George Linton began his musical journey in hospitals in 1987 and he hasn’t stopped, generally making appearances weekly at Toronto hospitals like St. Joseph’s. Photo by Mickey Conlon

Linton, 93, has been playing music in hospitals for over 30 years

  • June 13, 2019

George Linton understands the power of music and how much joy it can bring.

Take a walk with the spry 93-year-old through the halls of St. Joseph’s Health Centre in the heart of Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood and it’s plain to see. An elderly man, hobbling along with his cane, sees Linton with guitar strung over his shoulder and asks him to play a tune. 

“Italiano?” Linton asks, and the man replies, “Si.” He plays a few bars of an Italian folk song and a smile spreads broadly across the man’s face as he joins in and sings along. They part after this short musical interlude, with the man offering Linton a blessing to go with his smile.

Linton has for the past 30-plus years been a musical troubadour in the halls of some of Toronto’s largest hospitals, including St. Joseph’s and St. Michael’s in the downtown core, bringing smiles to the faces of people in places where the smiles are few.

“The music can kind of drive those (unpleasant) thoughts away for a while and you get to think about some of the good times you remember having through music,” Linton says of his performances before appreciative, intimate audiences.

Susan Bertoldi sees it first hand whenever Linton brings his guitar into St. Joseph’s. He’s been known to strike up a tune while walking the hallways and always gets a warm reception, said Bertoldi, operations leader with volunteer services at the hospital. It continues pretty well anywhere in the hospital — in the halls, the cafeteria, when he visits patients’ rooms.

“He’ll be sort of the strolling minstrel, he’ll walk down the hallway with his guitar and just start playing and it gets people’s attention,” said Bertoldi. “I’ve actually been in the elevator with George when he just starts playing and people, just the smile (that comes) to everybody’s face.” 

Linton is amazed at the response, the joy the music brings.

“People say you’re in the right place when you’re here, please don’t stop what you’re doing, you made my day, you made my week, you made my stay in hospital very positive,” said Linton. 

Music has long been an important part of Linton’s life. He’s been at it for more than 80 years, first picking up a guitar when he was around 10. He also played viola with different groups over the years. Now, well into his senior years, he still plays frequently and has used his talent to bring some joy to people who are confined to a place that is far from joyful.

He came to performing in hospitals in 1987, along with his late wife, Peggy, a year after retiring from the Globe and Mail following 31 years as a business reporter. An acquaintance suggested he play for a relative who was confined to a hospital bed. It was a hit, with patient and staff, and set the stage for Linton to return and perform for others. He’s been at it ever since.

“It’s always great fun, always fun trying to connect with what’s in people’s minds,” he said.

He’s built up a large repertoire of songs he can turn to in a city as multicultural as Toronto. Along with country standards by artists like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, he’s also learned the songs of many cultures, and while he may not know the words, once he starts strumming the melody there are people who will pick up on it and add the words in their first language.

“I try to play what people are going to like,” said Linton. “I never learned a song I don’t think is going to be enjoyable in one place or another.” By bringing some sunshine to the patients, Linton also helps ease the load of staff who are dealing with the everyday stress that comes from their work.

“George has a great personality and he just exudes warmth. He’s perfect for the role he plays,” said Bertoldi. 

“Anything that brightens up something for the patients brightens it up for the staff as well.”

Linton may have slowed down in the past few years, limiting his performances to just over 90 minutes, one day a week. But it’s something he’s going to continue “for as long as I can.”

“As far as I know I’m in good health,” he said. “But there’s no reason I can’t and won’t continue.”

Reality though, doesn’t escape him. He knows he can’t carry on forever, so he encourages others to help take up the slack.

“I’m always trying to encourage younger musicians to dip their toe in and find out how much patients enjoy it, that they’ll enjoy when they’re in the right place at the right time when they’re doing music for patients.”

You see the reverence staff in the volunteer department have for him by the photos plastered of Linton playing for patients on the office walls. Rita Sarunas can’t help but sing his praises.

“George is a great ambassador for the hospital,” said the volunteer co-ordinator.

For Linton, he’s just glad he’s able to share. He only hopes that others will take up his ministry and continue to spread the joy.

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