Elaine Brown

Willard G. Rouse, III
G. Stockton Strawbridge

When you Google the name Elaine Brown, you probably won’t find the dynamic woman who founded the Singing City Choir. Instead you’ll be wondering why the Philadelphia Award was given to the former head of the Black Panther Party (also a musical Philadelphian, albeit much younger). Since this is not the forum for an essay on “The Two Elaine Browns,” we’ll stick with the actual 1987 Award winner, born Elaine Isaacson, the daughter of Norwegian farmers from Elk County, Pennsylvania.

B rown had a connection with another Philadelphia Award winner, 1943’s Marjorie Penney. The Singing City Choir started during the mid-1940s as a 15-member community chorus directed by Brown at Fellowship House (the organization founded by Penney). Following Fellowship House’s mission, the choir was always multi-ethnic and multi-racial. It was meant to bring people together, not apart.

Eventually, it had 100 members from all parts of the city, at a time when the city was racially divided, with de facto residential segregation. The choir performed in all neighborhoods, at churches, schools, playgrounds, community centers, nursing homes, and even prisons. Standards were tough—Brown insisted on auditions each year, regardless of how many years a member had been with the chorus. Rehearsals were frequent, and the choir won the respect of professional classical musicians not just for its social mission, but for its quality. The chorus performed regularly with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and sang around the world, most notably perhaps in Israel and Egypt in 1974. The choir also toured in the American South, but refused to stay at hotels or eat in restaurants which would have forced them to accept separate racial accommodations.

While the Singing City may have been amateur, Brown certainly was not. She received a bachelor’s degree from Rider University’s Westminster Choir College in 1934, and then joined its faculty. She went on to earn a Master’s degree in 1945, and then headed the choral department, at Temple University’s Esther Boyer School of Music, prior to founding Singing City. When the duties of Temple and the Singing City proved to be too great, Brown quit Temple to concentrate on Singing City, to the dismay of friends who questioned her abandoning a secure income for such an uncertain quest. As it turned out, Brown was indeed able to earn a living, supplementing her income from Singing City by training choral conductors and guest conducting.

Brown returned to Temple as a professor of music in 1975, after an absence of twenty years. In 1970 Brown became the second woman to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra. Singing City remains a thriving organization today, with an 115-member choir and educational programs for children and youth. Brown retired from Singing City in 1987.

Brown believed in bringing people together, but mostly she believed in the power of music. One of her memorable lines was “Music is the great gluer—it holds us all together.” This brings back the thought of that second Elaine Brown. Here are two people with the same name; both with musical roots in Philadelphia (the second Brown composed original music for the Black Panthers), yet their lives went in radically different directions. While the Conductor Elaine Brown brought people together, Panther Brown’s angry rhetoric was driving communities further apart. Perhaps that “glue” part was a music lesson the second Elaine Brown missed.

Lee Arnold

Sources: Daniel Webster, “Singing City Founder to Receive Philadelphia Award,” Philadelphia Inquirer , March 17, 1988; Andy Wallace, “Elaine Brown, 87, Teacher Founded Singing City Choir,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 9, 1997; Daniel Webster, “In a Choir’s Voice, Elaine Brown Heard Sounds of Community,” Philadelphia Inquirer , Sept. 14, 1997; Lesley Valdes, “Dynamic Citizen of Music Remembered,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 17, 1997; “The Founder,” Singing City Choir, http://www.singingcity.org/aboutus/elainebrown.html.