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Generations in Music

I came across a video from this year’s Newport Folk Festival of Joni Mitchell singing a duet with Brandi Carlile. It was the first time in more than a decade that Joni Mitchell had performed live. The video would have been remarkable just for that. Even more so, given that Mitchell experienced a devastating brain aneurysm in 2015, and had to relearn to walk and speak. At Newport, she sang before an appreciative crowd. She was seated, and her voice was in a lower register than when she was younger. Brandi Carlile sat beside her and harmonized on several songs from Mitchell’s catalog that were first recorded before Carlile was born. It was a remarkable performance, and one that highlighted the relationship, and the appreciation, of one generation of performers with the next.

Online posts of Lady Gaga show a performer with great appreciation and connection with artists from earlier generations. More than a decade ago, Gaga struck up a professional relationship with Tony Bennett. Bennett reportedly admired her voice and her interpretation of classics from the American Songbook. They made multiple recordings together, commercial successes that introduced both of them to new audiences. Gaga’s more recent appearances with Bennett display kindness and empathy for a colleague who is dealing with dementia, supporting and encouraging his appearance on stage. A YouTube video of her with Liza Minnelli at this year’s Academy Awards further demonstrated her appreciation for performers from an earlier generation. When Minnelli appeared overwhelmed by her role in announcing an award, with Gaga leaned over and reassured her, “I’ve got you.”

Musicians, perhaps more than other performers, seem to display a connection, an appreciation, across generations for the work of others. One of Roseanne Cash’s most successful albums is The List, her reinterpretation of classic songs, inspired by a list of essential country music standards that her father thought she should know. The most successful album by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, brought together country music and Bluegrass performers from earlier eras with the NGDB, who were rising stars when the sessions were recorded. The LP helped revive the commercial success of Bluegrass music.

The connection across generations is not limited to pop or country music. Herbie Hancock, himself a young jazz phenom in the early 1960s, played with giants of the genre. In the 1980s, he collaborated with hip-hop performers and had videos on heavy rotation on MTV, and today works with younger performers. Musicians with careers that began in their teens continue to tour into their 70s or even 80s. Revivals of Big Band music, swing and other formats often came about because of one generation of musicians’ appreciation for the work of those came before them.

Perhaps it is because of the nature of music itself. The ability to play an instrument, or sing on pitch, stays with people throughout their lives, as long as they continue to do it. Joni Mitchell’s singing voice at this year’s Newport Festival was not the familiar soprano of her recordings, but her interpretation of Both Sides Now was no less artful. Singing or playing an instrument blends physical ability and dexterity, breath and memory. It incorporates symbolic language, aural and verbal cues. Even people who don’t read music often learn chords and lyrics, even if they never read charts or sheet music. Performance in a group requires coordination and communication. Music is a creative art, but it also a form with structures, rules and patterns. Two people who have never met can connect over a song they both know. And perform it together. Even if you “can’t carry a tune in a bucket” you probably have experienced a group connection over your college fight song, a hymn or a performance of the Star-Spangled Banner.

We don’t really know why music affects us. But we know it does. Our Center for Research and Education explores the role of music in addressing the needs of persons with dementia. Some of the most popular events at our Rose Centers for Aging Well feature performers who share music and dance. Beyond its entertainment value, music demonstrates the importance of intergenerational connections. Our lives are richer, more connected and more complex because of it.

Learn more about our work with music and aging:

Check out the schedule of events at the Rose Centers:

Listen to the music mentioned in this blog:

Joni Mitchell and Brandi Carlile at Newport Folk Festival

Joni Mitchell Interview in the Guardian

Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett


Lady Gaga and Liza Minnelli at the Oscars

Roseanne Cash and The List


Will the Circle Be Unbroken - The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band


Herbie Hancock interview in The Guardian

Herbie Hancock’s Rockit



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