Smile Politely

Sparkle energy

Nearly 500 singers from all around the country will come together July 23-27 for the 11th Sister Singers Network National Women’s Choral Festival. Choruses will perform individual sets throughout the festival, with an opening night concert on Wednesday, July 23 at 7 p.m. in the Krannert lobby. The opening concert is free to the public.

Amasong‘s performance is Saturday, July 26th at 7 pm, followed by two mass chorus concerts. There will be workshops throughout for festival participants on topics ranging from warmups to musical activism to the history of the women’s choral movement and how to run a self-directed chorus. 

Smile Politely: Introduce yourself!

Pam Crews: I’ve been in and out of Champaign-Urbana since the summer of 1986. Came here for school from Decatur; left school after a year but stayed around and moved away and came back a couple of times. But I’ve been back a little more than 11 years now, so I think it stuck, but who knows.

SP: How are you involved in the Singer Sister Network Festival?

Crews: I started singing with Amasong: Champaign-Urbana’s Premier Lesbian/Feminist Chorus in 1995. I stayed with them until I left town in 1999 for Madison. When I came back in 2003, I joined back up. In 2010, we participated in the 10th Sister Singers Network Festival in Chicago, and one of the other singers thought Amasong might be capable of hosting the next festival here. When she asked me to be part of the planning committee, I couldn’t say no. So, I’m officially the publicity coordinator for the festival. Of course, I’m doing a bunch of other stuff, as is the nature of these things.

The festival registration team

SP: What’s the main focus of the festival? Is there a group that is featured?

Crews: The theme is Returning to Our Roots, and we came up with that based on the network’s historian, Rita Kissen, telling us that the Sister Singers Network itself was first conceived right here, on the U of I campus. Here’s what she told us in the description of the workshop she will be offering:

“24 years ago on the campus of the University of Illinois, women at a National Women’s Music Festival workshop drew up a list of names and addresses with the hope of starting a women’s choral network. Two months later, women from the Champaign group brought the list to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival; more names were added and an expanded mailing went out with a plan for sharing music and a proposal for the first Sister Singers choral performance the following year. “

We thought since the network was coming back to where it was originally conceived, it would be really cool if we could get the participating choruses to put together concerts that reflected where they came from, what their “roots” were, too.

SP: What are your roots? You’ve moved a lot, but why?

Crews: That is a really good question. I’m not sure why I’ve moved around so much. My family is based in Decatur, so that’s always been a draw to stay in the area, but I also did my first move halfway across the country when I was still an infant. I was born at Paterson Army Hospital in New Jersey while my dad was in basic training. He was not career army but had enlisted to avoid being sent to Vietnam. I’m not sure of the exact sequence of events but at some point between his completion of basic training and actually going overseas for his tour of duty (Korea), we came back this way. We spent some time during the winter in Waukegan. While he was on active duty, my mom and I lived in several places in Decatur -moves were prompted by things like cockroach infestation, inappropriate landlady visits, and I’m not sure what else, probably rent issues.

The first place I can remember living was in a trailer across the street from ADM’s main train yard in Decatur. Right before I turned 6, there was a major accident at ADM, and we had to move. We stayed in the next place until I was 9, and our family outgrew our house and had to move again. That next house was where I lived until I was 17. I moved here for school, and then I got in a cycle of changing apartments every year. So, from 1986 until 1990, I lived in a different apartment every year because I thought that’s what you do. It never occurred to me to stay in an apartment for more than one lease period.

SP: Me either!

Crews: Then, in 1989, my boyfriend moved to San Francisco. It took me a year to decide I [wanted] to follow him out there, so I did. In 1993, my sister, who was still back here, got pregnant and I decided I wanted to come home to be around the kid. So, I went back to Decatur and lived with my parents for about 6 months and then ended up -ta da– back in Champaign, working at Pages for All Ages.

SP: [Aw! Remember Pages, you guys?] Where did you go from there?

Crews: The next big move was to go to Madison to finish my bachelor’s degree in 1999. I stayed there (moving to a new place every year, still) until my dad got sick and died unexpectedly in 2002. It took me until February of 2003, but I came back here again because I was driving between Madison and Decatur every chance I got. It just seemed like a waste of gas to be so far away. My job in Madison was willing to let me freelance for them once I got settled, so it was an easy choice. I’ve been back ever since and finally have managed to find stable places to live. In the last 11 years, I’ve only moved 4 times.

SP: So you’re from… here?

Crews: So, it appears my roots are here in Champaign. I’ve always been a reluctant townie, and my dream home is still an Airstream trailer outfitted with some good satellite Internet and a motorcycle strapped to the back, but, you know, my surprise benefactor hasn’t appeared to pay for that. It’s looking more and more like Champaign is the permanent home base, despite my lingering wanderlust.

Amasong is one of the things that keeps me here. While there are feminist choruses all over the country, I haven’t found one yet that gives me the same feeling of accomplishment and awe. Our repertoire appears to be pretty unique, in the feminist chorus community, in our willingness to focus on songs in languages other than English. I like that challenge and I really really like singing. More and more it fuels my need to be in the spotlight and to use my voice.

SP: How does all this moving and changing shape your views on art and these kinds of festivals?

Crews: Festivals like this one create a common ground. I can’t tell you how many times in the different places I’ve lived that I’ve just gone to a concert or a music festival or an art show or installation and instantly felt comfortable with a bunch of strangers. [They] are at a particular event to see the same person, group, or piece of art. Just like being in a movie theater, at the very least you have interest in that particular artifact in common.

For me, music festivals in particular bring an amazing sense of connection, simply because music is one of the most powerful forms of communication. For the Sister Singers Network Festival, the connection can be as small as being curious about what music these choruses are going to sing. I’ve found that once you’re lured in by curiosity, you stay for the sheer variety and for the universal appeal of good music, sung well; the camaraderie of the festival participants knowing they’re putting on a great show for each other as well as the general public.

SP: Tell me about organizing a festival at Krannert! What does it bring to the experience?

Crews: Krannert is likely the nicest venue most (not all) of these choirs have sung in. I think that inspires the performers to bring their A games. Most of us rehearse and perform in churches, which is a completely different kind of sound -much more open and resonant. Hell, I haven’t even sung in Tryon [Festival Theatre] myself, so I’m curious to hear the difference, since it’s made for vocal acoustics. It adds a level of excitement AND straight up fear, but I think it’s the kind of fear that brings just enough adrenaline to make the performances sparkle.

Amasong: Champaign-Urbana’s Premier Lesbian/Feminist Chorus Hosts Sister Singers Festival, July 23-27 at The Krannert Center for the Performng Arts. Go to for more information.

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