A recreational choir, started by amateur singers around a coffee shop piano, shouldn’t last 30 years. The demands of everyday life and the challenges of finding new members simply shouldn’t allow it.
But don’t tell that to the ladies of the Charlottesville Women’s Choir.
“It has evolved,” said Estelle Phillips, who’s been with the group for 29 years and has become its archivist. “We’ve had as many as 30 members and as few as seven. Every year a few people drop out and a few people join.”
The choir, which now has 28 members, has been meeting every Monday from September to June since 1984, when Gaye Fifer formalized the group that had been meeting around that piano at The Prism coffee house after Charlottesville Latin American Solidarity Committee meetings.
These days, the choir sings at four or five events a year, reaching a crescendo at its annual spring concert. The spring show this year will fill The Haven at the corner of First and Market Streets on June 1 at 4:30pm.
The daytime homeless shelter in downtown Charlottesville is perhaps the ideal place for the Charlottesville Women’s Choir to celebrate three decades of harmonizing. The group’s goal is to sing uplifting music about women’s rights, peace, justice, and equality. Over the years, the members have lent their voices to HIV/AIDS walks, racial justice rallies, peace vigils, and sexual/domestic violence marches, among other events. Annually, they sing for their fellow females at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.
“Singing at the correctional facility is especially poignant for all of us, I think,” said Judy Marie Johnson, who joined the choir in 2002.
One of the correctional facility favorites is “Uh Huh,” a jaunty, defiant number about passing the buck for one’s woes. Most of the songs the women sing, though, have a more sober tone and message. For Phillips, the song that has resonated most over the years is “Gracias a la Vida.”
“We try to include songs in other languages, Chinese, French, Spanish, and many African songs,” she said. “‘Gracias a la Vida,’ or ‘Thanks to Life,’ lists all the simple things about life that we are to be grateful for.”
Phillips, who’s retired from a professional career that took her from biology labs at UVA to assisting preschool teachers, said she also appreciates songs that preach being true to who you are. Johnson, an artist and avid activist, seconded that notion. She said she’s often bringing songs to the group that address issues she’s passionate about. She recalled one of her favorites ‘We Are One,’ which sings to the fact that we are all connected and responsible for the Earth,” before breaking into a similar number the group is working on for their upcoming show.
“The Earth is our mother, we must take care of her,” she sang, before Phillips joined in for the refrain.
The two women seemed to be enjoying themselves, singing together last week in a small conference room off the Downtown Mall, prompting each other—“and then it has the, ‘hey-anna-ho-anna-hey-on-yon,’” led Phillips—and stumbling over the same forgotten lyrics and pitch problems as they went. “We haven’t done that one in a long time,” Phillips said of another tune into which they joyfully launched.
The whole proceeding was not unlike a scene from Waiting for Guffman, the 1997 comedy about a small town musical theater group expecting a visit from a renowned drama critic. Phillips and Johnson both seem to enjoy the lighthearted side of the choir and the social interaction it allows almost as much as the social activism. Perhaps that’s the key to the group’s longevity.
“Some of it is geared to the end of the year concert, and yet, weekly, there is the opportunity to come however you are feeling, whatever you are thinking, and sit and sing with your sisters,” Johnson said. “That in and of itself can be empowering, healing, and comforting.”
For all its continuity, the Charlottesville Women’s Choir is not without its bumps in the road. The group tries to make decisions via consensus, a nod to their devotion to equality. But that is no easy way to govern, particularly since their de facto leader Fifer left years ago. Plus, attracting new members remains a challenge, the choir lacks diversity, and there are some groups, political or otherwise, that don’t necessarily agree with their activist message.
“If that is the case, they don’t have to join the choir, and they don’t have to listen to us,” Phillips said.
What more can the choir do to push their message out, keep people aware of their mission, and make a difference? It’s a question Phillips and Johnson seem not to have given much thought to, but it intrigues them. Certainly, both are passionate about women’s issues—not to mention the choir itself.
“It’s a challenge to keep the group going because the women in the choir are strong,” Phillips said. “There are hurt feelings and disagreement over decisions. You have to go with the ups and downs. That’s what it takes to keep going.”
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