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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For the past several years, a group of friends has gathered every week in the living room of a home in Logan, Utah, to sing some long-forgotten songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M A LONG TIME TRAVELING")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) I'm a long time traveling, here below. I'm a long time traveling away from home.

SIMON: A fun way to spend the evening, sure, but it's also therapy - therapy for a good friend who spent much of his life preserving folk songs - only to lose them one day several years ago, as we learn in this "What's in a Song?"

BARRE TOELKEN: My name's Barre Toelken, and I used to be a folklorist at Utah State. And then I had a stroke, and I retired.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WADING THROUGH DEEP WATERS")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) I've been climbing high mountains trying to get home. I been climbing high mountains trying to get home. I've been climbing high mountains...

TOELKEN: I used to know 800 songs. I was once counting them and I got to 800, and I decided to give up at 800. And I had the stroke, and I had none of these songs left in my head. None of them are left.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WADING THROUGH DEEP WATERS")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) I've been burying my burden trying to get home. I've been burying my burden, burying my burden...

TOELKEN: I was still in the hospital and the phone rang one day. It was a friend of mine in Germany. She started this conversation, and we went on for about 20 minutes in German. And I didn't know anything in English at that time, but I knew all these German words - 'cause I had it in high school, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WADING THROUGH DEEP WATERS")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Having hard trials, Lord, I'm having hard trials trying to get home...

TOELKEN: And a little bit at a time, I realized I still had the songs in my head. They weren't out of my head, they were in my head. That sounds strange to say, but that was a big surprise to me at first. And so now, I meet with this group of friends once a week a week, and we sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WADING THROUGH DEEP WATERS")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Lord, my way's sometimes weary trying to get home. Lord, I'm climbing high mountains...

TOELKEN: This group doesn't use any musical instruments because I can't - use any music. I can't play the guitar since the stroke hit me. And they did that as a sign of respect, I think. But they've all said how much they've learned about the songs since they quit using the guitar. Because they - you know, instead of concentrating on their hand moving, they have to concentrate on the words.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WADING THROUGH DEEP WATERS")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Lord, I'm climbing high mountains, climbing high mountains, Lord, I'm climbing high mountains trying to get home.

SIMON: "What's in a Song?" is produced by Hal Cannon and Taki Telonidis, of the Western Folklife Center. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WADING THROUGH DEEP WATERS")

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