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New York City Labor Chorus gets better with age

Mostly senior-age members take singing to a higher level under a new leader, but it's getting harder to find labor activists, much less ones who can carry a tune.

December 19, 2012|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times
  • The New York City Labor Chorus performs in the lobby of the MetLife Building in midtown Manhattan this month.
The New York City Labor Chorus performs in the lobby of the MetLife Building… (Tina Susman, Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK — "Hum!" Jana Ballard bellowed at a group of men old enough to be her father. "HUM!" she said again, a bit more loudly.

"Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm," the men replied obediently, their faces flushed from holding the note.

It was the fifth time that evening the New York City Labor Chorus had gone through "The Ballad of Joe Hill," a six-verse paean to the ill-fated unionist ("The copper bosses killed you, Joe"), and signs of weariness were showing among the singers. A soprano rolled her eyes. An alto missed a note. One woman, tired of standing in the tight half-circle, grabbed a chair and plopped into it.

But that didn't stop the dozens of mostly senior-aged workers and retirees — many in their 70s and some in their 80s — from gamely launching into a sixth go-round as the night wore on.

Labor chorus: An article in the Dec. 20 Section A about the New York City Labor Chorus said director Jana Ballard took over after the death of the group's founding director, Geoffrey Fairweather. Peter Schlosser succeeded Fairweather as director after Fairweather left the chorus in 2003; Fairweather died in 2005. Ballard succeeded Schlosser as director of the chorus in 2009. —

Not so long ago, the Occupy Wall Street protests against corporate fat cats brought thousands of young people to the streets of Lower Manhattan, where the singers were practicing. Inside the donated rehearsal space in the United Federation of Teachers building, however, the 99% were decidedly more mature.

Take Tom Karlson, whose parents "ran in Communist circles." As a kid, he spent time at camps catering to society's left wing, like Wyandot and Kinderland, where songs like "Freedom Train" ("Altogether, side by side, Irish, Italian, Negro, Jew / Altogether on the freedom ride, woo woo, woo woo," goes the chorus) were sung around the campfire.

Three years ago, Karlson, 70, tried out for the Labor Chorus and was accepted.

Now, he sings in the bass section, hiding a secret that audience members wouldn't guess. "I can't read a lick of music. I just hold the paper in front of me," Karlson said. "If I hear something, I remember it. If I hear it again, I remember it a little better. So by the fifth time, I know it."

Longtime members joke that when the chorus was born 21 years ago, if you could sing in the shower, you could sing in the chorus.

"We sounded good, but it was more like a singalong type thing," said Barbara Bailey, 74, the president of the nonprofit chorus and one of the three unionists who founded the group as a way to energize New York's shop stewards.

Back then, it wasn't difficult to recruit people steeped in Pete Seeger and Joan Baez who relished the thought of donning red shirts and belting out ballads and anthems celebrating social justice, peace and workers' rights.

The red shirts remain, but the chorus has evolved. It is still composed mostly of people with no professional musical experience, but it sings everywhere from international concert halls to public parks, for audiences ranging from those Occupy Wall Street marchers to delegates at the Democratic National Convention in 1992.

Last year the chorus toured Cuba, and it has traveled to Sweden, Wales and Japan. On Nov. 26, it recorded a jazzed-up version of "The Ballad of Joe Hill" with jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd, who had invited the group to perform for a documentary.

It shared the stage at Carnegie Hall in 1998 with Harry Belafonte; sang at Seeger's 90th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden in 2009; performed this year at a Woody Guthrie tribute that featured Judy Collins, Seeger and other stars; and it has released several CDs.

Chorus members say the recession has underscored the need for strong unions as workers are hit with layoffs and benefit cuts, and as corporations facing financial ruin — think Hostess — cast unions as villains.

But getting today's over-scheduled working masses to devote Monday evenings to rehearsing songs about people and issues many have never heard of isn't easy. Ballard, 37, had never heard of the chorus when a friend told her about its search for a conductor three years ago.

It has also become harder to find labor activists, much less ones who can carry a tune. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nationwide union membership has fallen from 20.1% in 1983 to 11.8% today.

"It's hard to break through," said Jeff Vogel, who has been with the group since the start and serves as its publicity director. "When the chorus began, I was in my 40s. Now I'm 65, and the chorus has aged with me."

He sees an expanded repertoire as one part of the solution, so last year, Vogel, a bass who is one of the soloists on "Joe Hill," talked his fellow singers into tackling Queen's "We Are the Champions."

He tweaked the lyrics to make them more appropriate. "No time for losers 'cause we are the champions of the world," for instance, became "We've got the power 'cause we are the workers of the world."

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