It takes a village, it truly does. Particularly in a city as large and intense as New York can be, finding community can be a key to survival. We all need a place where “everybody knows your name,” some place to share our joy and pain, to go for camaraderie, appreciation, and support. The Peace of Heart Choir plays that role for many of our singers. Fountain House, where we performed an outreach recently, does something very similar for its community, more than 1,500 men and women living with mental illness. By providing them with support services, housing assistance, meals, learning opportunities, a place to gather, and more, Fountain House has helped members of its community live more independent, productive, and happier lives for over 70 years.
We’ve been visiting Fountain House’s headquarters, a beautiful old building on West 47th St, for nearly 10 years now. It’s just a few blocks from our primary rehearsal space, so they’re truly our neighbors. Most recently, on a cool spring evening, about 30 of us crowded around the grand piano in their main floor to sing for, and sing with, a small group of members. The room looked like an old-school parlor with comfy chairs and couches, fresh flowers on the mantel, and oil paintings on the walls.
Talking with Fountain House members before the performance, we heard their stories: of the literature they studied in school, the friends who’d passed, the songs they’d sung. Looking at our sing-along sheet, one woman was particularly happy we were singing “This Land is Your Land,” as she’d fallen in love with the music of Woody Guthrie as a child, as many of us had.
We began, as we often do, with two songs from South Africa, Siyahamba and Shosholoza, both in Zulu and other African dialects. In the front row, a woman surprised us by singing every word.
As the concert progressed, another woman who’d been singing along earlier dozed off in her armchair. Even Marv’s accordion work on Chiribim, a call and response song in Yiddish, didn’t wake her. We did not take it personally -- many Fountain House members are on medication for their psychiatric issues, and drowsiness is an unfortunate side effect.
Other high points included Anthony--always resplendent in his super cool sunglasses. Michael-Anne who took the solo on “Lonesome Road” for the first time, doing a great job. Barry’s treatise on the power of the word “darling” in his introduction to “Stand by Me,” which had some of us calling each other “darling” for the rest of the evening. Alex taking the mike to introduce “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” During the sing-alongs, we could hear Danielle’s strong soprano coming through the mix on “This Land is Your Land,” and Lis’s voice ringing out on “Peace Like a River.” We debuted Harry Chapin’s beautiful “Circle,” a new sing-along we added this season.
Halfway through the performance, our mystery singer in the audience was still joining us for every word of every song. She’d moved to the back, so she could stand and bop along while she sang.
We’ve added “Let the Sun Shine In”, from the musical Hair, to our core songs list recently, and sang a rousing version to close the concert. We ended up singing so enthusiastically that we missed the raised fist of our amazing conductor Rene , a signal to end the repeat, and went around one more time before finally taking our bows.
We packed up and said our goodbyes. And we learned the secret of the woman who’d been singing along to every song. She knew all the words because she’d actually sung with us for several seasons more than a few years back. After the concert, she greeted and hugged a few of our long-time members who she knew, and thanked us again for coming. “That was just what the doctor ordered,” she said enthusiastically.
Or as one audience member was overheard saying to their friend as they left, “I had a bad day today, and the music really helped me feel better.”
Gary Baker – Tenor 2