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Folk singer Sal: 'Music is medicine' for country battered by Covid

Folk singer and storyteller Sal Tonge became “utterly bewildered” during the lockdown of 2020 when her work dried up and she was wondering where any kind of income would come from.

Sally Tonge, centre, with fellow JABS cast members Christina Cubbin and Paul Wilkinson
Sally Tonge, centre, with fellow JABS cast members Christina Cubbin and Paul Wilkinson

So, mum of two grown up lads Sal, 53, turned to labouring, lifting slabs and packing groceries at Hignetts of Pontesbury, where she would sing to the customers.

“It was a very worrying time,” said Sal, who lives in Stiperstones, near Shrewsbury, and normally sings and performs in schools, hospitals, residential homes and at toddler groups.

“My diary just emptied in a matter of three days. It was a really dramatic moment. I had been working very safely within my competence and it was all gone.”

Sal, who is also a grandmother of one, “limped on” as a performer but things weren’t the same singing to people on Zoom. “There is never enough connection online,” she said.

It came down to Sal putting an advert on Facebook to get noticed, as a “useful woman” who was ready for work.

Sal Tonge. Picture: Jayne Mapp

One of her friends, a retired nurse at Shrewsbury & Telford Hospital NHS Trust, pointed her in the direction of becoming an unregistered vaccinator with the health service.

“She told me I could do this,” said Sal, who trained but had to wait along with everyone else as they had to wait for the vaccines to come. The first vaccine was given on January 4, 2021 and the NHS clicked into gear.

Sal even managed to get a little bit of singing when she worked at the mass vaccination centres at the Bowling Centre, in Shrewsbury, the Telford International Centre and Ludlow Racecourse.

“We weren’t allowed to sing of course but when someone was really nervous we would have a bit of banter with them,” said Sal. “And if anyone came into a pod on their birthday the whole place would sing a loud happy birthday.”

But being a performer to her core, Sal could never stop thinking of getting her real job and vocation back on track. She is a friend of fellow Three Men in a Bowtie comedy performer, writer and broadcaster Chris Eldon Lee.

“I kept telling Chris how many stories there were at the vaccination centres and the number of experiences that give little glimmers of humanity,” said Sal.

Chris and Sal wrote a play, called JABS, which began its shows in Shropshire last year. A new tour, inevitably called JABS The Booster, will return in the spring.

Now that Sal and the rest of the performing world is returning to something like normal, she is looking forward to picking up where she left off.

"Music is medicine for people – especially for their mental health – and I am just poised to play my part in the musical medicine service,” she said.

Sal says the experiences of lockdown – especially the feelings of being utterly bewildered – made her aware of the fragility of her own mental health. The play JABS was a “piece of therapy” for her and will continue to be when the production goes on tour again in the spring.

“JABS is about holding a mirror up to the world and has a bit of a real current role in the recovery process,” she added.

The JABS tour 2022 will start on Friday, March 11 at The Talbot Theatre, Whitchurch, before moving on to Stafford’s Gatehouse Theatre on March 12, Oswestry’s Hermon Chapel on March 17, Solihull on April 5 and Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn on Wednesday, April 27. It will then head to Worcester on May 7 and Wolverhampton on May 26.

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