John Santa says he’s seen the power of music to help injured and ailing veterans and their families.
Santa is the lead organizer of the Marathon Jam. The annual event returning to Chapel Hill this weekend invites bluegrass musicians to play for up to 12 straight hours to benefit Fisher House. The agency provides lodging for family members of veterans receiving medical care.
The Marathon Jam has raised over $150,000 in 13 years, Santa said.
As part of its mission, he and others have been playing music at the Salisbury and Durham Veterans Affairs hospitals, where he said the pickers have had “some pretty cool and powerful moments.”
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He tells the story of one Navy veteran, in particular, “who looked pretty ragged, like life had beat him up bad.”
Santa says he just felt something.
“I just had this sense this guy was a picker, and the more we played, well, he kept inching forward in his wheelchair until I could see his chording hand making shapes and his strumming hand twitching – and then I knew,” Santa said.
They gave the man a guitar, and “he just wrapped his arms around that thing like it was his long-lost, baby girl,” Santa said.
“Gradually he started strumming a little and after a few songs he kinda leaned in and said, ‘Boys, I hate to trouble you, but anybody got a pick I can borrow?’ And there were picks just everywhere!”
A couple of songs later the man asked for a capo, a clamp on the guitar’s fingerboard that raises the pitch, Santa said. It wasn’t too many more songs before the man started singing harmony with the visitors.
“I’m telling you,” Santa said. “That guy might have had some problems that night, but PTSD-related depression was NOT one of them. He was just in guitar heaven.”
Pickers and the public are invited to sit in or watch this year’s Marathon Jam to benefit Fisher House from 1 p.m. Saturday to 1 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 25-26, at the American Legion Post 6, 1714 Legion Road in Chapel Hill.
“It’s a true grassroots effort,” Santa said. “It’s really incredible the people who show up.”
Marathon Jams have spread to four countries (Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan and England), as well as over 20 cities in the United States, raising over $500,000 nationwide, Santa said.
This year he hopes the Chapel Hill Marathon Jam raises $20,000 to be split equally between the Marine and Army Fisher Houses at Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune.