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Oakcrest School Chorus. Photo by Rui Barros Photography

Oakcrest School Chorus. Photo by Rui Barros Photography

  • A Choral Reckoning with the Imperfect History of the United States

    In the society of the United States, we place great merit in the idea of the individual, but we also understand that great strength is found in community.

    I love music and appreciate a fine soloist—one soul, reaching out to find and communicate with others—but here too is the concept of the group, that when voices seek out other voices, their effect is stronger, more resonant, even freeing.

    America loves its choruses. I hadn’t known this until popular television proved it to me.

    In 2009, Glee became a hit. In a chimeric Lima, Ohio, a group of characters—arguably the most diverse set in any series on television—manages their differences well enough to sing together, to succeed in competitions, and eventually become friends. (The recent outpouring of grief after the tragic death of actress Naya Rivera suggests the show still has a passionate fanbase.) Then in 2012 came the birth of the Pitch Perfect series of films, and, to me, their popularity seemed to cement the deal. Choruses did mean something in our broader American culture.

    But we all have other things to do, work takes us other places. It wasn’t until last year that I did some research. Chorus America, an advocacy organization, conducted a study (coincidentally during Glee’s first season) which claimed that 42.6 million Americans sing in choruses, and that there were over 270,000 active choruses in the United States: 41,000 in high schools, 216,000 religious choirs, and 12,000 professional groups.

    The message to parents? That when student voices seek out other student voices, it teaches discipline and good teamwork, and encourages civic involvement in later life. According to the producers of Glee, belonging to a chorus can also help you survive high school.

    We sent an email to Anne Miller, the choral director at Oakcrest, an all-girls school in Vienna, Virginia. Would she help us with an idea? Did choruses know about the great wealth of Americana, as well as world music resident in the Smithsonian Folkways collection? Were they mining it for competitions and concerts?

    Dramatic shot of an older woman sitting at a piano in the shadows, perhaps in the upper level of a chapel, with sunlight from tall windows brightening the large room behind her.
    Anne Miller
    Photo by Xueying Chang

    We asked her to do some exploring, to find a song that spoke to her and her students. Figuring that school choir directors do so every day, I called on her to produce an arrangement for her talented high school choir to sing. For our part, we would produce a performance video of their effort, so together, we could encourage other choruses to investigate the great musical heritage of this country.

    From the email trail that followed, I knew Miller understood what we were getting at, that what Folkways offers is more than music—it’s music with a story—and that maybe, the investigation of some of those stories was something the country’s choral students should engage with today.

    Miller is a retiring woman with ice-blue eyes. In the 1980s, she finished her master’s in piano performance and still owns the good posture to prove it. She attended the only school she applied to, SUNY Fredonia, set in a vast sweep of maples off Lake Erie, and has taught at Oakcrest School for seventeen years.

    “I was hired to establish the music program,” Miller says, nodding. “In my mind, I was only going to be here for a year. I never wanted to teach large groups. I preferred one-on-one interaction. I thought I’d see all these kids looking at me for something and I would think, I don’t know who you are.” But once things went along, the same students came back year after year, and she admitted to herself that she had “fallen in love with teaching.”

    After our emails became phone calls, Miller began searching the Folkways collection for inspiration. We talked over her ideas. I asked my colleague Albert Tong to co-direct the video, and in late October, the two of us went to visit Oakcrest’s choral room, where Miller and the young women of her chorus ran through her selections for us. I had never stood so close in front of a singing choir. It was an emotional experience hearing their voices so clearly. The graceful lines of melody they sang, the thoughtful pauses and builds, evoked a sense of spaciousness. I told the students we were grateful to them for bringing their music to our audiences.

    VIDEO

    Producer, director, editor: Charlie Weber
    Director: Albert Tong

    Miller had decided that one song wasn’t enough. This was a Glee-style medley, but the goal wasn’t to crack the Nielsen top ten. She had chosen to begin with “This Land Is Your Land,” the Woody Guthrie standard.

    “When we started the project, the refugee crisis was in the news,” Miller says. “The immigration crisis at the border was very much on my mind when I heard Guthrie sing those lines, Nobody living can ever stop me, as I go walking that freedom highway.”

    It was a strange choice for her.

    “I remember singing ‘This Land’ as a kid in school, and of course you only sing the three happy verses. Even then, I recognized that it wasn’t real, that our country was beautiful and there was much to be proud of, but there was also injustice, there was poverty. So I never liked that song. I was born in 1962. We were often in front of the television in the evenings. We would see the Vietnam War protests, and, as this little kid, I would be praying for an end to the war and what I would learn was social unrest.”

    But during her investigations into the Folkways collection, she located Guthrie’s lyrics in their entirety.

    “And I started looking at this song, and I thought—wow,” Miller says, and here her voice picks up steam. “This song is about both the beauty of our country and its injustices. This was a great song that gave me the sense that we’re all in this together. I needed to teach my students this song and have them wrestle with truth and ambiguity. And with truth being so questioned now in our society, help them work towards finding it.”

    Three young men stand blankly in a hallway, looking like they are waiting for direction. Two hols acoustic guitars and the third a ukulele. They all wear matching school uniforms: navy sweaters, white collared shirts, plaid skirts, and black stockings.
    Instrumentalists Heidi Burke, Zoe Burke, and Ana Sofia Johnson
    Photo by Xueying Chang

    The second composition she chose was the Stephen Foster parlor song “Hard Times Come Again No More,” which asks the well-off to remember those less fortunate. You’ll find a differently worded Mormon version in the Folkways collection, a story in itself. But the integrity of Foster, the song’s creator, is often questioned.

    “Maybe the most powerful rendition of that song is Mavis Staples’, right?” Miller asks. “And yet Stephen Foster had a history of writing blackface minstrel songs. This wasn’t a minstrelsy song, but it’s tough, the ambiguity these questions can bring. Today, we’re in this ‘cancel culture.’ Conversation is the only way to understand.”

    Miller discussed the songs with her students, they talked over the histories involved, and finally she asked them to bring their own feelings, their own interpretations to each song.

    “A chorus is a group of people working for a common cause,” she explains. “But a lot of soul-searching goes on. You’re singing as part of this group, but what are your own feelings? And you get to know how others are responding. A chorus is unified but contains the individuality of each person, along with their personal history. It’s also valuable to them as a group of young women to come together to express something.”

    According to Miller, this is why you won’t ever see the same expression on all the singers’ faces.  She recalls the happier verses of the Guthrie song.

    “Even with ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ some of the girls are smiling, others are more introspective. The wealth of the song comes forward through connections which are personal, and I have found that there are often great depths in the quietest students with the least expressive faces.”

    Contrary to what I expected, Miller had arranged only one song in her long career, a responsorial psalm. “I was terrified about this,” she admits, smiling. “It was hard to decide. Should ‘Hard Times’ go at the beginning? At first, it did, and then I alternated verses, but as I learned more about ‘This Land,’ the verses that were so often left out, I convinced myself.” To express the depth of that song, as well as the imperfect history of the country, she had to put the verses of ‘Hard Times’ in the middle. “They drew more attention to those left-out verses so they would be noticed. Our country, good and bad. It was important to give voice to that.”

    A man (the author) on the left looks into the viewfinder of a video camera, filming a group of seven chorus members chatting on and around a haystack. They are all dressed in warm jackets, lit by a bright but overcast sky.
    Charlie Weber filming the Oakcrest School Chorus at Frying Pan Farm Park
    Photo by Xueying Chang

    We filmed on a cold, late November day in Northern Virginia, beginning in the chorus room at Oakcrest and ending in Fairfax County’s Frying Pan Farm Park, which resembles a working farmstead with a bright red barn and cornfields. We were told that school groups bus to the park to learn the basics of agricultural life, and that senators and congressmen often cut farm-centric political ads here, instead of flying back to their home states.

    The plan was to edit after the new year so as to bring the video out well before the school year’s final concerts and graduation. But things don’t always go to plan. The pandemic erupted. The world shut down. “And then we all became quarantined,” Miller acknowledges.

    The weeks dragged on into May.

    “The semester ended strangely and online,” Miller says, her smile returned. They substituted a virtual concert for the usual robust end-of-year event, but they couldn’t manage it live. “We wanted to keep the kids singing, so we had them all send video files individually. I got tendinitis from the editing, lining up all the student’s voices. In one group, there were forty voices.”

    That virtual evening ended with the video of “This Land/Hard Times.” The students watched the video for the first time. Through their comments, it was apparent to Miller that, to the chorus, the project had gained new meanings.

    Two young women, one white and one Black, huddle together for warmth, their heads resting on each other. The gray sky behind them suggests a cold day.
    Photo by Xueying Chang

    “We had wanted to end the arrangement in an uplifting way—Nobody living can ever stop me—and in the video, we saw the joy of running across fields and jumping off haystacks, playing king of the mountain, where they could all hug and run freely. They could see their classmates and remember that time when they were all singing together, expressing together, and it brought them joy and freedom, even though it had been freezing outside with everyone hugging each other to keep warm. And some of them wrote to me that after the sequestering is all over, they want to remove themselves from social media and electronic gadgetry and spend real physical time together.”

    A couple more weeks passed, and the seniors in the choir graduated online without the usual fanfare and celebrations and toward an uncertain college start. Miller began to wonder when it would ever be safe for choirs to sing together again.

    Then came the violent death of George Floyd and the protests and riots that swept the country. America began a new and vital conversation with itself.

    “Now we’re in the middle of these protests in all of our cities because of racial injustice, and so now maybe what the students sang takes on another meaning,” Miller wonders. “And I’m hoping the video takes on a good meaning and one my students see. I wanted to end the arrangement in hope, that you can make a difference—Nobody living can ever make me turn back—that’s what brought tears to my eyes at the end of the singing; that freedom and joy we reach for in a bigger sense, where everyone feels valued and freed.”

    Panoramic photo of all the girls of the Oakcrest School Chorus running across an open field, arms splayed out, long hair flying. They are dressed in warm overcoats, scarves and beanies; the bare trees behind them confirm a cold, wintry day.
    Photo by Xueying Chang

    Smithsonian Folkways would like to encourage choir directors across the world to take a journey through the traditional songs of the Folkways collection. We invite you to learn the songs and stories, to illuminate the true histories of this country and others through the traditional songs you share with singers and audiences, your communities. Maybe you’ll send us a video of what you’ve done.

    Charlie Weber is the media director at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He would like to dedicate this story to Naya Rivera, of the cast of Glee, who died on July 8, 2020.


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