On Monday 23 March, as the UK lockdown was being announced over Sam Lee’s mobile phone, something else was distracting him: the sight on his laptop of 100 people singing. Over video conferencing software, Hackney’s Fire Choir had just held its first virtual rehearsal. That day musician Lee, one of Fire Choir’s co-founders, had invited non-members to join via Twitter, and been overwhelmed. “I was thinking, ‘What is this now? Is this a choir rehearsal or something else?’”
Younger bearded men in beanies, families with young children and older people wearing headphones or drinking wine sung along on galleried screens. “We got people to wave who were self-isolating alone,” Lee said. “That really got to me.”
The choir’s leaders (apart from Lee, who himself was self-isolating at home) led the singing from their usual London rehearsal space, harmonising loudly, two metres apart. The song they were singing at 8.30pm, when the rehearsal ended and Boris Johnson addressed the nation, felt particularly apt: 1960s US civil rights activist Faya Touré’s “I’m Going to Lift My Brother Up”, one of many political songs the choir performs.
Choirs singing political songs are on the rise in the UK, and were long before the pandemic struck. The Fire Choir was co-founded by Mercury-nominated folk musician Lee in 2018, focusing on songs of social uprising, rebellion and resistance from all over the world. “We’ve sung songs about the NHS, HS2, deforestation in Ireland, the subjugation of political prisoners in Chile,” Lee said. “Songs, crucially, that we can sing together on marches [he is an Extinction Rebellion regular] that sound joyous, not angry. Songs that are about voices coming together, and education, as that’s what binds us together.”
Members of the all-female Deep Throat Choir are also regular voices at anti-Donald Trump and Extinction Rebellion protests. On 24 March, they were meant to be singing from the Greenham Common Songbook at London’s Barbican theatre, as part of a live performance of Richard King’s bestselling book about music and the British landscape, The Lark Ascending (2019). One of these songs is “Tomorrow”, about the fear of nuclear war, written by folk singer Peggy Seeger after she was arrested with Peace Camp protesters in 1983. The protagonist of the song had “hopes and dreams that carry me through daily care and worry”, but now a “nightmare overtakes the dream – I fear I’ve lost tomorrow”.
Luisa Gerstein was in the process of setting up her own rehearsals over the Zoom app when we spoke on the day of the cancelled Barbican concert. She formed the Deep Throat Choir in 2013, and discovered the Greenham Songbook a few years later (it collects old folk songs, nursery rhymes, chants and originals such as Seeger’s “Tomorrow”). At 33, Gerstein is too young to remember the anti-nuclear protests, but the music had an instant effect on her. “Songs standing up for the future feel very relevant in times that feel so fraught and uncertain. The idea of women stepping up and weaponising the position of themselves as mothers and carers also feels powerful now.”
The Deep Throat Choir also sings the feminist resistance anthem “You Can’t Kill the Spirit” by Naomi Littlebear Morena, a powerful chant that Morena first played at US feminism festivals in the 1970s. Deep Throat Choir member Beka Diski, 34, first heard this song at the funeral of her partner’s grandmother a few years ago. Its repeated refrain of “You can’t kill the spirit/She is like a mountain/Old and strong/She goes on and on and on” articulates women’s collective strength compellingly, she told me.
Long-standing choirs, such as the Birmingham Clarion Singers, Red Leicester, and Aberystwyth’s bilingual Côr Gobaith (Choir of Hope), also sing political songs and have connections to socialist forums or organisations. New choirs have formed around individuals who understand music’s powers for bringing people together.
DIY musician Jenny Moore founded Hackney’s F-Choir in 2017 after working with activists burnt out from the previous year’s unsuccessful Remain campaign. She was trying to find other ways for people to meet, she explained, “that would give them a break from community organising around a table or a Google Doc”. Setting up a vocal workshop called We Want Our Bodies Back, F-Choir emerged from the powerful connection the singers felt simply by performing in the same room together.
F-Choir sings house anthems and experimental compositions, as well as political songs. It states proudly on its website that it practises intersectional feminism, and does not make assumptions about anybody’s gender, origin or sexuality. “I wanted a place to not be afraid of getting feminism wrong,” Moore said. “A place to hear different voices, and to start accepting my own, different voice.”
The acceptance of personal agency and diversity within the experience of singing also rings true with Sam Lee. On 23 March, he felt particularly emotional as the Zoom rehearsal came to an end, especially as the national lockdown meant the next one would have to happen differently. “Everyone was heartbroken. Nobody wanted to click the button to leave the meeting,” he said.
Next time the choir leaders plan to harmonise through long-range walkie-talkies, to deal with delays and latency in sound through the Zoom app; they’ll do anything to keep the songs being sung. “Everyone’s going through a common traumatic experience,” Lee said, “and this is a way of connecting, and feeling close, that doesn’t dwell on the circumstances of what we’re all living through.
“It’s like looking at the moon in the sky at the same time as your lover if you’re in a different country – it’s an anchor point that brings you together. Walls might be separating us, but they’re physical, not emotional. Songs reminds us we are part of something bigger, something positive, together.”
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special 2021