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:

Pat­ti Smith, The God­moth­er of Punk, Is Now Putting Her Pic­tures on Insta­gram

Hear a 4 Hour Playlist of Great Protest Songs: Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Bob Mar­ley, Pub­lic Ene­my, Bil­ly Bragg & More

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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