Singing City History Project

Singing City has initiated The History Project, a look at Singing City from its founding in 1948 to the present. The following article by choir member Steve Crandall looks at Singing City’s roots.

Dr. A. Herbert Haslam recognized the value of an outstanding choir.  In 1931, he employed Mr. George A. Arkwell at his church, Tioga Baptist Church, and gave him a charge to build a choir that would add inspiration to the worship service through music.

Arkwell hit the ground running.  The first year, the choir not only provided music for services, but also gave a special radio broadcast and began a program of exchanges with other church choirs as far away as Baltimore.  The second year, the choir was invited to sing for a Baptist Leadership Training program, ‘to show what could be done with a group under proper leadership and training.’

But Arkwell left Tioga Baptist at the end of the second year.  With the choir’s pledge to continue working under another director, Haslam recruited Miss Elaine Isaacson, who was then a senior student at Westminster Choir School.  The choral program continued to develop, furthering the exchange program, participating in various choral festivals, and even singing with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Early in the fifth year of the choir’s development, they sang at the wedding of their leader, Miss Issacson, to Mr. Hugh Brown.  The following spring, their director, now Mrs. Elaine Brown, led them in a concert of secular music (in evening clothes rather than their usual vestments).  This concert became a regular addition to their choral calendar.

During these years, Haslam was also an administrator of Fellowship House, which sought to bring people of different racial backgrounds together.  He encouraged Elaine Brown and the choir in this facet of the work, and the choir began alternating with choirs from black congregations in the experimental community services that were offered by Fellowship House.  It was soon determined that this ‘taking turns’ was inadequate, and other integration methods were sought, but a move interrupted this process.

In 1939, Haslam had accepted a pastorate at a Baptist Church in Toledo, Ohio, and the following year, he invited Elaine Brown to join him at his new church.  She went, and the two of them continued their work of racial integration.  In Toledo, Brown organized an interracial, interfaith community choir, but a second move was soon to interrupt again.   Temple University requested that she return to Philadelphia to become the director of choral activities, and she reluctantly left her fledgling program in Toledo.

Once back in Philadelphia, Brown and Fellowship House resumed their connection, and she was asked to pick up where she had left off in Toledo.  Fellowship House provided rehearsal space and a budget of $50.00, and Brown organized a community choir made up of members of different churches and different racial backgrounds.  The first year, the choir of 34 women, two basses and four tenors–World War II was underway by then–presented six public performances.

Over the next years, Brown and the Fellowship House Choir developed together.  She earned a Masters degree in music education (1945) and began teaching at Julliard School of Music (1947), and the choir grew to 60 voices, 40 performances annually, and a budget of $1500.00.  By 1948, Temple University and the Philadelphia Inquirer were sponsors along with Fellowship House, and the name of the choir was changed to Singing City.

These are the roots of Singing City, and what has blossomed in these 63 years is a testament to the vision of Elaine Brown and many others.  In the coming months, many of you will be asked to share your history with this organization as part of a new Singing City History project.  The final form of this history is yet to be determined, but we are excited to shine a spotlight on the past even as we move eagerly to an outstanding future.

Elaine Brown, right, with husband Hugh, top.
Fellowship House Choir, 1950s, below.