Meet the Blues Singer Who Won’t Stop Brightening Seniors’ Lives
This is the third installment of Rolling Stone‘s Music in Crisis series, which looks at how people all across the music industry are coping with the coronavirus pandemic.
About a week ago, Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen had an idea. The veteran singer spent years gigging in New Orleans as the self-proclaimed “Queen of Bourbon Street,” but had to relocate to North Carolina after Hurricane Katrina. In recent years, Cohen has found steady gigs performing at regional nursing homes. With the outbreak of COVID-19, Cohen’s paid performances at nursing homes and senior-living facilities stopped, but she realized that that didn’t mean she needed to stop singing.
For the past week or so, she has played five-song sets for seniors stuck inside their rooms at nursing homes around Salisbury, North Carolina. The idea began as a way to connect with her younger brother, George, who is currently living at the Citadel Salisbury nursing home. (The nursing home is the site of a notable COVID-19 outbreak, with nearly 100 cases as of last week.) Cohen has performed several socially-distanced shows outside nursing homes in the past week, singing along to backing tracks on a portable preamp. “I do it so that I’m not stuck in the house,” she says. “And I do it because people enjoy it.”
Cohen spoke with Rolling Stone about the shows, maintaining a positive attitude in the midst of difficulty, and her lifetime of overcoming struggles.
The whole music business is nuts; everything as we used to know it is changing at a rapid pace. I’m a blues singer, so it’s real different for me. I mean, we used to be able to go to clubs and do what we do, and people loved it, and people still do love it — you’ve got your die-hard blues fans. But the shame is that the very music that started everything is dying out. This was happening even before all this corona stuff. It’s just dying out.
So before this all started, I was going to nursing homes to sing. Because, like I said, there’s not a lot of venues that are out there now, unless you’re doing festivals, and you really need an agent to book those. If you don’t have one, you have to get creative. My thing is, “Do something nice for somebody with what you have.”
So I go to nursing homes, and I give them a five-star show. I started doing it around town and then I started just driving an hour and a half, trying to make sure I could get to as many as I possibly could. The people at these homes are so thankful, because they don’t get really good music.
Thankfully, I’ve been able to still go out and continue doing what I call my ministry. With my sound system, I go outside, I set up where the residents can look out the windows and hear me, and I do about five tunes.
It’s all I can do. You comply with all the [quarantining] rules, but you also live your life, and you try to do something kind for somebody. Just do whatever you can. If you don’t have a lot of money, that’s fine. I don’t have a lot of money. For Pete’s sake, I’m a blues singer.
When I’m playing these shows outside of the nursing homes, you can’t really see the residents. Most of them don’t open their windows, but they can hear me through the window. After the first show I did [at the Citadel in Salisbury], I was ready to leave and somebody said out loud to me, “Thank you so much. Me and my roommate were just sitting here listening to you.”
My brother is in that nursing home. He had a stroke. So that’s where all of this started, really, me playing in nursing homes. People in his nursing home were just too lazy to get him together to take him to events in the nursing home, because he’s paralyzed. I wanted to do something where he could get some entertainment, so when I first started playing at his nursing home, I would not do it unless they brought my brother to my performance.
At these shows, I’ll do show tunes: “The Best Is Yet To Come,” “Black Coffee.” I do that kind of stuff. “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” I do “Knock on Wood,” which is old-school R&B. They love this song I do called “Wang Dang Doodle,” that’s the blues. I’ll do all different types of stuff. “What a Wonderful World,” “Georgia on My Mind,” all sorts of beautiful, well-written stuff. They don’t have stuff like that today.
Right now, the nursing homes are not paying. I mean, I do it so that I’m not stuck in the house. And I do it because people enjoy it. During normal times, they pay me to perform. But some nursing homes, if they talk to me and tell me they don’t have a budget to pay me but they would love to do it, if they talk to me nicely, sometimes I’ll give them a performance. It’s close by, and if it’s something I can do, then I do it. And I wish other musicians would do this.
I was born in North Carolina but spent most of my life in New Jersey, and later moved to New Orleans, where I built quite a reputation as a singer. I was “Mother Blues, Queen of Bourbon Street,” because I was one of the biggest draws. I used to dress in costume, I had all this big fancy drag-queen hair and sequined dresses, and I’d be out there doing my thing.
That was before the whole [Hurricane] Katrina thing. I’ve had to learn how to be more positive, because a lot of crazy things have happened to me. When Katrina happened, I moved back to North Carolina. I was what you call “displaced.” People didn’t really understand what that meant, “displaced.” They’d be like, “OK, get over that.” How are you going to get over that when you’re in some place where you don’t even know where you are, where you don’t know anybody?
I cried just about every single day for a year. What I learned is that crying does not help anything. It’s OK to grieve, sometimes you need to grieve, but don’t grieve too long. That was the lesson I learned.
Then, about four years ago, my house in North Carolina burned down. I lost everything again. I went into a hotel for about a week and I grieved, and a week later I came out and I just started pulling my life back together. Even now, I’m still learning that lesson: Don’t sit around grieving. You can’t get anything accomplished. This is from somebody who knows.
I’ve been through some really trying times. This, the virus, this is lightweight, compared to what I have been through, losing everything I’ve ever had. This is going to pass. Everybody, eventually, is going to be fine.
In the meantime, I hope everybody would just be nice to one another, and that goes all the way to the top, to the president. Just be nice, that’s all. I believe there needs to be more kindness, and that all of this ugliness creates ugly things. If you’re kind, things come to you. It’s like your karma money.
I’m going to get that back, I don’t know how. I lost all of these gigs, and I have nothing now. But everything’s not about money. It’s not. You’ll be OK. Whatever you give out, you’ll get back. It may not be money, but you’ll get it. Everything that you need, the universe, or God, or whatever your higher power is, is going to give it back to you. I believe that.
To learn more about Cohen’s music, visit the Music Maker Relief Foundation at www.musicmaker.org