Volunteer musician Margaret McNaughton squeezes the last tune from her accordion

SWANSONG: After 70 years of singing and performing in public with her accordion, Margaret McNaughton is retiring. Picture: Simone De Peak

SWANSONG: After 70 years of singing and performing in public with her accordion, Margaret McNaughton is retiring. Picture: Simone De Peak

WHEN Margaret McNaughton walked into a dementia unit for the first time to perform music, her audience was initially less than receptive.

An older man yelled at her, "Get out of here! I don't want you here!".

"I thought, 'This is going to be different, because if they don't know who they are and where they are, would they be able to sing?'," Mrs McNaughton recalled.

The show had to go on, so Mrs McNaughton pulled out her accordion and launched into the Colonel Bogey March. Suddenly the older man stood up and began waving imaginary batons. Then, when Mrs McNaughton played singalong songs, her converted audience member encouraged the other residents to join in.

"The beauty of it was that he was smiling," Mrs McNaughton said.

"You have no idea of the feeling I'd get, the euphoria."

Yet it wasn't just Margaret McNaughton experiencing euphoria. For decades, she has been spreading melodic happiness around the region with her accordion and trained singing voice, performing for the love of it in venues as diverse as aged care facilities and service clubs to the Mater hospital's palliative care hospice.

She may be a former Newcastle lady mayoress and the city's Citizen of the Year in 2001, but to many Margaret McNaughton is an entertainer. She was even on the cover of Newcastle's 2007/2008 White Pages phone directory, playing an accordion at Nobbys.

COVER GIRL: Margaret McNaughton featured on the 2007/08 White Pages phone directory.

COVER GIRL: Margaret McNaughton featured on the 2007/08 White Pages phone directory.

"She's given incredible joy, made an incredible contribution," said her husband, John McNaughton, who was Newcastle Lord Mayor from 1986 to 1995.

After 70 years of performing with her accordion, Margaret McNaughton has decided it is time for the show to end. She is retiring, having been prompted by the COVID-19 restrictions on performing and singing in public areas.

"I think it's time," she said. "I really feel that, because it's so uncertain [with COVID]. But there's no use fretting about what I can't do; I'll enjoy what I can do."

Margaret McNaughton first performed with her accordion when she was 12. After three lessons, she stood on the Newcastle City Hall stage and played a big hit of the time, Aba Daba Honeymoon, all the while "shaking". But she loved the experience, and audiences loved her.

Young Margaret soon realised the power in that harmonic union of music and community. She began playing wherever a song was needed - which was just about everywhere.

"I used to say, 'Have accordion, will travel'," she said.

HARMONY: Margaret McNaughton playing the keyboards at a function at John Hunter Hospital in 2007.

HARMONY: Margaret McNaughton playing the keyboards at a function at John Hunter Hospital in 2007.

Demand grew until Margaret McNaughton was playing on average three to four community shows a week, and she maintained that for about 40 years, juggling her performances with other roles, notably motherhood and being the piano accompanist at Merewether Heights Public School, which her children attended.

Even in recent years, Mrs McNaughton was still performing at least once a week.

"I loved it, especially in the aged care facilities," she said. "Getting everyone singing. And that's the beauty of the accordion, you can move around.

"Singing together releases inhibitions. People say, 'I can't sing, everyone will leave if I sing," but you say, 'Get into it! Enjoy it!'."

Kylie Jacques, the marketing manager for Anglican Care, said the residents in the organisation's facilities loved Margaret McNaughton.

"Music is such a beautiful, soothing thing, and with Margaret, her generosity just shines through," Mrs Jacques said. "She's touched the lives of many, many people."

Margaret McNaughton, with husband John, and their children, Meg (front), Anne, and Chris at home in 1985.

Margaret McNaughton, with husband John, and their children, Meg (front), Anne, and Chris at home in 1985.

"She's a gorgeous lady," said Jennifer Ebrill, from Merewether Uniting Church, where Mrs McNaughton played for about 30 years at support group meetings.

"Their faces would light up at the very thought of Margaret playing."

In her 70 years of performing, Mrs McNaughton has "worn out" three accordions, played thousands of shows, and she knows countless songs, from waltzes and folk tunes to Elvis.

But she does have a favourite, which she launched into playing, mid-interview, on her pearl grey Galanti "ladies' lightweight model": The Loveliest Night of the Year.

"She sang it at our wedding reception," said her husband of 58 years.

John McNaughton is looking forward to hearing his wife sing and play more at home. For while she may no longer be performing, music will remain entwined around the life of Margaret McNaughton. And there are the memories of all those shows, and all that joy.

"At the end, when you see the smiles," she said, "I think I'm the luckiest person alive."

Long-time volunteer musician Margaret McNaughton playing her accordion. Picture: Simone De Peak

Long-time volunteer musician Margaret McNaughton playing her accordion. Picture: Simone De Peak