Union Songs

The Past is Before Us: The Ninth National Labour History Conference (2005)

PART 2 Issues of Class, Folk Tradition and Community in choral music.

Tom Bridges July 2005.

If asked, most people in this society would, I'd warrant, describe music chiefly as a commodity; merely another – perhaps somewhat special – goods and services panel in the social and economic quilt. An elaborated version of this consensus view might go something like this:

If that's true – that this is the prevailing notion of music in this society – then I'd like to posit an alternative description. It will be clear that this alternative description is not only inconsistent with the first, but is also subversive of it. I would contend that music is not only something that is accessible to and doable by everyone, it is in essence an essential activity.  It is basic to the experience of being human and is profoundly social.  As such, music making can be experienced as a binding and cohesive force of potentially enormous power. And it is part of music's ineffable quality that this power can often be felt rather than be described.

Now it hardly needs to be reiterated here that we live in the most privileged society materially and economically on earth – not just Australia: I mean all of Western industrialized society. The disparity between us and the large majority of the world's population, most of whom struggle to survive (and often don't) is stark. But surely we must be the most impoverished society when it comes to experiencing music as an activity. In the alternative view of music outlined above, the salient departure from - and incompatibility with - the first story is the implication that everyone is more or less equally 'musical' – just as everyone is more or less equally 'verbal'. (Now, for the purposes of this necessarily short presentation I'm going to have to ask you to take on trust the supporting evidence for this assertion. It derives from a huge body of extant anthropological, ethno-musicological, psychobiological information, as well as established pedagogical theory, in combination too copious to canvass here.)

It is our capacity for song, using our voices, that is the primary instrument of our inbuilt musicality. Folklorist Alan Lomax (New York Times, 2003) would often lament that when people turned on the radio and heard a popular singer, they would define their own ability in terms relative to the 'professional' voice they heard. The self-assessment, invariably, would be 'inability'. For Lomax, the observation was grist to his lifelong campaign against the dominance of commodified music in Western culture. And let there be no mistake - the almost total commodification of music in the West is fundamental to seeing how music's status as an activity has – since the advent of electronic reproduction and its subsequent commercialisation - been submerged, corrupted, and thoroughly alienated.

That singing – like speaking – is our birthright as human beings can readily be seen in even a cursory glance at most cultures other than our own. But a not-very-far backward glance into this society's history, only as far back as before the advent of mass electronic communications, will reveal the same picture: that of musically active general populace engaged in creating and reproducing a lively musical culture of their own. Using song as a story-telling tool, the things that were on people's minds in their everyday lives were given musical form and shared in song, not necessarily for an audience, but as an end in itself. Thus the so-called 'folk' tradition gave rise to songs of work, love, sex, play, family, etc, as well as songs of fantasy and fiction. People sang to please themselves: songs about work, play, love & sex; songs that told stories true and tall; songs about that which angered, pleased, saddened, amused, diverted; songs that had practical purpose –  to change minds and/or behaviour, to intimidate, to pacify, to subdue. And not forgetting: songs – maybe wordless – to dance to. Songs which in fact celebrated all aspects of life and of living.  We're talking here of course, of what we commonly call the folk tradition and of what's known for better or for worse as folk songs.  And reiterating: folk tradition by necessity and by definition precedes the invention of sound reproduced electronically, which in turn enabled the commercialistion of music.  We recognise commercial music today as an integral staunchion of modern mass culture.  And we can list the media of electronically reproduced music: wax cylinders, vinyl records, tapes, CDs, DVDs, radio, TV; and one which might get overlooked, but is at least as important as the others, and is worth highlighting: amplification. Amplification is the thing that, by defining and delineating performers from their audience, divides them into separate camps. In enabling performers to reach ever further, to be heard farther and farther away, it erects a dividing wall between them and their ever-greater audience.

The singing of everyday lived experience – in short, people simply celebrating their humanity in song – is how I would broadly categorize what is pigeon-holed in today's categorized-or-perish world as folksong. The songs we can identify as deriving from this tradition – and they can include those which have a recent, known authorship, as well as those carrying the venerable attribution, "Anon." – typically have an authenticity which is a far cry from the idealised and artificial expressions of human experience typically found in art music, or those that are glamourised and packaged by the present-day 'music industry'.

Most people know that the din of commodified music has silenced their musical selves, even if they don't identify the culprit as such. This knowledge is usually disclosed/told as the 'I Can't Sing' story. As a community choir director of some 15 years experience, I hear this story repeated ad infinitum.

When I began the job about fifteen years ago, I saw it as an opportunity to combine my lifelong enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, radical traditions in music (as discovered by me in the 60s folk revival) with whatever abilities I possessed as an 'expert' musician, in a new musical practice.  It involved working with a group of adults inexperienced in any sort of disciplined or co-ordinated group music making. Many of them doubted their ability to even sing at all, let alone well enough to be accepted as a contributing member of a group that called itself a choir. However, once they had been given them a safe space in which to test their voices, from which – crucially – flowed some confidence, they soon realised that – demonstrably – they could sing.

Often in social situations I find myself having a conversation about my work, and invariably, predictably, routinely what I will hear early in the conversation is the 'I can't sing'. Equally routinely, I will press the point and protest that this 'I can't sing' story of theirs is almost certainly untrue; thinking that it probably is true only in the highly qualified version that Alan Lomax identified: "I can't sing, in comparison with, or in a similar fashion to, those who are authorised to sing". To demonstrate this, I will ask the person whether or not they can sing Happy Birthday or Auld Lang Syne (see special note on last page). They of course usually can sing either or both of these songs. "But that's not real singing...?

The point about these two songs is that in our culture they are songs that everyone knows – thus they are immediately and easily singable without first having to be learned, or without the potential of odious comparison with a 'standard' (probably recorded) version by an 'expert' singer.  Moreover, and even more interesting to me, is the fact that in this culture these are the only two songs that everyone knows.

Now isn't "the virtuosity of a fraction of it" the thing, or at least a component of it, that is so admired and/or envied when the full "I can't sing" sentence (see #1, above) is uttered?  How is this virtuosity acquired?  Usually, it is a matter of basic distribution economics; access to material resources. For the budding 'virtuoso' in this society, the unlocking of their 'talent' is almost wholly a matter of parents' ability and willingness to fund expensive music lessons and instruments during kids' schooling years. Contrary to popular belief (a belief propagated in part by the uninformed, egotistical pronouncements of popular virtuosi like Roger Woodward, who really should know better), legendary prodigies of the Mozartian stamp, who pop out of the womb with already fully formed concertos at their fingertips – ("Gimme a violin, Mum!") are, sad to report, just that: legend.

And how many stories are there of voluntary withdrawal from childhood music lessons because the experience was joyless or the teaching authoritarian, or both. This is hardly the fault of the pupil, but does reflect the parlous condition of much of the music education infrastructure.

As choir director having to deal all the time with peoples' "I can't sing" stories, I was prompted to ask myself some obvious questions.  Where do these stories come from, given their prevalence, especially since they contrasted so starkly with my own "I Have Always Sung" story.  The realisation that I was perhaps privileged in this respect - extraordinarily privileged, as it turns out - opened up a social justice context for the enquiry. The possibility that, as in other economic and social inequities, there were mighty forces at play protecting vested interests and preserving existing power relations started to move into focus as a plausible, rather than far-fetched explanation for some my observations (things I was hearing around the 'I Can't Sing' story). At the very least, it seemed to me, there were some important generalisations that were enabled by exploring the issues as ones of power and privilege versus marginalisation and deprivation. And once they were enabled, the implications were many and great.  One  - thrillingly and repeatedly – was that there were exciting, inspiring and joyful individual narratives embedded in the plethora of different "I can sing (of course!)" stories.

The notion of 'finding one's voice' in the context of oppositional, revolutionary politics, is a metaphor which has been used a lot, principally because of its multi-layered, but integrated, meanings. The oppressed and marginalized people of the world are often characterized as being 'without a voice'. But to these layers of meaning can be added another, primary layer: the literal meaning of finding one's singing voice. And this adds a new dimension to the challenge to power, to the struggle to resist the ever-increasing penetration of corporate influence into our daily lives.

Historically, oppressed or marginalised groups have given musical form to their thoughts and feelings about their (oppressed) situation.  But this is only part of a larger picture of where music per se was located in peoples lives, as I have pointed out, before thee advent of commercialized music. Now, what we do in the Union choir movement is sing songs of and from these struggles throughout history, a lot of the classic labour movement anthems, peace songs, as well as contemporary songs which express what Roy Bailey calls the "worms-eye view of the world"; songs that describe reality from the bottom-looking-up vantage of ordinary people (not multinational recording conglomerate executives). But it is inadequate and I'd suggest wrong to see our role in the struggle simply as a function of our repertoire and its subject-matter. Inadequate, because they don't describe the half of it, as regards our lost – or rather, expropriated – birthright: singing and musicality.  In this society it's the DOING of it – singing – rather than what slogans or poetry are contained in it, which makes it oppositional and revolutionary.

I think there may be a fairly commonly held misconception in the folk community, that what makes their/our singing political comes mainly - or even wholly - from what we sing about. But I would contend that often this is unimportant: the important thing politically is the act of singing, especially in numbers together.  At Berkley University in the 1960s, revolutionary students at a sit-in protest found themselves singing The Beatles' Yellow Submarine, after an attempt at The Internationale foundered because no-one knew the words. It was, as they later claimed, a perfectly valid substitute, at least as potent in its revolutionary symbolism as the tired anthem it replaced. And, although they didn't articulate their justification very satisfactorily, the students instinctively knew it (Ashbolt 2002).

They were singing together something which they all knew and could sing. As I alluded to near the start of this paper, that process has strange and powerful properties. I am fond of the following maxim:  Making music together in number [i.e. two or more] is the most exquisite model of and for community that I know or can imagine. And in a world on the brink of self-immolation, where critically, collective action through community building is, I'd suggest, the only salvation of the species, what action could be more politically charged?

People who sing in community choirs will confirm this.
The many different stories about 'finding one's voice' in music can frequently be stories about acts or processes of resistance and/or reclamation.  Stories of singing as subversion/resistance will be embedded in many personal histories. For some, these will be stories of high drama, heroism and pain. What occurs to me here is the story of South African security forces bristling with batons and firearms, their coercive physical power on show as absolute, abjectly begging anti-apartheid demonstrators not to sing. Or, the civil rights meeting in the American south in the early 60s, broken into by vigilantes who cut the power, and in the frightened, unspeakably tense blackout, the voice, then massed voices swelling with We Shall Overcome, which gradually disperses the vigilantes who end up being the most frightened.

Meaning can often be more covert, through a shared understanding that 'decodes' innocuous lyrics (e.g. romantic, sentimental, populist etc). For others, it may involve overcoming the censure of others or of self – as narrators of the dominant story about music, as an act of challengeto that story.

Moreover, potent community-binding meaning derives from this form of music-making, not simply through the sharing of resonant stories. People coming together in music and song has a transcendent (but hard-to-explain!) tendency to undermine divisive agents. As that exemplar of the cultural activist and 20th-century hero, Pete Seeger (1972), says,

The reinstatement of authentic music-making through people 'finding their voices' is thus a story of multiple resistances, which can aggregate into an important and powerful community act of resistance against corporate hegemony and other loci of oppression.  And singing itself is a political act

I would like to leave you with what I call Charles Seeger's List - some intellectual food for digestion, discussion and dissemination. Charles Seeger (father of Pete, incidentally) was a bureaucrat in Washington 60 years ago, working for the WPA music project. He assigned a young musician, Margaret Valiant, to a community organising job in the South with these words. His son's additional thoughts are in italics. (I have already referred to one of these points earlier in this paper). These assertions are meaty and provocative. Chew them well, or swallow them whole; they will certainly constitute to a nutritious meal.

The Purposes of Music

1) Music, as any art, is not an end in itself, but is a means for achieving larger ends; But many artists create for their own happiness.
2) To make music is the essential thing — to listen to it is accessory; But a mother sings, a baby listens.

3) Music as a group activity is more important than music as an individual accomplishment.
4) Every person is musical; music can be associated with most human activity, to the advantage of both parties to the association.

5) The musical culture of the nation is, then, to be estimated upon the extent of participation of the whole population rather than upon the extent of the virtuosity of a fraction of it. Many participate by dancing to the music. Perhaps others dance in their minds?

6) The basis for musical culture is the vernacular of the broad mass of the people — its traditional (often called "folk") idiom; popular music and professional music are elaborate superstructures built upon the common base.

7) There is no ground for the quarrel between the various idioms and styles, provided proper relationship between them is maintained — pop need not be scorned nor professional music artificially stimulated, nor folk music stamped out or sentimentalised.

8) The point of departure for any worker new to a community should be the tastes and capacities actually existent in the group; and the direction of the activities introduced should be more toward the development of local leadership than toward dependence upon outside help.

9) The main question, then, should be not "is it good music?" but "what is the music good for?"; and if it bids fair to aid in the welding of the people into more independent, capable and democratic action, it must be approved.

10) With these larger ends ever in view, musicians frequently find themselves engaged in other kinds of activity, among them the other arts; this, however, promotes a well-rounded social function for them and ensures opportunity to make music serve a well-rounded function in the community.

1. Anthony Ashbolt, personal communication c 2002.  
2. Alan Lomax - Quoted in New York Times, c.2003 (obituary)
3. Pete Seeger, [Jo Metcalf Schwartz (ed)] The Incomplete Folksinger, (Simon & Schuster: New York 1972).
5. I will rarely ask them to sing it there and then. One of the shocking effects of being 'silenced' – again, this is common almost to the point of universality – is a total lack of confidence, and embarrassment, at singing out loud when someone is listening.  So it is that the 'I can't sing' story is often accompanied by an attempt at jocose self-deprecation. ".... I was kicked out of the school choir" perhaps with the inflection of a boast, might well sheet home responsibility for this non-singing to cruel circumstance, or the bullying of authority figures when young, but I suspect that it also points to the fact that deep down it is known that the ability to sing is meant to be there.

Many thanks to Tom Bridges and Rod Noble for permission to add this artlcle to the Union Songs collection

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