Dallas Street Choir
Stand as you are able.
It’s a familiar call to anyone who has attended a rehearsal of the Dallas Street Choir. It’s the phrase commonly used by the group’s choir director, Jonathan Palant, to signal to the group that it’s time to get to their feet – at least those who can – and prepare to sing. It is more than that though. It is a battle cry, a mantra, a prayer, a mission statement, and a hope.
The choir’s membership ranges somewhere between 30 to 40 people from week to week. About 25 are regulars who come like clockwork. Some of them have been coming for years, a fact that surprises most people when they realize that the Dallas Street Choir is made up entirely of individuals who are experiencing homelessness. They show up weekly to practice with the group in exchange for $2 and some snacks for the road. They keep coming back for other reasons.
On most days, the only staff are Jonathan, the choir director, and Scott Ayers, the pianist, who is lovingly known as White Chick to the regulars. They don’t take attendance, and there is no registration. You simply show up ready to participate. Most people hear about the choir through word of mouth. There are no auditions and no expectations that one will have prior musical experience. You don’t have to be able to sing, to play an instrument, to read music, or to read at all.
Stand as you are able.
Michael is one of the regulars. He is the single longest running member of the Dallas Street Choir, attending since the very first meeting eight years ago in 2014. He reports that over the years, he has slept in shelters as well as on the streets. At 57 years old and originally from Texarkana, Michael says that the TV show Dallas and the “big ball” in downtown (Reunion Tower) were enough to draw him to the city years ago. Since then, he names a long list of jobs he has worked over the years – his favorite being a stint as a beautician before he found himself disabled, unable to work, and without a place to live. Over the last few years, his health has deteriorated, and he’s started to require the use of a walker.
Michael is the youngest child in a large family, and therefore, has all the innate skills that come with a childhood of finessing your way out of tricky situations and charming authority figures. He is the class clown of the choir. He is the quiet, underrated goofball – always getting the group slightly off topic and giving Jonathan, the director, a good-natured hard time.
For all his goofiness, Michael serves as a kind of glue. He has been a part of the choir and the greater homeless community for so long that he is an invaluable resource. He provides updates on many of his choir mates. He knows who has received housing, who is sick or in the hospital, and who hasn’t been seen in a few days. His presence in the choir is a balancing force. He is both the comic relief and the anchor.
As for his feelings about the choir? On that, Michael is very clear. “I don’t like it,” he says with a straight face. “Write that down. I do not like it. I love it.”
This seems to be the general feeling around the organization. Founder, Jonathan Palant, started the Dallas Street Choir eight years ago in conjunction with the Stewpot, a homeless outreach center run by First Presbyterian Church of Dallas. What was originally supposed to be a short-term project to create a choir for a specific performance turned into its own independent non-profit reaching thousands of singers and audiences over the years. The group has toured the country and even performed at Carnegie Hall. In addition to running the choir, Jonathan is also the Associate Dean of Arts and Director of Choral Activities at the University of Texas at Dallas; the founder and a member of Credo, a community choir; the Director of Music at Kessler Park Methodist Church; and a mentor music teacher through Dallas ISD. He runs the Dallas Street Choir much like one would assume he runs most of his other choirs and classes. His expectations are clear. You show up, you participate, and you come ready to learn. While the singers don’t have to have any prior experience, he does expect them to come prepared and to work on the things he gives them. As he puts it, “It’s not a sing-along.”
Jonathan works with his singers with the assumption that they will come back next week and with the understanding that they may not. He builds on things they discussed the week before while also starting from scratch weekly. He is constantly shuffling bits of songs to adjust for who showed up in any given week and who hasn’t. He is both committed to his plan and constantly reworking it. Anything can change from Wednesday to Wednesday.
Rehearsal is held in a church in downtown Dallas. The space has been loaned to the group for this purpose. It’s cool and somewhat dim, in contrast to the bright, blazing sun outside. All of this lends the church, with its heavy wood pews and stain glass windows, an increased sense of peace and respite from the streets outside. The group picks up their binders with song lyrics, and Scott – aka White Chick – starts to play the familiar notes on the piano. There is a sense of something happening in this place. People are singing the words to the songs, but their faces say they are processing other things as well. Some have their eyes closed – they seem to be in communion with the music, with whatever god they worship, with their past or future, there is a feeling of sacredness. Some are feeling better than they have in days. For the first time since last Wednesday, they have an hour to put their worries aside. Some are simply just resting in the music because a rest is what they need most today. That is the beauty in these notes – they hold whatever the listener needs them to.
Stand as you are able.
Misty knows this very well. Born in California, she was raised in Mexico. At the age of 35, she came back to the U.S. to work and earn money for her family. She did not know English and found this to be a barrier to finding well-paying jobs. Misty worked at several jobs and then became involved in an abusive relationship. She states that her citizenship paperwork was destroyed. The language barrier made it hard to find help. She eventually found herself scared, alone, in an unfamiliar country, without resources, and at a homeless shelter. Misty stayed at a few shelters but witnessed several acts of violence that convinced her to take her chances on the streets. During her time living on the streets, she moved between different groups. She states that she “went through hell” and reports witnessing and experiencing violence countless times. She remembers sleeping in a large cardboard box because she felt like even having a flimsy cardboard box between her and the outside world was better than having nothing to discourage predators from messing with her while she slept.
Misty heard about the Dallas Street Choir through word of mouth and decided to check it out. Music had been a big part of her childhood in Mexico, and she missed it. She admits that she found the first rehearsal overwhelming. The group is predominately male. Joining a large group of the people she had learned to avoid seemed counterintuitive. When asked why she stuck around, Misty said that it was Jonathan and Scott that made her decide to come back after her first time. “He (Jonathan) has a zero-tolerance policy for any of that nonsense,” she stated. She observed Jonathan redirecting the group if they got off topic or making someone leave if they “acted up,” and she felt safe participating.
And participate she does. Misty regularly sings solos and has her hand in the air anytime a volunteer is needed. She wears bright clothes, commonly accessorizes with colorful hats and scarves, and can navigate around the stage in 4-inch heels like she was born doing it. She exudes confidence. She is now in a more stable housing situation. Misty credits a lot of her transformation to finding arts programs that she can utilize. She says that for her, music is therapy. She “can really feel it and get into it.” Misty sums up her experience as “sing when you can’t cry anymore.”
What this group is and what it offers is different for everyone. For some, it’s less a story of transformation and more a story of homecoming. If only to oneself. For some, the choir is one of the only places where their opinions and talents are given the full respect that they deserve. It is the rare place in their existence where they are not a statistic, a bed count, a hot meal served, or a problem to be solved. It is a place where they are a history with an accumulation of life lessons, skills, hard earned wisdom, and knowledge to share. The simple acknowledgment and appreciation of that fact both by ones’ peers and by the program itself tends to bring out the best in so many of the participants.
Stand as you are able.
Ali is outgoing, warm, and friendly. He is quick to welcome new people and offer help. He received his degree in Composition, Performance, and Musical Arrangement in Pakistan before moving to the United States. He knows music. He understands it on a cerebral level, but more importantly, he understands it on a soul level. It speaks to who he is as a person. This is never clearer than when he lingers after rehearsal one day and plays a few notes on the piano. It is beautiful. It is also clear what a rare treat it is for him to have that access and even a small audience to appreciate his talent. In that moment, he is Ali without homelessness. He is Ali without the stress of life on the streets. He is in his element. He is who he is meant to be. This is the gift of this program for him. This is the gift he gives back to it.
Stand as you are able.
Richard, a 64-year-old Mexican American, once worked as a radio D.J. for a local Tejano music station and interviewed a young and upcoming Selena. He states that growing up Tejano music was a huge part of his family life. However, Richard preferred rock and lists artists like Elvis, The Temptations, and The Beatles as some of his favorites. His knowledge and skills go far beyond just music. He has lived a life of political activism starting from a young age. Richard reports that he once ran for city council, has worked for two U.S. Senators, and held a seat in the Electoral College. He’s also worked for years in social service jobs in the city of Dallas before the stress of it got to him and his marriage collapsed. Richard states that after that, his life took a downward spiral and he eventually found himself without a place to stay. He is currently working on getting himself out of homelessness and finds the street choir a welcome bright spot in his day.
Richard participates in the choir not only because he likes the music but for the comradery as well. He “likes the feeling of coming together for a worthy cause to promote goodness and happiness.” He appreciates that he is held to a high standard. He knows that he’s capable. He’s lived an entire life of capabilities. He likes to be reminded that he is still that person.
Stand as you are able.
Bjorn, age 66, is an immigrant from Sweden. He is kind and easy to talk with. He came to the United States in 1982 and laughs as he reluctantly admits that, like many before him, he came here because of the girls. He originally trained to fly helicopters and can talk in depth about all the differences in flying airplanes vs. helicopters. He was a hobbyist photographer. He loves to travel. He is also a musician, a talented one at that. Bjorn’s love affair with music goes back to childhood. He went to a school for those who wanted to specialize in music and learned to play the guitar, piano, and organ.
The Dallas Street Choir is a way for him to keep that part of himself alive. He states that “it really is my main way to connect to music on the streets.” Choir provides Bjorn with a community of what he calls “a good group of people.” People who get him. People who see him as a musician, a man, and person. People who don’t simply see him as homeless.
These men, along with dozens of other regulars, show up weekly with the goal of being prepared when Jonathan announces that the choir has booked a performance. This can come at virtually anytime and be anything from a small community recital down the street, to a debut at Carnage Hall. Either way, the logistics are about the same. Their transportation, meals, and any other accommodations needed will be covered. If the budget allows, singers are also paid a stipend for their time and talent.
Booking a performance, much like many things with the choir, is a leap of faith. The time to meet the bus is given out weeks in advance. Reminders are given again weekly at rehearsals. The song list is finalized. There will be some solos and some speaking parts. Dallas Street Choir shirts are ordered, the amount and sizes are all guesses. Flexibility is key. Too many and too big are the preferences. In July, the group is booked to perform at a conference for music teachers in Fort Worth. The trip is close, but they will be opening the day’s events, so the busses arrive by 6:45 a.m. Everyone is on time. They are eager and excited. It’s a good start.
Stand as you are able.
Jerilyn reports that she has been in and out of homelessness for years and has been participating in the Dallas Street Choir most of that time. She arrives dressed impeccably the day of the performance. She has on a plaid suit and will incorporate her street-choir t-shirt into her outfit when she gets to the performance location. Jerilyn is nothing if not always ready to perform. When onstage, she employs a combination of facial expressions and rhythmic hand gestures (like “vogueing”) which instantly give her the most joyful and uplifting stage presence. She is also known among the street choir for her love of Michael Jackson, who she admires above all others. She hums some of his classic hits to herself quietly on the bus ride to Fort Worth.
The performance will take place about an hour or so after the choir arrives. The group completes a quick rehearsal. Jerilyn and a few other performers who use walkers will be seated in the front row, while most of the singers will stand on risers behind them. Jerilyn tends to have a lot of miscellaneous items that she keeps on hand for day-to-day needs attached to the front of her walker. So that these items don’t prove to be a distraction during the performance, she will remove most of them before going on stage. She will however manage to smuggle out a single glove that she will wear during the performance as a tribute to Michael Jackson. Her stage presence is of course even more predominate as she has been placed front and center stage to accommodate her walker.
She is fabulous, and as part of the show, the last song is performed with the audience joining the choir onstage. Jerilyn is quickly swarmed with audience members who are excited to meet her, hug her, and shake her hand. She has quickly become a celebrity.
Stand as you are able.
All the performers have. The performance wraps up in a way that leaves the street choir singers surrounded by the audience who have come on stage for the last song – an impromptu and uplifting number. Once the music stops, the performers are instantly surrounded by adoring fans. They are overwhelmed with praise and words of affirmation. In some cases, both the performers and audience members leave their brief exchanges wiping away tears. As the reverie slowly breaks, the performers of the Dallas Street Choir trickle off stage. A few people remain among the seats of the auditorium and give a final standing ovation as the singers leave the stage waving goodbye. Michael, the longest running member of the choir, is the last one to exit the stage pushing his walker. He stops and bows and waves, milking the extra attention, for all that it’s worth.
It is overheard on the return trip home that “today was a good day.” The singers each receive a hefty lunch and $30 in cash. The bus leaves them at the same street corner where it picked everyone up this morning. The performance happened to be on a Tuesday, which means that tomorrow morning the choir will meet as usual at 9:30am for practice. Anyone who is experiencing homelessness is welcome to come.
Practice will undoubtedly start with the familiar call to action – “Stand as you are able.”
*Some pseudonyms were used when requested for this article