Pete Seeger is fond of reminding me that the one of the places where real folk music most happens is in churches - as opposed to the coffeehouses and folk festivals that form the centerpieces for the continuing folk revival. Two things about that statement are indisputably true: Places of worship and work provide the social anchor for much of society today, and church choirs provide an outlet for some of the most amazing and beautiful music made by regular folks.
It was the melding of those influences that, in 1994, gave birth to the Whiteville Apparel Choir, a group of 24 machinists, stitchers and pressers at a men's suit factory in Whiteville, North Carolina. many of the workers at the union facility already sang in various church choirs in the area, so it was natural that they would join after work to join voice for the Lord. And just as natural that the other common force in their lives - their work - would influence that common voice as well. The group of workers first gathered together informally to prepare some gospel selections for a promotional program at the plant. But it wasn't long before the choir was belting out an eclectic mix of solidarity-tinged originals and anthemic rewrites of contemporary R&B standards, along with those gospel favorites, at their biweekly rehearsals. Following their debut performance, they were invited to sing at a union conference in Greensboro, North Carolina. Their performance so sparked those in attendance that the group soon became a fixture at regional and national union conferences and a bright light at union gatherings and demonstrations throughout their home region. As union District manager Phil Cohen says, "If a picture is worth a thousand words, a song is worth a thousand speeches! People are accustomed to hearing a series of speeches, but the choir introduced a whole new element interspersing those spoken words with songs. They began by singing gospel material - adding the labor material happened spontaneously. Music hasn't really been prominent in the labor movement for some time. I see the choir as a real turning point in that regard. Folks sing gospel, and some do labor songs, but the choir is the only group I've heard that has synthesized the two. Their music goes to the heart and soul of the people we represent."
When the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union merged with the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union to form UNITE! in 1995, the choir was invited to sing at the founding conference in Miami. That weekend in June, several thousand workers from all over the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada gathered to celebrate their solidarity. Watching the choir galvanize the delegates inspired Cohen to approach the union leadership for money to produce a recording to be used as a fund-raiser for UNITE!'s political action work. Together was released in the spring of 1996.
Much as gospel music was right at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement in the '60's, this music is a great tool for the labor movement today. "All songs have a message," notes choir member and current director Melvin Chambers (pictured with microphone). "Our songs are all about struggle," she says "and that's something that unions and gospel music have in common."
Nowhere is that connection, or their devotion to the message, better illustrated than through the choir's work at strikes and labor demonstrations. "Apparel workers really are an endangered species in the U.S. today," notes Cohen as he recalls the choir's efforts during the recently concluded Kmart boycott in North Carolina. The union efforts to organize 550 workers at the Kmart distribution center resulted in long and hard contract negotiations. "They were at every single demonstration... folks were literally getting arrested to the soundtrack of the Whiteville Apparel Choir," recalls Cohen.
The choir has recently been involved with demonstrations against sweatshops, helping to protest congressional efforts to slash OSHA regulations, and a Solidarity Day program at the Brooks Brothers plant 45 minutes north of Whiteville. They also performed at last year's Clearwater Revival, at a program put together by the Labor Heritage Foundation at Duke University, and are looking forward (at this writing) to a special celebration for Martin Luther King Day in Durham on January 20.
"You have to understand the love, faith and dedication these folks make available to the union whenever necessary," Cohen continues. "These are working people. They'll get off work at 3 p.m. on Friday, drive to Atlanta to sing at a conference, and then drive back the 3 1/2 hours to Greenville to be at work that Monday morning. Part of their appeal is that their commitment is so contagious. It's impossible to be in their presence for five minutes and not get caught up in their message."
The choir's material is drawn from some really interesting sources, including classic folk (like Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land") and rhythm and blues (like Bill Wither's "Lean on Me"). "The songs come from within the ranks of the choir," notes Chambers,"and the arrangements are put together by various members, including our keyboardist, Kenneth Stanley, or his sister, Anna, or myself."
Stanley may be the only trained musician in the choir, but others, including Chambers, are formidable natural talents and bring a lot to the sound. "The arrangements are very carefully put together," notes Cohen. "Watching them work and arrange, it's obvious that they're really excellent musicians - not a lot of training, but naturally talented.
"I've heard them begin to work on a song at one rehearsal, then marveled as extra harmonies are added and the song grows in a very conscious way. What really characterizes their music, though, is the spontaneity and enthusiasm they bring to it. They do a song because they fall in love with it. One of the interesting choices they've been working on lately is the theme from An Officer and a Gentleman - you know, the song that goes 'Lift us up where we belong.' I never would have thought about that song in the context of workers' rights, but it's perfect. They have a real interpretive genius that way.
"But mostly, this is music that sprang up spontaneously from a group of working people - folk art at its finest!"
First Published in SingOut! Vol.41#4
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