‘I Will Survive’: Gloria Gaynor leads Library of Congress disco

June 25, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Gloria Gaynor (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — At first she was afraid. She was petrified. So she declared “I Will Survive” as a cross-generational anthem of courage that will never subside.

Now, Gloria Gaynor wants you to “go, walk out the door” to the Library of Congress‘ special series “Bibliodiscotheque,” featuring two months of disco-themed events starting this Wednesday in D.C.

“‘I Will Survive’ was inducted into the Library of Congress’ music registry last year, which was quite an honor, just unbelievable,” Gaynor told WTOP. “So they called and asked me to be a part of all this!”

The main event will be Gaynor’s live performance at a disco dance party on Saturday, May 6.

“I have my band that I use on tour, I’m adding a choir and some violins,” Gaynor said. “I’m going to be doing my hit songs of course — ‘Never Can Say Goodbye,’ ‘I Am What I Am,’ ‘I Will Survive’ — and I will also be doing some gospel songs from my forthcoming album that will be released later in the year.”

Gaynor will also participate in a symposium, discussing the legacy of disco, which she insists never died, but morphed into dance music. She was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

“I’m saddened by the fact that it went from the name ‘disco’ to ‘dance music,’ for the simple reason that as ‘disco,’ back when that name was popular, that became the first [genre] in the history of music ever to bring together people of every nationality, race, creed, color and age group,” Gaynor said.

She’ll also discuss her new book “We Will Survive,” a collection of 40 inspiring true stories from fans.

“People have been coming to me ever since I recorded ‘I Will Survive’ with stories of how the song has encouraged, uplifted and empowered them, helping them to make it through the difficult, even traumatic circumstances in their lives,” Gaynor said. “If the song is that inspiring, how inspiring would it be if you’re going through trauma, then you read of someone else who’s going through the same thing or maybe even something more difficult, yet they’ve come out on the other side victorious?”

The stories range from personal growths to harrowing accounts, including that of a man in Africa.

“When he was 7 years old, he left his village to get water or something,” Gaynor said. “When he came back, [warlords] gathered all the people in the village, made them dig a pit, … shot them and let them fall into the pit. That included his mother, father, younger brother and sister … A family took him in, but he expressed he was unable to reciprocate love to them until he heard the song ‘I Will Survive.'”

For a song with such wide-reaching influence, it’s ironic that it almost never came to be.

“I went to California to record a song the record company president had chosen,” Gaynor said. “When I asked what the B-side was going to be, they asked what type of songs I like to sing. I said, ‘I like songs that are uplifting, encouraging, songs that are meaningful, songs that have good melodies.’ They tell me, ‘We believe you’re the one we’ve been waiting for to record this song we wrote two years ago!'”

That song was “I Will Survive,” the lyrics of which struck a personal chord.

“I immediately related the song to two situations in my life — the death of my mother that had happened two years prior, and the fact that I was standing there recording in a back brace because I had fallen on stage and woke up the next morning paralyzed from the waist down,” Gaynor recalled.

She says she’ll never forget the first time she heard the song it on the radio.

“The first time I remember hearing it out in public, I was in a department store,” Gaynor said. “I cannot tell you how bad I wanted to tell somebody, ‘That’s me! That’s me! That’s me!’ It was unbelievable.”

Decades later, she got her chance for public affirmation.

“Just a couple years ago, I was in a department store shopping and the song was on while the girl was checking me out,” Gaynor said. “When she looked at my credit card, I thought she was going to faint!”

Despite the recognition, Gaynor humbly views her career as a way to help others.

“The wonderful thing is they don’t just say, ‘I love your song, your song helped me through,’ they say, ‘I love you because you helped me through,'” Gaynor said. “It is extremely rewarding. It’s like the old expression: ‘People may not remember what you say, but they remember how you made them feel.'”

Through it all, she remains a woman of faith, insisting she was put here for a purpose.

“How can you say this is not a divine appointment?” Gaynor said. “God said, ‘Gloria, I want you to take this song and help people with it. I want you to uplift them, encourage them and empower them.'”

In this light, Gaynor’s line, “At first I was afraid,” isn’t that far from the Biblical angels: “Fear not.”

Events are free at the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building, but tickets are required. See below:

April 12-May 5: Disco Film Screenings
Pickford Theater at Various Times
Screenings of “Saturday Night Fever”and other disco classics.
Full Schedule of Disco Film Screenings

May 2: Tim Gunn on Disco Fashion
Mumford Room at 7 p.m.
Interview: Tim Gunn on Disco Fashion

May 3: ABBA & Disco Influence on European Dance Music
Pickford Theater at 7 p.m.
Lecture & Film: ABBA & Disco’s Influence on European Dance Music

May 4: Mathematics of African Dance Rhythms
Pickford Theater at 7 p.m.
Lecture: Mathematics of African Dance Rhythms

May 5: Panel Discussion: Music and Veterans 
Whittall Pavilion at 12 p.m.
Panel Discussion: Music and Veterans

May 6: Gloria Gaynor Lecture & Symposium
Coolidge Auditorium from 1-5:40 p.m.
Bibliodiscotheque Symposium, feat. Gloria Gaynor

May 6: Gloria Gaynor Live: Disco Dance Party
Great Hall from 7 p.m.-12:30 a.m.
Gloria Gaynor Live: Disco Dance Party

Click here for more info on “Bibliodiscotheque.” Listen to the full conversation with Gloria Gaynor below:

June 25, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Gloria Gaynor (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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