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.
FOR THE RECORD:
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.”
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 trying out.
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 ago.
“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 objets 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 lobbies.
“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.”