There are few things in life capable of bringing people together for one cause, under one banner, in pursuit of a single activity. Among them are sports, food and music. We’ve all seen a city unite behind its team in the Super Bowl or World Series; we’ve all enjoyed good company around a loaded Thanksgiving dinner table; and we’ve all united in song at a concert, church or singalong.
Three years ago a group of local, civic-minded folk with ties to the music community, inspired by a Toronto-based ensemble called Choir!Choir!Choir!, organized a large singalong, with no real purpose other than singing a few four-part songs and posting the event on YouTube. Getting everyone to sing in harmony was the idea.
Suddenly, though, the organizers realized that harmony was a theme that existed outside music, that it had a larger meaning. Why not, they reasoned, use vocal harmony to engender a sense of harmony, of oneness, of unity throughout the community? They had come up with a name, This Community Sings, and by changing one letter, they changed the entire focus of the event. Thus was born, This CommUnity Sings.
Being the centerpiece of said community, Carolina Theatre seemed a logical place to hold such an event. Fortunately, executive director Brian Gray agreed, lending his considerable clout and the city’s 1,100-seat venue to the cause.
“It so happened that the theater was celebrating its 90th anniversary as well as undertaking a massive capital campaign,” recalled Gray, “and this just seemed to be a natural tie-in.”
This stroke of good timing paid off about eight months later, in February 2018, as the iconic venue hosted the inaugural This CommUnity Sings event. The impromptu choir numbered about 550 singers of all skill levels, roughly half capacity, and was deemed a bona fide success by its organizers.
“Considering it was our first time out, I think we hit it out of the park,” said committee co-chairman Ogi Overman (yours truly). “There were some glitches and last-minute changes, but you could tell by the smiles on their faces that everyone enjoyed it. We’ll tweak it and get it right next year.”
Tweak they did, and the second singalong went off without a hitch and included a professional 15-minute video that was posted on YouTube. Participation also increased, and under the tutelage of musical director Wesley McCleary-Small, the songs themselves sounded better, two more encouraging signs.
So now, on the verge of its third event — on March 8 — the committee has good reason to believe that 2020 will prove to be by far its best get-together.
“Third time’s the charm,” said co-chairwoman Jessica Mashburn, smiling. “We have a sponsor this year, Crumley Roberts Attorneys at Law, and that has enabled us to pay a top-notch videographer and print a Playbill-type program that we’re calling a Songbook. I think we can get a full house.”
Then there are the songs themselves. The committee seeks input from the community, finally winnowing down the list from about 200 to three, plus a couple of warm-up songs and a walk-out song. The three tunes selected for 2020 are “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, “Respect” by Aretha Franklin and “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers.
The committee looks for certain criteria, according to McCleary-Small. Of “Hallelujah” he said, “The message is powerful, people being able to be humbled, and the chorus provides the perfect opportunity to enjoy the sound of a harmonious community.” Of “Respect” he noted, “The message is simple: Women deserve the same amount of respect as men. We honor the Queen of Soul and her legacy that empowered women.” And of “Lean On Me,” he said, “As this event’s main goal is to promote a sense of community, what better way to bring people together than with this 1978 No. 1 hit?”
Indeed. Part of the group’s mission statement says, “By bringing together all the myriad elements of our community to create a harmonious whole, our hope is that this simple act will create a ripple effect that will spread not only throughout Our Town but also to other communities.”
Music is, after all, the universal language.