Labor choruses sing for peace, workers rights

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CD REVIEW

The Great Choral Convergence Live

Produced by Bobbie Rabinowitz

Oasis Recordings, 2006

$14.95

Available at cdbaby.com/cd/greatchoralcon



Attend a rally or march these days and your spirits will likely be lifted by a labor chorus singing songs, some old and well-loved, but also new ones full of fightback against Wal-Mart’s union-busting or the Bush-Cheney war on working people at home and abroad.

A new compact disc titled “The Great Choral Convergence Live” samples songs by amateur ensembles, remarkable not only for the infectious enthusiasm of the singers, but also by the high caliber of their musicality.

When half a million antiwar protesters marched down Broadway on April 29, the New York Labor Chorus was present singing and marching.

The Seattle Peace Chorus performed at the Veterans for Peace convention in Seattle last summer and was greeted with a standing ovation. They also perform together with the Seattle Labor Chorus, an equally acclaimed group in the Pacific Northwest.

The vets also traveled up to the Peace Arch on the U.S.-Canadian border for a rally with U.S. soldiers who fled to Canada to avoid combat in Iraq. At the rally, Solidarity Notes, a labor chorus based in Vancouver, B.C., sang Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in a version made famous by the great African American personality Paul Robeson, who sang at the Peace Arch in 1952.

Now listeners have the chance to enjoy these choruses who play such a big role in reviving working-class culture and teaching new generations songs that our parents and grandparents sang as they marched.

My favorites were the haunting melodies borrowed from South African choral groups such as “Askikatali” (Freedom), sung by Fruit of Labor Singing Ensemble. There is also a beautiful medley of songs from the Spanish Civil War.

One of the most powerful songs on the CD is the simple, straightforward rendition of Florence Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?” Another is “Torn Screen Door,” sung by the Seattle Labor Chorus, which captures in that one image the abandonment of our inner cities so painfully evident now in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Bringing the groups together in a “choral convergence” was the brainchild of Bobbie Rabinowitz, a veteran labor activist and a founding member of the New York Labor Chorus.

Rabinowitz, who now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, writes that songs on the CD are “the best of the best of a historic concert [in 2004] … well-loved songs of the civil rights struggle, the anti-apartheid struggle and some newly composed songs for these trying times.”

Pete Seeger comments, “The six labor choruses, together, show the power of song as a force for social change.”

Folk music, including choral singing, was strongly promoted by the Communist Party, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and other left and progressive organizations during the 1930s and 1940s.

Rabinowitz points out that the Cold War witch-hunters targeted this great cultural flowering during the 1950s and 1960s.

“The existence of these choruses represents a revival and resurgence of a long history of labor union and fraternal working people’s choruses dating back to the 1920s and 1930s,” she continues. “Most went out of business during the repressive McCarthy period.”

Janet Stecher, director of the Seattle Labor Chorus, told the World that her chorus won first prize among 50 choruses that performed in the annual “Figgy Pudding” open-air street concert to benefit the Pike Place Market Senior Clinic in Seattle.

In September, the Seattle group performed during a “Drink-in” for the Unite Here union at a Westin Hotel in Seattle, in solidarity with Westin Hotel workers. Lou Truskoff, a member of the chorus, wrote a song for the event based on the old hymn, “Bright Morning Stars Are Rising.” His version goes, “We are hotel workers rising and it is time we were paid a living wage.”

Seeger was the father of the Seattle Labor Chorus, said Stecher. “He was coming to perform at the Pacific Northwest Folk Life Festival 10 years ago and he wanted a chorus to back him up.” The rest, she said, is history.

Stecher said labor choruses have had “a long trajectory of ebb and flow. But yes, right now we are on the upswing.” She had not yet received her copy of the CD. “But I was there [at the concert]. If our lives were not so complicated, I would say it is time to have another one. It gives us critical mass when we get together like that, a sense that we are everywhere.”

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