by Len Lear
There are lots of great choirs around, especially during the holiday season, but there may only be one in the area that not only creates aesthetically appealing sounds but also uses their music to advance the cause of social justice. That is the 43-year-old, all-female, 80-member Anna Crusis Women’s Choir (ANNA).
The Anna Crusis Women’s Choir, which includes women from all over the Philadelphia area, is the oldest existing feminist choir in the U.S. and is considered to be a founder of the North American LGBT choral movement. It was established by Catherine Roma in 1975 in Philadelphia. Including both lesbian and straight women, Anna Crusis is the earliest member of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses.
The choir is named, not for a person, but for the Greek word anacrusis, a musical term for “the unaccented – or ‘feminine’ – upbeat that sets the stage for a downbeat.” The choir focuses on music by, for and about women, and has commissioned pieces from a variety of composers. It also recovers and performs historical pieces by female composers.
Aside from the fact that it is all female, what makes Anna Crusis different from other choral groups? “Let me count the ways,” responded Miriam Davidson, 61, a Southwest Germantown resident who has been the director of ANNA since 2012.
“ANNA’s early years were dedicated to promoting music about and by women, and giving gay and straight women alike a strong community where they could find their voice and live their feminist principles. Our current commitment to singing for and about social justice issues comes directly from our founder, Cathy Roma, whose passion and commitment to the peace and justice movement shaped the identity that ANNA continues to have.
“ANNA has served as a model for women’s choirs across the country. Additionally, people come to ANNA for so much more than a place to sing. We are truly a community that supports one another in many ways. It’s a pretty incredible thing, especially now that we have grown to just over 80 singers.”
According to Davidson, most original members of ANNA were lesbians, “but over the years the demographic has really changed. Today we have roughly the same amount of straight singers as we do lesbian singers, as well as a handful of singers who identify as gender-fluid, bi and transgender.”
Davidson is a graduate of Cheltenham High School and the Tyler School of Art (1978), but her mother, Frances, was a music teacher, and her father, Charles, is a renowned composer of Jewish liturgical music, so music was in Miriam’s DNA. Also, a sister, Ilana, is a soprano soloist; a second sister, Alyssa, is a choral teacher at Jenkintown High School, and a brother is a musician.
So Miriam, whose wife, Kim, sang with a women’s choir in her native Cincinnati, was destined to be a musician, no matter what. For 15 years she toured the country as part of Wishing Chair, a singer-songwriter folk music duo.
“Kim and I got married in 2016 in Rehoboth, Delaware,” Miriam said. “Marriage equality had just passed in Pennsylvania, but we had already made all our plans and decided to go ahead with the location, which was a great decision!”
When did Miriam first realize that she was gay? “Sometime in college, I would have to say. It was definitely a process that spanned several years.” Miriam’s late mother took a while to accept her daughter’s sexual orientation. “One time my partner asked her, ‘Does it bother you that I’m not Jewish?’ And my mom responded, ‘Well, I’d rather your name was George, but it’s fine.’”
Has Miriam had any other jobs not related to music? “I’ve been very lucky to be able to make music my livelihood. That said, I usually have more than one job at a time, but for as long as I can remember, they’ve always been music-related, with the following exceptions:
“The first job I had out of college, when Gimbel’s department stores were still around, I worked as manager of a chain of portrait studios that rented space in the store. I was also a massage therapist for about 12 years. I got tendonitis and had to choose between playing guitar or massage. You might guess which I picked! Regardless of what jobs I may have had, I’ve always played music”.
What was the best advice Miriam ever received? “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” What was the hardest thing Miriam has ever done? “Finding my own way after a really bad breakup.”
In the past year ANNA has performed locally at Mt. Airy Art Garage, Mishkan Shalom in Roxborough for Gloria Steinem’s 80th birthday, Chestnut Hill United Church and First United Methodist Church of Germantown, among others.
Outside of our immediate area, ANNA sang at the Women’s March on Washington in January; they sang for the Association of Women & Mythology, where they received an award for artistic excellence. The first area women’s music festival was held in Bucks County last spring, where ANNA sang with the Bucks County Women’s Choir and a young women’s choir from Stroudsburg High School.
They also formed an alliance with Songs in the Key of Free, an organization “dedicated to challenging mass incarceration through musicianship and songwriting practice.” ANNA went to Graterford Prison with “Songs” and participated in a performance with the inmates there, with music that they wrote and collaborated on.
On Feb. 11 ANNA will be performing with the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Choir in a community concert with a group from Northeast High School. On April 5 they will perform as part of this year’s fundraising event at the Ritz East. On June 2 and 3 ANNA will hold its spring concert, “Sing Truth to Power,” where they hope to record the concert live for a new CD.
For more information about other performances that will come up throughout the year, visit www.annacrusis.org