Serenading seniors

Mark Johnson

photo by shannon rooney

Florida-born-and-raised Mark Johnson started learning guitar when he was a teenage boy scout and an avid listener of the folk music of the day, especially Bob Dylan. He has played music as a hobby, occasionally performing in restaurants and coffee houses. A few years ago, when dealing with economic and medical challenges, he felt a little depressed and decided “I should be doing something for people who are worse off than me.” These days, he has steady gigs at numerous senior facilities and retirement centers in Chico, bringing the language of music to grateful listeners. Johnson plays for other events, and he’s also a DJ. Contact him at

How did you begin playing for seniors?

I had seen this website about this guy who was playing music for older people. I went down to a nursing home to play, and a woman came in in a wheelchair … When I started to play, I saw that she started moving to the music—it was almost as if she was dancing.

And where did it go from there?

From that, I’ve built relationships around all of these people I’m playing for. It’s very endearing. The connection is unbelievable to me. It’s what I’m meant to be doing—singing and playing music in this capacity. It’s meaningful to me.

So you learn the music the seniors remember?

I love all the music from the era [that many of them] grew up in. Learning their music has been very educational, fun and interesting. It’s captivated my attention. I love to research the music and learn new songs. I come up with some of the jokes from the old radio shows. There’s a lot of stuff on the Internet, fortunately, that I can use.

What’s a memorable experience you’ve had?

There was a lady who was a little bit of a thing … and we just kind of hit it off. She was about 86. I started visiting her aside from just doing these gigs. I’d bring her cigarettes. We had a really nice relationship—she became as close as a family member to me.

What else stands out in your work at these facilities?

The activities directors and the staff are really wonderful. They are low paid but work hard. I see a lot of affection and real care being given.