A half-forgotten suitcase, which was jam-packed with hidden treasures of sheet music of songs from a bygone era, has unlocked a new initiative by a young singer to lift the spirits of older people who are in coronavirus shutdown, especially in care homes around Northern Ireland.
The suitcase had been gathering dust in a house in Belfast, but 30-year-old Hannah McPhillimy is now recording the songs to revive happier memories for older generations amid the horrific Covid-19 crisis.
The case belongs to June Miller (87), the grandmother of Hannah's fiance, Conor Lockhart.
Hannah says 'Nanny June' was a child star who sang for the troops here before becoming even more popular as an on-stage entertainer in later life singing in venues like the Ulster Hall and the old Ritz cinema until she stepped back from the limelight to raise her family.
Suitcase Song No. 5: Smile
Suitcase Song No. 5 is up. One of the best melodies on the planet, it was penned by Charlie Chaplin for his film Modern Times in 1934. Lyrics were added 20 years later and Nat King Cole was the first one who got to sing them. Hope the older people in your life - and you! :) - enjoy xPosted by Ferna on Monday, May 11, 2020
Over the years, June, who was a contemporary of Ruby Murray, collected hundreds of pieces of sheet music for her act and kept them in a suitcase which she stored in an attic before giving them during a clear-out to her grandson Conor to sell them or 'to find a good home for them'.
But it wasn't until recently that Hannah hit on the idea of utilising the tuneful treasure trove of music to raise morale during the pandemic.
Hannah, who first met recently qualified barrister Conor in their Belfast church, Redeemer Central, is more used to singing her own compositions - but once she saw June's amazing suitcase, she reckoned the songs were ripe for revival.
"I couldn't believe how much sheet music was in there," she says. "The case was crammed with songs that date back as far as the 1860s when June's relatives were also musicians. We reckon there could be as many as 600 or 700 songs in the bag. Maybe more.
"There are lots of classics, songs from the music halls and numbers from the musicals.
"I knew some of them like The Lady Is A Tramp and That's Amore, but I hadn't a clue about many of the others like Norma Malone, Call me by Phone, which was apparently popularised by Ruby Murray. There's also a song called This is The Army Mr Jones.
"Older people might have recognised the If I'd Known You Were Coming I'd Have Baked a Cake and the Irish song Courtin' in the Kitchen, but they meant nothing to me, though I discovered that I really liked them as I worked my way through the suitcase. Which was a joy to explore.
"The first thing I set about doing was to WhatsApp some of the songs to friends and relations - including Nanny June - but the reaction was so positive that I thought it might be nice to record some of the tunes and get them up on YouTube, where they would have a wider audience, particularly among older people in isolation who don't really have access to the outside world at the moment.
"And of course, music is something that can unite us all with that real world."
Hannah persuaded Conor to film her singing the songs and playing keyboards in their 'mini recording studio' and a friend edited the footage into slick videos which have been posted - complete with the lyrics - on YouTube.
The songs have gone down particularly well, striking a chord in care homes, whose managers have contacted Hannah to say how popular they have been with residents in what are challenging times.
"A number of arts organisations in Belfast have also shared links to the songs with older people in their areas," says Hannah, who lists her influences as Cole Porter and Irving Berlin musicals, pre-war jazz, blues and folk.
For VE Day on May 8, Hannah recorded three songs after receiving a request from residents of a care home. One of the songs was Vera Lynn's famous wartime anthem We'll Meet Again and Hannah admitted she got quite emotional singing it.
"I'm told there were sing-songs in the care homes on VE Day and it's been great to hear that people have generally been enjoying my music. I've also had messages from England from children who are using the old songs to connect with parents whom they haven't been able to see," she says
Hannah, who's originally from Coleraine and a graduate of Queen's University Belfast, was until recently studying at the University of Michigan in the mid-western city of Ann Arbor.
The university's School of Music Theatre and Dance late last year posted a video of Hannah, accompanied by a full orchestra, singing a song, Walk On, which was inspired by the life of Coretta Scott-King, the civil rights activist and wife of Martin Luther King Junior.
Hannah had earlier played a gig at the prestigious Irish Arts Centre in New York as part of their SongLives series supported by, among others, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
Now that she has settled back home in Northern Ireland, Hannah has, like virtually every other musician in the world, seen her live concerts at the likes of the Empire and Black Box come to a shuddering halt because of the pandemic. And plans for a new album have also been put on hold.
But Hannah, who has also played keyboards for indie band Go Wolf, hasn't been idle during lockdown. She's been working part-time with the Red Cross in Belfast at the Royal Victoria Hospital to ensure that discharged patients can get home if they don't need an ambulance and if they don't have relatives to collect them.
"It's very satisfying to be able to do something purposeful," she says.
However, Hannah is looking forward to pursuing her musical career again once the Covid-19 pandemic is over: "I would really like to become a full-time musician at least for a while. That is where my heart is."
Hannah says she's been fascinated with music since childhood, adding: "My mother tells me that at the age of six, I was forever informing everyone that I was going to be a songwriter when I grew up.
"I think that ambition was sparked by having been immersed in music in church and I was also fascinated by the great musicals like Singing in the Rain and West Side Story, with their wonderful songs and storylines. They are so life-affirming.
"I went to music lessons and my school, Dalriada in Ballymoney, were also very encouraging with music and drama. We did Les Miserables in third year and I loved it."
In the last seven years, Hannah has released no fewer than four EPs and she is no stranger to trying to promote good causes.
In 2013, she increased awareness of the work carried out by the charity No More Traffik, who are committed to ending modern slavery and human trafficking. One of her EPs, the a cappella Freedom Songs, had a particular resonance with the cause and was launched at a sold-out gig at Belfast's Crumlin Road jail.
A year later, in 2014, Hannah teamed up with her friend, the Belfast author Jan Carson, to record a set of songs inspired by the writer's book Malcolm Orange Disappears.
In a narrative that wouldn't be amiss in Hannah's Suitcase Songs project, Jan's novel was set in a retirement village in Portland, Oregon and centred on the lives of the residents who made up the People's Committee for Remembering Songs, a fictional club of senior citizens who met every week to remember and sing all their favourite songs.
Hannah, who has played support in her time to stars like Soak, Dana Masters and Foy Vance, wrote a set of songs for Disappear Here, which attempted to explore the ageing process and the proceeds went to the Alzheimer's Society.
As for her latest musical interlude, Hannah isn't sure how long she will keep unpacking Nanny June's suitcase.
"I'm trying to do one song a week at the moment and as long as I'm enjoying it and the audience are still listening, I hope to go on," she says.
And there's certainly no shortage of songs to choose from. At the last count, if she were to keep releasing one song a week, she wouldn't get through the last of the 700 of them until 2033 ...