With a roomful of elders as backup singers, Bob Nelson strummed his guitar and crooned the words to an anthem of the American West, “Home on the Range.”
At Sunrise View, an Everett retirement community, residents joined in, singing “where the deer and the antelope play.”
At 82, Nelson is one of the deans of Northwest folksingers. With Don Firth, a Seattle folk legend who died in 2015, Nelson was a regular on the area’s folk scene of the late 1950s. They sang and played in University District coffeehouses and at home concerts called “hoots” or hootenannies.
“I could find a hoot seven nights a week,” Nelson said Tuesday before singing in the Sunrise View dining room. Back then, he and other musicians would play traditional songs all night, share a gallon of wine, and go out for breakfast in the morning.
Six decades later, Nelson and his wife, Judy, recently moved from their cozy Everett home into Sunrise View. It’s where Bob Nelson’s parents, Tek and Dorothy Nelson, spent the last years of their lives. Nelson’s guitar strap — with his name in needlepoint — was crafted by his mother.
Judy Nelson now has memory issues, her husband said. “It’s comfortable,” she said of their new surroundings. “Judy and I found we needed a better place. We feel safe,” said Bob, adding “there’s such a caring staff.”
Nelson’s sidekick Tuesday was Bruce Baker, past president of the Seattle Folklore Society. Baker started the evening with a rousing rendition of “Charlie on the MTA,” a song about “the man who never returned.” Written in the 1940s for a Boston mayoral candidate, it was made famous by the Kingston Trio.
When Baker told the audience he was switching from guitar to an autoharp, Nelson joked that “No, it’s a cheese slicer.”
Retired from an engineering job with CenturyLink, Baker now describes himself on his business card as “Musician Activist Handyman.” The 62-year-old Baker told Nelson, “I’m from the Burl Ives era, you’re the Pete Seeger era.”
Nelson was among folksingers who took part in spontaneous hootenannies at Century 21, the Seattle World’s Fair. He’s featured on an album from the 1962 fair, “Sounds of Music from the U.N. Pavilion: Folk Songs of the World,” now a rare find.
Walking a Sunrise View hallway Tuesday, Nelson traded banter with residents he only recently met. One man in a wheelchair laughed at a quip about moving his Model A. Nelson’s gentle wisecracks are meant more to make someone’s day than to taunt.
A retired carpenter, Nelson was featured in this column in 2012. That’s when his dream of saving long-ago performances by Northwest folk artists was realized. From his hundreds of recordings, reel-to-reel tapes converted into digital CDs, the University of Washington Libraries website now has an audio archive titled “Bob Nelson Collection of Folk Music.”
The collection, 141 music tracks by noted regional folksingers, includes “Ten Thousand Miles,” “John Henry,” “Pretty Saro,” and songs and conversation from restaurateur Ivar Haglund.
When he called with an invitation to Tuesday’s performance, Nelson didn’t want to be the focus of this article. He hoped instead to recognize National Assisted Living Week, Sept. 8-14, an effort by the National Center for Assisted Living to celebrate people served by long-term care. “A Spark of Creativity” is this year’s theme, according to the center’s website.
I think of someone in long-term care every day. My 97-year-old mother has an assisted-living apartment in Spokane, while my dad, 96, remains in our family home not far from her. My sister lives close enough to help daily, while my brother and I visit when we can. It’s not often enough.
Since moving, Nelson said he and his wife have met people, many of them Sunrise staff, from around the world — Kenya and Ethiopia to Ecuador. He has learned snippets of their languages.
“Anybody speak Czechoslovakian?” he asked before one sing-along tune, then added “Well, you’re going to.”
In the dining room, sweet music lit up the faces of residents. And soft voices could be heard as the folk duo sang out the favorites. Everyone, it seems, knows the words to Woody Guthrie’s “Roll on Columbia.”
As Bob and Judy Nelson settle in, it’s a safe bet he’ll keep singing. “The songs are timeless,” Baker said.
“I don’t see this as performing,” Nelson said. “We’re having fun, trying to put smiles on people’s faces.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.