Jonathan Palant brings his city’s homeless women and men to music.
By Alexandra Svokos
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TORIA ELLIS TORE THE AUDIENCE APART at Carnegie Hall with a passionate gospel rendition of Byron Smith’s “He’ll Make a Way.” The twenty-four-year-old finished the song with a flourish, and the crowd lost it. Ellis burst into tears, stepping backstage to compose himself before coming back out to take in more from the roaring audience. This was bigger than the typical successful Carnegie debut.
“The young man who brought the house down lives under a bridge,” opera legend Frederica von Stade explains.
Ellis was one of twenty-two members of the Dallas Street Choir, a group for those experiencing homelessness that was founded in 2014 by Jonathan Palant. A lecturer in choral music at the University of Texas at Dallas, Palant also founded Credo, a community-oriented choir. Credo and the Dallas Street Choir performed their biggest shows to date at Carnegie Hall and Washington D.C.’s National Cathedral in June 2017.
Palant’s group is a leader in a nationwide rise in street choirs—nonprofit choral groups for the homeless dedicated to giving members music and community. A more informal ensemble begun by Palant as the Stewpot Choir grew into the Dallas Street Choir when Palant came across Street Requiem, an activist piece written by Kathleen McGuire, Andy Payne and Jonathon Welch to honor people who died on the streets. Palant thought it appropriate for members of the homeless community to participate in its performance.
“The intent of the [New York] concert was to be musically satisfying, of course—it’s Carnegie Hall—but really to engage the New York community to say, ‘We may be homeless, but we’re not voiceless, and look at us now. Not only are we not voiceless, but our voices are onstage at Carnegie Hall, arguably the world’s most famous concert hall,’” Palant says.
In the Carnegie Hall audience were more than 375 people from New York’s homeless community, bussed in by the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS). Another street choir, Valley Lodge, based in Manhattan, joined onstage for the final songs, which featured “I Ain’t Mad,” a lively blues piece written by Valley Lodge member David Broxton.
“We welcome community-based organizations, nonprofits and cultural institutions that wish to collaborate with DHS to provide educational and cultural events designed to boost self-esteem, promote teamwork and demonstrate the importance of ongoing community involvement in the lives of our homeless neighbors,” DHS deputy press secretary Arianna Fishman said in a statement.
In its home city, Dallas Street Choir has weekly rehearsals attended by eighty to 100 people at the Stewpot, a safe haven for the homeless. The choir has welcomed nearly 2,000 individual singers since its founding. Von Stade accepted an out-of-the-blue invitation to sing Street Requiem with them while she was in Dallas. She regularly stops by rehearsals when she’s in town and has performed with the choir several times, including at Carnegie.
Von Stade wasn’t the only big-name performer at the East Coast concerts. Singer Harolyn Blackwell and composers Jake Heggie and Stephen Schwartz also joined the choirs onstage. Like von Stade, Schwartz was contacted out of the blue by Palant, who explained that they used Schwartz’s song “Beautiful City,” from Godspell, as a sort of theme. He found the choir’s concept “so touching and such a great way to help people.”
“It’s very rare that you get to have an experience where you really see how your work can have a positive impact on people,” Schwartz says. “Usually one is judged by reviews and box offices. Those things are not as fulfilling as an event like this was.”
Meanwhile, the magic of the Dallas Street Choir seems to be spreading. Street choirs have sprung up around the world, and Palant has personally helped start them in several cities across the U.S. On the Dallas Street Choir website, he provides detailed instructions on how to start your own. He says it’s an easy model to copy.
Ron Bolles, founder of the San Diego Street Choir, sponsored by First Presbyterian Church of San Diego, Ladle Fellowship and La Jolla Presbyterian Church, jokes that when he found Palant’s list of instructions, he thought it was a thesis. Palant’s notes taught Bolles important lessons such as how to motivate people to come to rehearsals, what makes an appropriate song choice, and that teaching should be done by rote, not with music.
Some might debate the benefit of using resources to bring music to people experiencing homelessness—rather than offering housing, a job, food, and so on. Palant is aware of this criticism.
“We make no claim to find our singers a job or housing. But what we do is give our singers something to look forward to in their day,” Palant says. “We nourish the mind, body and spirit of those who really aren’t finding nourishment elsewhere. I think society puts such an emphasis on housing and jobs, but we don’t put the emphasis on the person first. I think the Dallas Street Choir does just that. We put the emphasis on the heart of the person, the soul.”
Von Stade adds that it gives members dignity, which is often denied to the homeless. “Music heals the soul, and it heals the soul of everyone,” she says. “People ought to have that in their lives.”
Alexandra Svokos is the senior news editor of Elite Daily.