PORTLAND, Maine — As protests against the inauguration of Donald Trump build to a crescendo this week, the Portland Street Choir is preparing to lend its voices with peaceful and potent lyrics dating back to the Great Depression.
The new singing group is a breakaway mobile unit of the more established singing group The Phoenix Chorale. Conceived before the election, the ad-hoc a cappella ensemble formed to add harmonic heft to marches, vigils and human rights protests.
Instead of waiting for an invitation to perform at an event for a food bank, choir members can lace up their shoes, warm up their vocal cords and hit the streets in a heartbeat.
“When someone has heard there’s a protest outside Susan Collins house, we can be there,” Deirdre McClure, the director of both groups, said. “Most people love to sing, and many people want to find a voice for change right now.”
The volunteer group of teachers, artists and retired choir directors were tuning their collective voice for their first performance at The Women’s March on Maine in Augusta this Saturday.
“It’s a really healing way of being political,” choir member Joy Krinsky of Portland said. “It allows you as a singer to be an activist.”
They are now in overdrive. More protests surface every week across the state, so they are scrambling to find lyrics that resonate.
From gospel songs such as “I Will Fly Away” to protest standards such as “This Land is Your Land” and “If I Had a Hammer,” the singers still find meaning in melodies and lyrics written decades ago.
But McClure, a music teacher at the University of New England, says the nimble chorus does want to branch out and is on the hunt for a local songwriter to step into the breech.
“There have been very few protest songs written in last 30 years,” McClure, who is constantly looking for fresh material, said. They have found the work of singer songwriter Holly Near easy to perform without music but are hungry for more.
“There is a real opportunity for someone to write good protests songs today,” she said.
Sally Struever, who is headed to Washington D.C. this weekend with 3,000 Maine women, will have a few of those classic songs at the ready.
“Chanting can come off as angry and aggressive. We are participating in a message and using song as a tool,” she said.
The act of singing itself is a positive affirmation and can be more effective than simply chanting, McClure said.
This weekend, McClure and her crew will arrive in Augusta with five or six songs to keep the energy level high. After their performance in the shadow of the Capitol in front of thousands, they expect the choir to grow in numbers and stay active all year.
“If you are channeling fear, there is a voice to it,” McClure said. “But instead of talking, you are singing about what you feel and what you believe in. It’s very empowering.”