Penny Stone is an activist and musician based in Edinburgh. She facilitates group singing and songwriting as well as writing songs, and has a bi-monthly radical music column in Peace News. In November 2021 she joined us to lead the ‘Greening Choirs’ workshops as part of our Being Human COP26 Festival Hub.
There are so many aspects to the notion of ‘greening choirs’. There are questions of what songs we sing, where and how we sing them, who we’re trying to communicate with, how we operate as small community organisations and even the minutiae of how individuals get to and from choir practice. Let me share a few reflections from some time spent exploring these questions with other singers and song leaders in Glasgow.
To guide us in, we took a little time to look at the ground we stand on, the rich heritage of radical song threading through Scotland’s history. Whilst much of this is focused on social rather than environmental justice, we increasingly understand the entwinement of the two – that there is no true social justice without environmental justice. And arguably one of the richest radical song movements in Scotland’s history is the anti-nuclear movement, which is of course equally an environmental and human danger. You can digitally flick through the very first edition of the ‘Ding Dong Dollar’ booklet of anti nuclear songs from 1961. The link below will take you to the whole Political Song Collection at the University of Glasgow so that you can delve in at leisure. Be prepared to lose time (happily…)!
The Greening Choirs workshop immediately followed the hive of community activity that buzzed around Glasgow during the COP26 summit, and lots of those present had been part of a big march earlier in the week. Some had sung on the march, one woman sharing an impromptu rewrite that was sparked during the march by Greta’s ‘blah blah’ description of the high heidyins’ ongoing talking instead of action. It was a rewrite of the 90s dance classic ‘No Limit’ and it went “no no, no no no no, no no no no, no no no more blah blah!”. It was great fun to sing – we just added a bass line (harmony makes everything better!) and away we went. So simple and quick, it felt like a way to reflect back some of the simmered down feelings we all have about climate action from the very top – too much talk and not enough action. And the very act of singing this together made me feel stronger. I hope it made others feel the same.
And so to community work – for that’s what most of us working with choirs and groups of singers are doing – we’re community facilitators as much as we are musicians. We’re helping people to feel empowered to use their voices, and when people feel empowered to use their voices to sing, so they can feel more empowered to use their voices in other avenues of their lives – both interpersonally and in their local communities and beyond. If we can use song to help people explore environmental themes, we can help each other feel more connected to ourselves and each other, to nature, and somehow more committed (or energised?) to working towards the changes we need to see, locally and globally.
Crucially, part of this discussion and singing session included using sound to give us each space to feel. In my experience, people who care about the world are more inclined to be ‘doers’. It is easier to take on board all the difficult and painful stuff that is happening in the world if we are actively working against it. Activists have high levels of burnout because it’s often so difficult to take that time to stop and breathe. Singing can help us with this as well – it can help to give us that literal space to breathe, time to slow down, and also time to feel the vibrations in our bodies, to connect with what that feels like, and to feel the vibrations of other caring human beings beside us (well, 1 or 2 meters away just now…) If we are singing together outside, it can give us the space to really connect with the very world that we are trying to save. Singing underneath a tree feels different. Singing beside a river feels different. And not only do we begin to feel differently, we also begin to listen differently.
One of the silver linings of the global pandemic has been many people spending more time in nature and that is a wave we can continue to nurture as we slowly emerge from it. Encouragement, and even permission, to sing outdoors is something that we can give to ourselves and our singers. It may seem a simple thing, but it can be really powerful.
During the session, we also let a couple of ‘in the moment’ songs emerge from words and reflections we’d shared about the climate crisis. This wasn’t about making a polished, or even ‘performable’ song, it was about using the shared sound space we make together to reflect, and letting everyone’s voice be part of that in whatever way feels right for them in the moment. I once heard a South African musician, who I’m sorry to say I’ve long forgotten the name of, say that “we can’t all speak at once, but we can sing together.” And this, for me, is part of why singing in harmony can give us so much – we really can all be heard and listen to each other at the same time. And if we were all singing (or saying) the same thing it wouldn’t sound nearly as good. The beauty is truly in the diversity of us all.
And with such vibrant and thoughtful voices in the room, the conversation of course turned to issues of cultural appropriation, and how some songs and tunes can feel right to sing in some contexts but not others. This is another article (or thesis!) but it still feels important to acknowledge it as we pass by.
What did we get out of the greening choirs session? Joy. Connection. Questions. Ideas. Good vibrations. Hope. Acknowledgment of pain and difficulty. Community. Possibilities…
You can find more on Penny’s work here: www.singlouderthanguns.com/
Extinction Rebellion have collated some useful environmental songs for marches and demonstrations here: https://xrsongs.org/
Protest in Harmony (Edinburgh) have lots of songs and resources available here: www.protestinharmony.org.uk/songs
Glasgow Political Song Archive has increasing amounts of digitally available resources and can be found here: www.gla.ac.uk/schools/cca/research/music/archives/psc/