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.
by Tina Susman
December 19, 2012
The Los Angeles Times
NEW YORK - "Hum!" Jana Ballard bellowed at a group of men
old enough to be her father. "HUM!" she said again, a bit
"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.
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
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
Longtime members joke that when the chorus was born 21 years
ago, if you could sing in the shower, you could sing in the
"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
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."
Vogel was one of about 40 people who showed up for the
chorus' first audition in September 1991. Nobody was turned
away. That was the norm for years, pushing the chorus
membership to about 75. Now, between the lack of open spots
and the more discriminating selection process, it's not as
easy to get in even though there are far fewer candidates
This year, five of the 15 aspiring singers made the cut,
which presents Ballard with one of the hardest parts of her
job: rejecting people.
"It's a really horrible phone conversation, and because
they're older than me, it's like I'm breaking a
grandmother's heart," said Ballard, who teaches music at New
York's so-called "Fame" school - the Fiorello H. LaGuardia
High School - in addition to conducting the chorus.
She and the accompanist, keyboardist Dennis Nelson, are the
only paid members of the chorus, which depends on donations,
money raised through CD sales and performances, and the
singers' own money to cover travel and other expenses.
Ballard, who grew up in Kentucky listening to pop and
country-western music, had to get used to bossing around her
elders after she was hired as the new conductor following
the death of its longtime leader, Geoffrey Fairweather.
"My grandmother is 90, and I can't imagine having to get
onto her about something she's not doing correctly," said
Ballard, who during a recent rehearsal reminded singers to
raise their hands if they had questions, and to keep quiet
as she sang for them lines that needed work.
"I know I sound like a schoolteacher, but I am," Ballard
said unapologetically. "Any time you're going to come
together and sing, you should sing well. Or else, why sing?"
The approach has paid off, say chorus members.
"She's taken us to a level we've never been before," said
Denise Jones, 49, one of the youngest singers.
For all their differences - the singers range in age from
about 40 to 80-plus and are a potpourri of races and ethnic
backgrounds - they share an upbringing that exposed them
from childhood to music, activism or both.
Ricky Eisenberg, 69, spent decades scaling New York's high-
rises, installing sheetrock, laying floors and, on occasion,
watching colleagues fall to their deaths or get hit by
tumbling metal beams or concrete. Eisenberg's grandfather
was an activist in unions; his grandfather's brother died on
a picket line after being hit in the head with a tire iron
by someone trying to break up a strike.
"Construction is a dangerous job, but it's better than it
used to be," said Eisenberg, who joined the chorus 18 years
"When you come in after a day's work and you're really beat
and worn out, and maybe a little depressed, and you get
together and sing . everything feels a lot better," said
Eisenberg, who worries that today's economic ills don't
leave younger workers time for such things as they take on
second jobs or freelance to make ends meet.
"I think the struggle just to live has gotten rougher than
it used to be," he said. "Even if we had less money in the
'50s, we had more job security."
Jones, who also sings with the AllStarz James Brown Tribute
Band and who has sung background for Gladys Knight, joined
the chorus 19 years ago. Now, Jones is a regular soloist.
When she belted out "Rockin' Solidarity" at a recent
fundraising event, the crowd that had been sipping fine wine
and bidding on objects d'art fell silent and watched in
fascination as Jones and the chorus - including one singer
in a wheelchair, another leaning on a walker and several
with canes - drowned out their cocktail chatter.
Capturing that sound requires more than voices. Ballard and
Jones said the placement of different singers, whose voices
range from shower-quality to professionally trained, is key
to making the finished product work. So is the energy.
"It's less about how you sound and more about how you're
trying to get your message across," said Jones, who works
for the city. "There are some who don't sing as well as
others, but we encourage everyone. The chorus is more than
just a chorus - it's a family."
Just how long the songs will go on is anyone's guess. One
person who isn't worried is Ballard, who credits Occupy Wall
Street with raising awareness of labor issues. Younger
people used to walk past the chorus during its public
performances in places like Central Park or skyscraper
"Very few young people would stop and listen to us, but now
they do," said Ballard, who's confident that interest will
spur a new generation to sing. "They'll be the next people
who carry the torch."
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