The story behind this one starts way, way back, long before I moved to D.C. the first time.

My family wasn’t especially musical. My maternal grandmother played the piano by ear, which I thought was cool, but unless Granmummie was visiting,[1] what music there was in our household came via records and the radio.

Not to discount the importance of records, however: When I left for college, I absconded with my father’s Joan Baez album, her first. I didn’t need to take his Tom Lehrer LPs — Lehrer’s first, the one whose cover featured a caricature of the pianist as the devil surrounded by the red flames of hell (see below), and That Was the Year That Was — because most of the songs were embedded in my memory.

I’ve still got that Joan album, and the 10 or so of its successors that I acquired legitimately in the following years, and I still know a ridiculous number of Tom Lehrer songs by heart.[2]

See what I mean? Originally released in 1953, when I was 2.

Like many middle-class-and-up suburban kids my siblings and I took piano lessons with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The teacher wasn’t especially inspired or inspiring. I did learn to read music, but I didn’t learn to pick songs out of the air the way my grandmother did. That was disappointing, but what I didn’t really understand was what all that tedious practice could lead to. If I had, maybe I would have persisted.

Or maybe not.

I did, however, like to sing. Singing was the best part of church, where we went almost every Sunday morning as a family: St. Peter’s Episcopal in Weston, Mass. From fifth grade through eighth I sang alto in the junior choir. After eighth grade, when we aged out of both the junior choir and Sunday school, we could join the adult choir, but the adult choir sang at the 11 a.m. service and my family went to the 9:15. That’s when I left the church.

In my eighth-grade year, Becky B., also an eighth-grader, a soprano who’d been in the choir as long as I had, told me that I always sang off-key. To avoid ruining the anthem, she said, I should just pretend to sing.

No one else — not the choir director/organist, not any other member of the choir, not any of my music teachers in school — had ever told me any such thing. Becky B. didn’t like me and I didn’t like her; she was a goody-two-shoes who was always playing up to the adults. But I feared she was right, that I had been found out.

Somehow I made it through the year. Then I stopped singing. Period. When I entered high school in the fall, the music teacher encouraged me more than once to try out for Glee Club. Since she directed the Glee Club, this should have given me confidence, but it didn’t. I was sure I’d fail and confirm beyond any doubt that Becky B. was right: I couldn’t sing.

It was years before I recognized the pattern: I’d pursue a skill, an instrument, a foreign language — then abandon it when I was on the verge of being able to actually use it. At that point you’re bound to make mistakes. In my family making mistakes got you creamed. My very intelligent and well-read father regularly ridiculed my mother for getting the wrong answer or saying anything he considered stupid. I learned to get my facts straight before I opened my mouth. From an early age I’d been good at words, anything to do with words. I stuck to words, spoken and written, but never sung.

I never stopped listening to music, though, or hanging around people who made music or were somehow in the music biz. Gradually, and usually in fits and starts, I got braver, venturing into territories where I didn’t have all the answers and was bound to make mistakes: taking that first editorial job at the American Red Cross, for instance, or becoming the book buyer at Lammas Bookstore. I did well at both, but note that they both had to do with words: in some ways I was pushing the boundaries of what I was already good at.

The D.C. Area Feminist Chorus was founded in 1978, prompted by a singing workshop led by Holly Near during that year’s Gay Pride celebration. In its early months it was leaderless, with members leading warm-ups and teaching each other songs.

At some point, they decided to engage a director/conductor, and after interviewing several candidates, they hired Deb Weiner. Deb either was already or was soon to become one of my housemates, but this did not prompt me to join the chorus. If anything, it was a deterrent: What if it was your housemate who had to tell you that you couldn’t sing on key and were dragging the group down?

I have an indelible memory of Deb conducting the combined D.C. Area Feminist Chorus and Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington at a holiday concert, in either 1981 or 1982. To be the conductor channeling all that massive sound! I was awed.

How did I come to finally join the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus? Well, I have it on good authority — my own words from 36 years ago — that I set out to write a story about the chorus for Hot Wire: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture “and almost immediately found [my]self singing in the second soprano section.” By then Deb had moved on after several very successful years, Caroline Foty was the chorus director, and I was living on the far northeast fringe of Capitol Hill, subletting a large room from and sharing a kitchen with photographer Joan E. Biren (JEB).

By then, probably in 1984, I had joined the brand-new Gay and Lesbian Chorus of Washington (GLCW). How did I hear about it? I don’t remember. This was a small group, conducted by Tess Garcia, and my most vivid memory was of a performance we gave where Congressman Barney Frank, dressed in a leisure suit, reclined across several chairs in the front row. Most of the homemade cassette tape I have from a June 1985 performance is unplayable, but on the one audible cut, “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye,” we sound pretty good. According to the label, the program also included some P.D.Q. Bach, the spiritual “Soon Ah Will Be Done,” and selections from Annie.

I noted the most striking contrast between my two choruses in that Hot Wire story: “Because the GLCW did not choose to specialize in works by gay or lesbian composers, a chorus member could walk into any music store and be overwhelmed by the available selection.” Not so any Feminist Chorus member: all our music consisted of handwritten scores photocopied or similarly duplicated, because none of it had been published. Director Foty did some of the arranging, and fortunately feminist choruses were thriving at the time, and lots of sharing went on among them through the Sistersingers network. We were breaking ground, pioneers, in the forefront, and very aware of it.

We sang at least two songs from the Balkan women’s singing tradition. I can still fake the second soprano part of “Shto Mi e Milo,” which has been widely recorded.

One of my favorites from the chorus repertoire was a four-part setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Conscientious Objector.” I didn’t realize till about an hour ago not only that Mary Travers had performed it spectacularly, but that she wrote the solo setting and recorded it on her 1972 album Morning Glory.[3] I have a copy of the poem on my fridge: “I shall die / but that is all I shall do for Death . . .” It reminds me of the song.

The chorus made decisions collectively, including decisions about repertoire. “Conscientious Objector” almost didn’t make the cut; that was before I joined, so I don’t know what the objections were. As I recall, a couple of chorus members thought Malvina Reynolds’s “We Don’t Need the Men” was too anti-male. For others among us, this was a plus, not least because it was so tongue-in-cheekily Malvina. It was fun to remind people that Malvina wrote it in 1959.

The most controversial song I remember from my time in the chorus was “Sisters, Spring of Vietnam”; it clearly favored the Vietnamese liberation struggle against the French and the Americans, and that did not sit well with some members. Singing along with Lucha’s version I remember the tune, the harmony, and many of the words, so I’m pretty sure we sang it anyway, but some choristers chose to sit it out.

The back of the 1985 Sisterfire T. The D.C. Area Feminist Chorus is about halfway down.

My last gig with the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus was at Sisterfire, June 22 & 23, 1985. By the end of that summer I was semi-settled on Martha’s Vineyard. Music was much easier to find than feminism, and find it I did, volunteering at Wintertide Coffeehouse starting in 1986.

It took a while to find a way to start singing again. My way in turned out to be the annual Christmas performance of Messiah, sung by a large (and ever growing) pickup chorus of Vineyarders, many of whom sang regularly in various church choirs.

I’d never sung Messiah before, and most of the chorus seemed to know it by heart. More, although I could read music, I couldn’t “sight-sing,” sing from a score on first acquaintance. I still regret not having the nerve to audition for Glee Club in high school, where everybody learned to do stuff like that. I worked hard, I learned, and when, in my third year, I made it through the glorious “Amen” without losing my place, I thought I’d arrived.

The annual Messiah sings eventually grew into the Island Community Chorus, which did several concerts a year and with which I stayed until around 2005. I’ve managed to keep singing since then. In the age of Covid-19, I’ve participated almost weekly in Zoom sings (Zings?) with Susan Robbins of Libana, a women’s ensemble whose music I’ve loved since at least 1980, and a bunch of whose recordings I’ve got.

But it was the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus that got me singing again, and though I didn’t sing with it for much more than a year, this shirt is about how I found my (singing) voice again.

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notes

[1] Which was fairly often, because she lived only eight miles away.

[2] This is so common among the political circles I’ve moved in over the decades that if I sing or even hum a line, often someone in the vicinity will sing the next one back to me. A favorite memory from my freshman year at Georgetown U.: As a marshal for the huge Mobe (Mobilization Against the War) march on Washington on November 15, 1969, I was stationed on Pennsylvania Ave. between 6th and 7th. We were close enough together that we could reach out and touch our neighbors on either side. It was sunny but bloody cold, and my winter gear was still back in Massachusetts: I had this idea that since D.C. was a southern city I wouldn’t need it till after Thanksgiving. Wrong. Anyway, while waiting for the sun to get fully up and the march to start, we did a lot of jogging in place and making coffee runs to the nearest drugstore. Eventually one of us — maybe me, maybe not — started in on a Tom Lehrer song. No idea which one, so many of them would have been appropriate — maybe “The Wild West Is Where I Want to Be,” with its lines “I’ll watch the guided missiles / while the old FBI watches me”? We were sure the FBI and who knew what other intelligence agencies were around.

[3] My source for this is a detailed bio of Edna St. Vincent Millay on, of all things, the website for the ABC Oriental Rug & Cleaning Company in Ithaca, N.Y. There has to be an interesting story here, but I’ll have to save that rabbit hole for another time. The page seems to be updated regularly: it includes a reference to the ongoing pandemic and other events.

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