears for the future?

Bob: That’s a big one. You just have to be in the United States now to know what the fears for the future are, I mean it’s like, it’s a pretty daunting situation, we’re under here, where people don’t even believe the election was honest here. It’s a very scary moment in America. All of our people have been vaccinated, everybody, so we’re not too scared to get together, and we look forward to that actually but I fear for the future of our country. I feel like the world is in a very tortured spot and we’re right at the center of the torture.

Do you find any difference between male and female singers?

Bob: Well of course, I find a difference between every individual in the project but not really. I gotta say it doesn’t break down along gender lines. It does break down a little bit along class lines, because we run the gamut in terms of class, but what’s very interesting about the chorus is nobody derives power from their class, you only derive power from your voice. I love that, about the chorus, it’s really a place where everybody is made equal. And that’s a really cool thing, it’s kind of a reflection for the way it should work. It would be in the chorus I think that it does feel a bit egalitarian, that way and around gender issues as well. I know it’s harder to find male singers at this age, that’s a thing we’ve been very fortunate to have, a third of the group being male and they’re not giving any preference because they are male.

What do you think is key to a life well-lived?

Bob: I think one of the keys to a life well lived is doing some of your greatest work at the end of your life. And that’s what I love about Young@Heart is the people in the group are having some of the best time in their life at the end of their lives. I mean it’s really sad that we lose people all the time, we’ve had a hundred people die working on this, but the joy that they went out in a blaze of glory and a life well lived is I think one where you’re living it till the end.

"Happiness is when you work on a song and over and over it’s not going anywhere and it’s not going anywhere and it’s not going anywhere and all of a sudden, something clicks. And you realize that this idea that you had initially which took forever to pull together actually was a good idea. I’ve had that experience so many times in this group. Where I’ve gotten frustrated to the point, I’ve said maybe this isn’t a good idea and eventually it clicks. That’s happiness for me." (Photo: Bob Cilman, 1982)

Let’s take a trip with a time machine. Where and why would you really want to go with a time machine?

Bob: That’s a hard one to answer right away. There’s a part of me that would love to go in the future, to see what this becomes when I’m not part of it, because it’s important that it continues without me, but if I were to go into the past, I’d probably love to go to New Orleans in the 20s’ and 30s’, all kinds of music was being made and there was a connection to Cuba at the time and you had jazz and blues and soul, all sorts of things really mixing up at once. I guess I’d like to experience the rawness of what we now take for granted.

If I remember your first bands was Torn Souls, later BC and the Knights and after college, the Self-Righteous Brothers. What touches you from this era?

Bob: Oh my God, the Torn Souls. Here’s how it worked with the Torn Souls. It was a band that was formed in 1966. And you know, every kid in that era, here’s how it worked: First we fell in love with the Beatles, then we decided to start growing our hair and then we decided we got to get into a band, we had to come up with the name of the band. And then you print the cards of the band, then you go and buy an instrument, then you learn the instrument, and then you get together and start playing together and eventually you get gigs.  And that was the true of the Torn Souls, now the Torn Souls, we kind of got pretty good after a while, but boy the beginning of the Torn Souls was a sheer torture for anybody who had to listen to it. BC and the Knights was kind of fun, that was a good band that was out of summer camp, but you’re the first person in 39 years who’s asked me a question about it. I guess I really appreciate that. I think it was my musical awakening. And actually, I gotta say that we do some of the songs that Torn Souls did.

You have travelled in Europe, of course in the States, Australia, Canada, Japan do you find similarities how the people see the elder people community?

Bob: I think anywhere we’ve gone there’s a huge appreciation for the work. I think in terms of people how see elders it’s very different depending on where you go. When we performed in Japan, the people who came to see us, the demographic was 30-year-old women, who were possibly bringing their parents with them. And it was just a big huge appreciation of the elders over there, so we really struck a chord there. I don’t think I’ve gone anywhere where people don’t really appreciate the elders, they’re just not used to them performing on stage. But we’ve never gone anywhere where people say “I don’t get this, why are they doing this?” and “Boy that was a drag” I haven’t had that experience.

"My creative drive. That’s kind of hard to know, where that comes from. I’ve had hard working parents and they had, I have to say my inspiration for this group is the grandparents’ generation. My great-aunt, my grandfather just their characters, their incredible characters. They inspired this work, ‘cause they were fun, funny and against all odds having come from most depressive situations imaginable, they wound up in this country with a good sense of humor." (Bob Cilman / Photo by Dave Madeloni)

How important is family to you?

Bob: Well, my family is hugely important to me. And I think it is to most chorus members, but I think what Young@Heart is for most people is a second family. It’s like the other family. And it’s incredible how close of the families, not just the chorus members, but their families get to the chorus. On this last project we did, where we did videos, 21 music videos and put it into one single movie, it was family members who shot them, shot the movies and it was really quite cool how we incorporated families, in one music video the daughter is actually in the video. Family’s a key. It’s a key for me. I mean my girls are now 29 and 26, but they grew up with Young@Heart and they’ve travelled to Japan, and they’ve travelled to New Zealand. They got to see the world.

I know you have met so many people. Which meetings have been the most important experience for you?

Bob: We were honored when David Byrne asked us to do a song at a symposium he was doing around bicycle riding in New York City, as part of a New York festival and he asked us to sing Queen’s “Bicycle Race” at that and then the next day, he set up a gig for us that he joined on a couple songs for. That was really an honor. And he’s on our advisory board and he’s been really helpful, we did a show in October that had a lot of kind of famous American personalities. David Byrn had introduced something for that show along with Eddie Falco and Steve Buscemi, Larry Davis.

The elders feel more comfortable in front of a microphone or a camera?

Bob: You know what? Because they’ve done a lot of performance, because they’ve been in a lot of our theater projects, they’re really comfortable period. What’s great about them, is that they’re really good at being themselves and not try to act, they don’t act. They’re incredible actors, they’re really good, you don’t have to direct so much they just have a real sense how to be themselves. You know how with young performers you’re just like “Stop acting so much”. You never have to say that to these guys, they’re very good at portraying who they are, without having to draw this phone attention to themselves. I love that part about working with the chorus. To answer your question, I think they’re comfortable with both. I think they’re very comfortable recording, and they’ve learned a lot about recording because of the pandemic, they’ve had to record themselves on their cellphones, so they’ve really taken to that part of the process and the filming stuff they’re kind of pretty good at it.

"The philosophy of this project is about making art and not making social service. I’m sure that we do provide a great social service to the people in this group, but that’s not why we’re here, what we’ve been put on this planet to do. We’ve been here to make art, make something that’s unusual and that hits you in a very emotional way and is not to make you simply feel good, it’s there to make you think, it’s there to make you emote." (Bob Cilman / Photo by Bill Dwight)

Since the early 80s’, why do you think that Young@Heart continues to develop such a devoted following?

Bob: I think it’s because we keep on changing. We don’t just do one thing and do it over and over again. I think we find new ways to present ourselves, so the people who have found us, they’re on a journey they’re not just stuck in one place. And I think that because the people change, because the musicians change and because the music changes, it’s not a journey that you necessarily want to get off of. It’s kind of satisfying that way.

Where does your creative drive come from?

Bob: My creative drive. That’s kind of hard to know, where that comes from. I’ve had hard working parents and they had, I have to say my inspiration for this group is the grandparents’ generation. My great-aunt, my grandfather just their characters, their incredible characters. They inspired this work, ‘cause they were fun, funny and against all odds having come from most depressive situations imaginable, they wound up in this country with a good sense of humor. And I was really always so enamored to be around them. Creativity I think may be just one of those things that you’re lucky to get. You get it or you don’t get it. I feel like I got I the right line when it came to that.

What characterizes the philosophy of this project? What is the philosophy behind this project?

Bob: The philosophy of this project is about making art and not making social service. I’m sure that we do provide a great social service to the people in this group, but that’s not why we’re here, what we’ve been put on this planet to do. We’ve been here to make art, make something that’s unusual and that hits you in a very emotional way and is not to make you simply feel good, it’s there to make you think, it’s there to make you emote. I think that that’s the philosophy of this project, we’re not sugarcoating anything because of the age. We’re just acknowledging that these are older people.

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