Dot Levine pulled up to the curb and propped up a folding sandwich board advertising singing telegrams. The guitar player was hired to play a song outside this house on Osage Avenue in West Philly.
Levine, who uses the pronouns they/them, was asked to play a traditional Yiddish drinking song, “Hob Ikh Mir An Altn Daym,” with the lyrics altered to reflect union labor. The man who requested the song wanted it performed for his partner, artist and union organizer Zoe Cohen. Levine says they can accommodate any request.
“Tomorrow, I’m doing a toilet paper jingle into ‘Just Like Heaven’ by The Cure,” Levine said with a laugh.
They normally play old-time acoustic guitar jazz, fronting “Dot Levine and Their Singular Band.” But they are flexible. “Last week, I did a Backstreet Boys song,” they said.
Levine played a steel guitar at a safe distance on the sidewalk, propping up a mobile phone to stream the performance via Facebook live. Cohen sat on her porch steps, about 20 feet away. She called her young children to come outside to listen.
Cohen did not know this serenade was going to happen – her partner arranged it as a surprise – but both of them are friends of Levine and follow “Dottie’s Serenade Service” on Facebook.
“I want everyone to know that under normal circumstances, I would be giving Dot a huge hug right now,” she said after the song, for the benefit of any online audience.
Levine launched this concept of serenading for hire about two weeks ago, when many people started sheltering at home and avoiding other people. They charge $76 dollars a song, more if they have to learn it from scratch.
“The genesis of this is that people want to connect with one another,” they said. “This feels like one of the most intimate things you can give to someone: a song.”
After a little small talk with Cohen, Levine packed up the steel guitar and sandwich board, and drove a couple blocks to 49th Street to play another pre-arranged serenade, this time for Jeff Frankl, who has been working from home since the COVID-19 outbreak.
Frankl said he is taking social distancing seriously, having not left his property for almost two weeks.
“I had a moment today where I imagined a meeting happening at the office, and I got excited for a moment before I realized I was not going to get to see people,” he said. “I’m so desperate, I’m excited to go to a meeting at work.”
Frankl and his partner stepped outside their front door when Levine texted from the sidewalk. The person who paid for Frankl’s serenade requested something “sweet and friendly.”
Levine chose a nylon string guitar to play “Pure Imagination,” from the film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” a personal favorite.
“This is the first time I’ve heard music since I can remember. I’m in shock,” said Frankl. “I listen to my headphones all day, but it’s different in person.”
Then Levine once again packed up and headed off to the next one-song gig. Later, the songs are posted to their YouTube channel. Levine says they are doing about four a day. Since they can’t play in bars anymore, this is their only means of performing for money.
It’s also the happiest they’ve ever been.
“It’s really amazing. Music is like a condensed humanity,” they said. “That’s what everyone wants right now, some human-ness, some connection. Music does that.”