Ella Fitzgerald once said, "The only thing better than singing is more singing."
Philadelphia is a city of records, and among them is the record for the longest-running feminist women's choir in the United States. Philly's ANNA Crusis Women's Choir has been committed to the dual goals of musical excellence and social justice issues since 1975. The group's stated purpose is to "Celebrate the diversity of our lives and culture; to find communion; to nurture and sustain; to comfort and to heal; to open hearts and minds, and to struggle together for a just and compassionate world."
Though you may find ANNA Crusis singing at benefits, rallies, LGBTQ+ community events, prisons and shelters in the city, the choir only produces two formal concerts a year. I attended my first concert after interviewing the organization's president Miriam Davidson last year, and it was incredible. For this portrait, I'm jumping the family tree to talk to Miriam's wife and AC member Kim Singleton about what's in store this year.
Good morning. Let's start with a simple question. Are you a native Philadelphian?
No, I'm a native Cincinnatian. I lived in Cincinnati for 50 years and outside of Cincinnati for 12 years and have been in Philly for 10 years.
So, how did you meet Miriam?
We actually met because I was involved in a feminist women's choir in Cincinnati called Muse, and the director of the choir at the time was the founder of ANNA Crusis. She founded ANNA Crusis in Philadelphia, and then eight years later, she moved to Cincinnati and started Muse. I sang with Muse, and, at that time, Miriam was a folk singer and traveling the country. She was a visiting artist, and we met at a concert there. It was a bit of a setup, but that's another story!
What first caught your attention?
To Miriam? Well, you've met her; she's fabulous. And I think we were both at a time in our lives where it was just time for it, and serendipity brought us together. I'd left a marriage of 24 years with a man about a year before, and she and her longterm partner had broken up about a year before. We met, and it was magic [laughs], and I changed my entire life.
I would guess so. So had you been attracted to women before?
Well, it's complicated. My mother has always been — well, I'm actually in Cincinnati right now because my mother's partner of 30 years, Marybeth, was diagnosed with end-stage pancreatic cancer. She was in a relationship with Marybeth for years and years, and so I was certainly open to possibilities. And I don't know, at about the time when I left my marriage, it was my 16-year-old daughter who said to me, "You know mom, if you ever date again, I bet it will be with women" and I said, "Yeah, you might be right." That was about eight months before I met Miriam.
Wow, how long has it been?
We've been together for 12 years.
Tell me about you as a kid. It must have been interesting having a lesbian mother back in the day.
[Laughing] Well, it's even more complicated than that! Because my mother, for about the past 35 or 40 years has had both a female and a male partner simultaneously. She and my dad split up when I was a teenager, and she has been an explorer ever since. Her longterm male partner died about 15 years ago. She and Marybeth have been soloing since then. Both partners had separate relationships with my mom, not relationships with each other, not that that matters; it's just how it was in this case. I mean, my mother was really a renegade regarding sexual exploration.
It sounds like it! Go mom. What were you like as a kid?
I was a real rule follower. I wanted to make people happy. I desperately wanted to be a mommy when I was little, which was a really good reason for me to have gotten married … to a man. I have three kids now, so it worked! But other than that, I was pretty much a quiet kid. I was smart, but I wasn't one for breaking rules; I did what I was told.
What extracurricular activities were you involved in?
I played the cello. I was not a singer, but I wanted to be a part of Muse. I heard them perform, and I promptly went out and took singing lessons. Later, when I auditioned, they were worried because I'd been volunteering for them, and they were afraid that I was going to suck, and they would have to tell me no! But I have a pretty good ear for music. Later, I'd been not only participating with them as a volunteer, but I'd taken over a lot leadership responsibilities. After Miriam and I met, I moved to Spartanburg, Virginia to be with her. She'd been there for two years, and we stayed for two more years but felt we needed to be closer to our families and probably out of the South. Her dad lives in Philly, and she's from Philly, and at the time, my kids were in Pittsburgh and Boston, so Philly seemed like a good place to land. Plus, it's in that Northeast corridor, so close to New York where my other kid was. Part of coming to Philly was that Miriam was still performing as a folk musician, and I very much wanted to be part of a feminist choral community again. So right away I told her, "You know I'm going to audition for ANNA Crusis," and she said, "Well of course you are." So I started singing with them, and it was about a year or two later when the artistic director position opened. I encouraged Miriam to apply because she's a natural leader. She was the interim director, and she's been the acting director for about 12 years.
Where did you go to school and how did you get into speech therapy?
Well, I had to get out of the house I was living in, so I graduated high school in three years instead of four because I wasn't in a really good situation. At 17, I knew that I had to get a degree in a field that would support me. I couldn't be a political science major; I needed to have something with sure results. I actually started in radio and television at Ohio University. I thought it would be something I'd be good at, but I sucked! I had a work-study to be on the air on a radio station, and I was really awful. My advisor sat me down and asked me why I wanted to do it, and I said that I really liked to communicate with people, so he set me up to do a work-study in a speech clinic where I worked with people who had communication issues. That clicked, and I graduated as a speech therapy major. I did that for a very long time.
When I think of speech therapists, I think of the film "The King's Speech."
Ah yes, that was about the king who stuttered. There are a lot of different ways it can go. My specialty was working with children and adults who have complex communication needs. They don't communicate at all in any way without a lot of support. I often use computers to help give them a voice.
What is AAC?
Augmentative and alternative communication. It's basically any tool or technology that helps aid in communication. It could be anything from a picture board to a speech-generating device. It used to be very expensive, but once the iPad was introduced, it was a game-changer. Now an iPad and a $300 app can give you a voice. And it's an incredibly exciting time as they unveil new technology like "eye gaze," which allows you to just look at a screen to enable it to speak. It used to be tens of thousands of dollars for that type of advanced technology.
I have dysgraphia, which is sort of the opposite of dyslexia. I read fine, but manually writing is difficult. Without a computer, it would be tough to do the column.
Yes, it's amazing how much it can help. I also work at Temple in the assistive technology program, and one of the things we do is work with tinkerers and inventors to make new assistive technology, so we're doing a lot of creative things with that.
Tell me about the title of the ANNA Crusis concert, "Keep Hope Alive." What made you choose it?
Well, I think our audience members and our choir members are all just exhausted. The state of our country and our politics is hard for our community. One of the things that our kind of choral music does is that it gives people a space to be together and just breathe. Keeping hope alive seems to be something that we really need to make intentional right now. It would be easy to drop into despair if we let ourselves. And because we are partnering with Sister Cities Girlchoir, we wanted to have something more uplifting in the presence of our youth. We want to inspire the future, and it felt like Keeping Hope Alive was an important message. As for what made us choose it, we work in a very inclusive and nonhierarchical planning structure so that anyone can participate. It's called "The Body of ANNA." Each working committee is named after a body part. The Face group does a lot of the PR and promoting; The Muscle is our production committee, and The Breath members figure out what music we're going to do and what kind of concert we're going to put on. Then Miriam takes those ideas and creates an arc of a story, which becomes the performance.
You always hear about boy's choirs, so I'm excited to see the Sister Cities Girlchoir.
Yes, Alysia Lee, the artistic director, is fabulous. She started the choir — I think it was in Camden — for at-risk girls, and then it spread to Philly and even something in Baltimore. It's all about using the power of song and communal singing to lift up young girls. It's amazing.
And what is your role with the choir?
I'm a past president. I'm the webmistress for our site, and I'm on the board, in addition to singing in the choir.
I just ran into Sharon Katz, who just came back from doing a concert in Cuba. I understand that ANNA Crusis was there too? How was it?
It was incredible. It was breathtaking and heartbreaking all at once, but just amazing, and we were so thankful to Sharon and Marilyn for the opportunity.
Do you have many chances to travel as a group?
Every four years, we go to a big choral event put on by the Gay And Lesbian Association of Choruses, GALA. I've heard that this year in Minneapolis, they expect about 9,000 people from LGBTQ choirs around the country. Sister Singers is another big event we participate in; it's mostly SSAA choirs.
What is that?
In this age of gender deconstruction, we're moving away from using the terms men's and women's choirs. SSAA stands for Soprano, Soprano, Alto, Alto. It focuses on the part rather than gender.
So if you were in a band, what would the name be?
Probably, "Easily Amused."
I like that! What was the last book you read?
Oh, let's see. Well, the one I'm reading right now is called "Obama and the Empire" by Fidel Castro.
Share a fun family fact.
Colonel Sanders was my grandfather's best friend.
That's fun! What's an early memory?
It was probably playing in the playhouse that my dad built for me.
What did your dad do for a living?
He was a country guy from the hills of Kentucky. He was never really schooled or educated, but he was very, very smart. He was very good with his hands, and he built several restaurants, and at the end of his career, he got into heating and air conditioning, but when they started making them do a Freon test, he couldn't read very well, so he retired. He was a very simple man.
She was wild. When I was in elementary school, she went back to school and became an English teacher and taught in the Cincinnati school district.
What a contrast between the two. What's a favorite quote?
"I, myself, am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions," from Augusten Burroughs.
What does ANNA Crusis mean to you?
I see the feminist choral community as my rock throughout my adulthood. It's where I've found calm; it has been my special circle; it has been where I've found likeness [laughs], and it's been the thing that drives me crazy sometimes!