Singing historian tells America’s story, and triggers memories, through songs


Roy Justice blows on a conch shell, eliciting amazingly musical notes, and the regular presentation of “The Singing Historian” at Homeland Center begins.

Roy Justice, “The Singing Historian,” brings his blend of storytelling and song to skilled care residents in Homeland’s solarium.

Twice a month, Justice brings classic American songs and the stories behind them to Homeland Center. The popular presentations explore the side streets of history while also using effective methods to spark memories and intellectual engagement among residents.

On this day, Justice is continuing a series of patriotic songs. He tells, in story form, the confluence of events that led Francis Scott Key to climb above deck on a British ship in 1814 to see how Fort McHenry survived following an all-night bombardment.

Justice choked up as he described Key’s vision of the Star-Spangled Banner visible in the morning fog.

“No matter how many times I talk about this, I’m overwhelmed with what he must have felt when he looked at the harbor,” Justice said. Now that residents had a refresher in the meaning behind the lyrics, he led them in singing the National Anthem.

Twice a month, Roy Justice brings classic American songs and the stories behind them to Homeland’s residents.

Justice believes in the ability of older audiences to “understand the intellectual aspects of what I do.” He incorporates memories his listeners might recall, such as today’s discussion of the contentious, Depression-era debate over making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the National Anthem.

Even blowing the conch shell, just as canal boatmen did to signal lock tenders they were coming, is meant as a distinctive sound to awaken awareness that his presentation is starting.

“Everybody has memory markers,” Justice said. “It’s just a question of finding them. You can improve the quality of their lives based on bringing these things to the forefront that are sitting there, dormant. If you can get them there, there are moments of recognition and getting in touch with who they are and where they came from. It gives them some peace and some comfort, at least for that period of time.”

Homeland residents respond eagerly to Justice’s presentations. When he sings one of his signature songs, “16 Tons,” many sing along with every word – “You dig 16 tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” They listen attentively, respond to Justice’s questions, and jump in with their own questions.

Justice’s programs offer “history from a little different viewpoint,” said resident Phoebe Berner. “He presents songs of a different era and explains how they originated, why they were written, and how they were used and what the words mean.”

Sitting in the front row, resident Mary Anna Borke answered Justice’s questions about the leader of France during the Thomas Jefferson administration (Napoleon) and the nation where Britain feared its next uprising after the colonies rebelled (Jamaica).

Borke was a history major in college who, like Justice, appreciates the causes and effects of history. That attention to detail makes Justice a good historian, Borke said.

“There are some things that weren’t in the history books,” she said. “So many people think history is just the study of dates. The real history is what caused things to occur. We have to follow the lessons, or, like they say, we’re doomed to repeat it.”

In fact, Borke was one of several residents who told Justice he made a mistake, pointing out that he said “Boston Harbor” when he should have said “Baltimore Harbor.”

“I have to really be on my game,” Justice said with a laugh. “I learn a lot from these folks.”