The Forever Young Chorus: ‘Because inside, you don’t really feel old’
This Dublin choir is challenging its members aged 65-85 with rock and punk
Members of the Forever Young chorus during their Christmas lunch with musical director Brendan Creagh. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times
"May you always do for others, And let others do for you. May you build a ladder to the stars, And climb on every rung. May you stay... Forever Young.... May you always be courageous, Stand upright and be strong."
Bob Dylan’s lullaby of wishes for his young son engages emotionally. When it’s sung by a choir of older people, it evokes a different awareness, of the lifecycle, and of our human fragility and strength.
The Forever Young Chorus belts out its signature song at the packed Lighthouse cinema in Dublin, and singer Betty Lumley is throwing her soul into it, beating her heart at the chorus. She’s an animated performer. “I’d be nearly told to stop moving, but I can’t,” she says afterwards. For Lumley, the choir means everything. “I’m three-quarters of a century old. I love music and I love dancing, and I always did. And all the friends.”
It’s Kevin Smullen’s fault. The adult education officer with City of Dublin Educational Training Board (CDETB) in Finglas came across a documentary about the US choir Young@Heart years ago, and was inspired to embark on a less usual education venture, setting up a similar choir for people aged 65-85, presenting a positive image of ageing, through music. The choir supported by CDETB is now 11 years old, with members coming and going over the years.
The repertoire is key: Smullen and musical director Brendan Creagh challenge the choir by choosing unfamiliar songs. It’s not democratic, Smullen acknowledges, but “it always pays off in the end. The group rises to the challenge and give remarkable performances. The audience can be surprised by the songs.” So rather than golden oldies, Forever Young sing rock and punk: from Talking Heads’ Road to Nowhere to Soft Cell’s Tainted Love to Blondie’s Call Me.
We’re chatting after their performance at the Lighthouse; a cinemaful is here to see a new short documentary about the choir. Film-maker Paul Farren works in commercial, documentary and drama as well as teaching film; he’s shot Forever Young through this year, practising and performing. “I fell in love with the choir.” He enjoys their energy and has watched members get a new lease of life. “It’s great to experience something outside of what we usually think of as ageing. It’s proof you can’t judge life on the surface. The songs get the singers outside their comfort zone, to learn new things.”
Forever Young meets on Thursdays at a Finglas resource centre, but public performance is what it’s all about, and watching them sing, you can see in their faces, and bodies, how life affirming it is.
The oldest member so far has been Una, who was 94 when she left for health reasons. At the other end of the scale, some women are known to have lied about their age, pretending they were older to get in, Smullen says, straight-faced, in the documentary. Some women brazenly admit to this looseness with the truth, on camera. “Sorry Kevin!” they call out cheerfully.
When singers gravitate towards singing oldies, musical director Creagh says, “Yiz are too young to be singing that!” But funnily enough, he remarks, often the songs they may be most resistant to initially are ultimately the ones they like best – he singles out Velvet Underground’s I Found a Reason.
Self-assured, slick performers at this stage, they put on a good show after the film, accompanied by the four-piece Forever Young band. They sing an original song, The Moons, written by one of the chorus’s biggest fans, poet Paula Meehan, with Sean Doherty’s music, commissioned by Age and Opportunity “to encourage creativity in the grey panthers, the most radical movement in the country”, as Meehan says on stage.
Meehan describes Smullen as “one of that generation of radical pioneers in adult education who used to go around bus stops recruiting people to reconnect into education”.
Choir member Christy Kelly says, “I let go at Road to Nowhere.” He was involved in junior soccer as a player and referee for 30 years; retired in May 2010, he joined Forever Young in June. “I always loved singing, I’d just sing for fun.” But with the choir, “We got the chance, to be taught, I know we’re old... but it’s fabulous. It’s a family. We had about seven men this year, but we lost men through sickness and one lad died. But we’ll get more. The two of us are holding together: 18 women and two men, what more would you want?”
Lily Howard started in the choir around 2008; she particularly enjoys Love of the Common People, and Marianne. “We love everything we sing. I love going on a Thursday. I got my mad sister Susan here to join it a year after me.”
Geraldine Caffrey’s friend Betty Lumley was telling her from age 60 that she was nearly old enough to join. Eventually she made it: “I never thought I’d be in a bus with all these aged people. Because inside, you don’t really feel that, so you don’t.”
Mary Donohoe and her husband went to enrol for computer classes. He was asked did he sing. “He said no, but my wife does. I had just retired, so that’s how we were introduced to Forever Young.
“When we were rearing our children, we weren’t paying that much attention to those songs, so it’s actually learning. This is for the brain as much as everything else. So it’s education, recreation, and great fun altogether.”
Forever Young, CDETB Adult Education Service, Dublin 11, 01-8348018, email@example.com. Facebook @foreveryoungchorus.