Patti Smith Sings “People Have the Power” with a Choir of 250 Fellow Singers

…people have the power

To redeem the work of fools

—Patti Smith

As protest songs go, “People Have the Power” by Godmother of Punk Patti Smith and her late husband Fred Sonic Smith is a true upper.

The goal was to recapture some of the energy they’d felt as youth activists, coming together to protest the Vietnam War. As Patti declared in an NME Song Stories segment:

… what we wanted to do was remind the listener of their individual power but also of the collective power of the people, how we can do anything. That’s why at the end it goes, “I believe everything we dream can come to pass, through our union we can turn the world around, we can turn the earth’s revolution.” We wrote it consciously together to inspire people, to inspire people to come together.

Sadly, Fred Smith, who died in 1994, never saw it performed live. But his widow has carried it around the world, and witnessed its joyful transformative power.

Witness the glowing faces of 250 volunteer singers who gathered in New York City’s Public Theater lobby to perform the song as part of the Onassis Festival 2019: Democracy Is Coming last spring.

The event was staged by Choir! Choir! Choir!, a Canadian organization whose commitment to community building vis-à-vis weekly drop-in singing sessions at a Toronto tavern has grown to include some starry names and world-renowned venues, raising major charitable funds along the way.

As per Choir! Choir! Choir!’s operating instructions, there were no auditions. The singers didn’t need to know how to read music, or even sing particularly well, as participant Elyse Orecchio described in a blog post:

The man behind me exuberantly delivered his off-pitch notes loudly into my ear. But to whine about that sort of thing goes against the spirit of the night. This was a democracy: the people’s chorus.

Director Sarah Hughes had been having “one of those theater nerd Saturdays,” and was grabbing a post-Public-matinee salad prior to an evening show uptown, when she bumped into friends who asked if she wanted to sing with Patti Smith and a community choir:

I’m working on playwright Chana Porter and composer Deepali Gupta’s Dearly Beloved, a meditation on productive despair for community choir, and have been having beautiful, enlightening experiences making music with large groups of non-singers, so I was curious about what this might be like. 

And it was lovely. Just singing at all is always very great, even though I am not “good at it.” Singing along with all the other people in the room felt especially good. 

The Choir! Choir! Choir! leaders were generous, had a sense of humor, and weren’t afraid to tell us when we sounded terrible, which was refreshing. 

We learned our parts and then I ate my salad standing in the Public lobby while we waited for Patti. She took a longer time to arrive than they’d planned for, I think, but it was because she was at a climate crisis rally so we weren’t mad. And she was just very fully herself. 

I’m not like a die-hard Patti Smith fan, but I sort of fell in love with her after reading her beautiful recounting of messing up while singing “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” at Dylan’s Nobel Prize ceremony. This experience made me appreciate her even more—her humanity, her vulnerability, the strangeness of being famous or recognized or heroic to many many people. And she really did lead us, in this very special, simple, real way. It reminded me of how little we really need in the way of money or production values or even talent for a performance or public event to feel worth our time.

The film reflects that sense of the extraordinary co-existing gloriously with the ordinary:

An unimpressed little girl eats a peach.

Two young staffers in Public Theater t-shirts seem both sheepish and thrilled when the film crew zeroes in on them singing along.

Guitarist and Choir! Choir! Choir! co-founder Daveed Goldman nearly bonks Patti in the head with the neck of his instrument.

Also? That’s the Police’s Stewart Copeland playing the frying pan.

Next up on Choir! Choir! Choir!’s agenda is an October 13th concert at California’s Boarder Field State Park, with some 300 people on the Tijuana side and 500 on the San Diego side raising their voices together on Lennon and McCartney’s “With a Little Help from My Friends.” More information on that, and other stops on their fall tour, here.

Sign up to be notified next time Choir! Choir! Choir! is looking for singers in your area here.

Related Content:

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Patti Smith’s 40 Favorite Books

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, October 7 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domaincelebrates the art of Aubrey Beardsley. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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