Hollering comrades [June 1]
One of the things I miss most about life before You-Know-What is singing with choirs. Monday nights you would normally find me hanging out with a chamber choir. Wednesday nights it was a French choir, and on Sunday nights the neighbours had to put up with my noisy quartet. Tiring days morphed into inspiring nights when I was making music with other tired-then-inspired choristers.
It’s not surprising that so many recent ads and viral videos have featured people singing alone-but-together. Italians crooning from their balconies; nurses performing in hospital wards; TV actors serenading us from multi-screen ABC promos – they’re all responding to the same human need for communal hollering.
Three decades ago, my love of singing led me to start up the Victorian Trade Union Choir. Every Thursday night we gathered in a faded ballroom at Trades Hall and learnt songs about red flags, shearers strikes and workers’ rights. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison and visited Australia for the first time, we serenaded him with the ANC anthem at the Melbourne Town Hall. On the anniversary of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor we belted out the theme song of the Timorese independence movement.
We sang at church services to remember workers who’d died on the job. We performed at Hamer Hall on Labour Day and on the back of a truck on May Day. We warbled on a Wodonga picket line at dawn, then warmed our hands over flaming forty-gallon drums with striking meatworkers.
I spent three years conducting the group before handing the job over to others. Those Thursday night gatherings at Trades Hall continued, and this year the Trade Union Choir members were planning to celebrate their thirtieth anniversary. Like most singing groups, though, they’ve had to press pause on live rehearsals. In the early days of You-Know-What, there were some alarming outbreaks – and fatalities – in European and American choirs. Large group gatherings for choristers will be out of bounds for a while yet.
The members of the Trade Union Choir are currently doing Zoom rehearsals on Thursday nights, soloing at home with their mute buttons on. It’s a far cry from the days when they sang their lungs out for sacked maritime workers in the 1998 waterfront dispute.
In case we don’t get a chance to celebrate the big three-oh together – Happy Birthday, comrades. I’m so proud I could burst.
(This column was first published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald in May 2020)