Each morning, singer-songwriter Bill Benson takes a walk alongside the scenic Farmington River in his hometown of Collinsville, Connecticut, as it winds its way through the western suburbs of Hartford. Like many musicians, his schedule of shows has been put on hold for the foreseeable future by the coronavirus pandemic. But Benson isn’t just any musician. He’s also a healthcare worker.
After his morning walk, Benson goes to work at a nursing home in nearby Simsbury where he serves as the housekeeping manager in charge of infectious disease control. While none of Benson’s residents have contracted the virus, COVID-19’s effects have been distressing to those who call the facility home. “There are no family visitors,” says Benson, 63. “Family isn’t allowed to send in Mom’s favorite cookie anymore.”
Benson got his first job in healthcare at the age of 16 as a dietary manager and cook at a nursing home in Rhinebeck, New York, where he grew up. After a 30-year career in the printing industry, he returned to the healthcare field 12 years ago, spending the past five in his current position.
While working at the nursing home in Rhinebeck, Benson, a folk and soft rock singer, was inspired to write his first song, “Old Man.” Telling the story of a resident reflecting on his life, Benson was particularly influenced by the effect his presence had on residents, particularly those with few visitors. “It just struck me at that age that getting old sucks,” Benson says. “Now I am the old man.”
Benson’s role has allowed him to share his music with the home’s residents, an opportunity he can no longer partake in, as group activities have been cancelled in accordance with social distancing guidelines. “I enjoy the hell out of playing for the elders,” Benson says. “We both are losing that aspect of joy.”
Benson’s residents represent one of the populations most at risk of contracting the disease – the elderly, many of whom are immunocompromised. Because of this, Benson and his coworkers are vigilant.
At least twice a day, Benson cleans every touched surface with bleach, allowing them to air dry. Benson has had difficulties finding personal protective equipment, like masks and gloves, a problem exacerbated by people buying large quantities of the items.
His musical life has also been affected. As local restaurants and music venues continue to reduce operations, Benson has had to cancel at least 35 of the 145 shows he had booked for the year. Despite this, he knows others are feeling the effects worse. “I have many musical friends whose living is music,” Benson says. “That’s their career. They’re hurting a heck of a lot more than I am.”
For those who know Bill, his sentiment doesn’t come as a surprise. “I’ve seen that he’s the same way in the studio,” says Corey Rieman, the executive producer at Sohno Studios in Avon, where Benson recorded his two albums, This Old House and Come a Little Closer. “Bill Benson is one of the most determined and caring individuals and musicians in this area.”
A thriving factory town at the turn of the 20th century, Collinsville experienced a sharp economic decline following the closure of the Collins Company, once one of the largest manufacturers of axes in the world. Music became a saving grace for the village. Until the pandemic, restaurants and bars commonly featured live music.
One such establishment is Lisa’s Crown & Hammer Restaurant & Pub. In addition to cancelling the restaurant’s extensive live music schedule, the Crown’s owner, Lisa Maurer, has had to lay off all but one of her employees. Benson was slated to perform at the restaurant on Easter Sunday, as he has done for the past three years. “He’s somebody I think that we need right now,” Maurer says. “It’s unfortunate that we can’t all get together and have music help us get through things.”
It’s in times like these, Rieman argues, that musicians like Benson play an integral role in healing the wounds the pandemic has created. “You need to have something that can bring the right things up and the wrong things down,” Rieman says.
Benson views music in the same light. From early 2018 until May 2019, Benson produced and hosted Porch Time on Nutmeg TV, the Farmington Valley’s cable access network. While the network has temporarily halted production, Benson has started reuploading one of the show’s 70 episodes a day on Facebook to raise awareness for the musicians he featured.
As long as the effects of the coronavirus are felt throughout the country, Benson will likely continue to work every day at the nursing home. Even without being able to play for others, Benson has decided to use his platform as a musician to spread a message of hope.
“If you prepare yourself well,” Benson says, “then your day and somebody else’s day is going to be a little bit lighter and brighter because of it.”