For a holiday treat, my sweetheart and I went to a performance by the Oakland East Bay Symphony entitled “Let Us Break Bread Together: A Holiday Tribute to Pete Seeger.”
The program included music of the season along with a number of songs written by or associated with Pete Seeger, which is an agreeable combination for someone like me who associates peace and love with Seeger-type activism. It was held in the Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland, one of those Art Deco-inspired theatres from the 1930s, now restored and a registered historical landmark.
(The pictured gold goddess is one of many similar pieces on the walls of the balcony lobby at the Paramount. I’m not sure who she is, but given that the concert was in honor of Pete Seeger, I’m thinking of her as Aphrodite as referenced in Seeger’s version of “Gimme That Old Time Religion” – “Let us pray to Aphrodite, she wears that see-through nightie ….”)
Given that this was a holiday concert, it was more about the guest choirs than it was about the symphony itself. There were five of them: the Oakland Symphony Chorus, Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, Mt. Eden High School Concert Choir, Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, and Linda Tillery & the Cultural Heritage Choir.
All the choirs were outstanding, whether singing separately or as a huge group. And since the show was about both the holiday and Seeger, it included an appropriate amount of audience sing-a-long, which was satisfying to my personal need to do a little singing from time to time.
The Interfaith Gospel Choir got me when the director asked if the audience knew “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” He started singing and most of us joined in – indeed, we did know it. He let us get through a verse of basic singing and then said, “We don’t do it like that.” And they didn’t. It was a wonderful rendition that rocked the Art Deco halls.
But I came away with two things from the concert that weren’t directly about performance. One was a point Symphony Conductor Michael Morgan made about the Mt. Eden choir. It’s 140 kids from one area high school (in Hayward). That is, unlike the other choirs, which are drawn from all over the area and can pick and choose among talented singers, it’s just ordinary teenagers from one school.
And it’s an excellent choir. They did complicated music well, joined in enthusiastically on the sing-a-longs, and were respectful of other performers. It also had a good mix of girls and boys, which is good since getting enough men and boys in choirs can be hard. In the spring they’re traveling to New York to sing at Carnegie Hall.
The reason this choir is so good is not because there’s an unusual abundance of musical talent or something in the water in Hayward. It’s because the school – an ordinary public school – has put effort into having a good music program and has outstanding music teachers and choir directors.
That is, there’s no reason other schools can’t produce equally good choirs or bands or orchestras or other musical ensembles. All they have to do is take music seriously as part of their program. Finding inspired music teachers may be a little harder, but that’s not impossible either.
I grew up in a tiny town outside of Houston called Friendswood. It’s a thriving suburb now, but when I was a kid there might have been 300 people there. Mrs. Boyle taught music to all 12 grades and ran the choir at the Quaker Church. All her choirs – the elementary kids, the high school kids, and the church group – were fantastic, because she could teach anyone to sing.
In recent years, schools have made way too many cuts in art and music programs in favor of “academics.” I’ve never understood this, perhaps because my school years were so defined by being in band. My academic work didn’t suffer because of it and it gave me purpose and direction and the ability to appreciate music even when I’m not a performer.
I’d like to see a lot more school choirs that can hold their own with Mt. Eden’s.
The other thing that struck me was a song done by the Mt. Eden choir – a combination of “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” and Pete Seeger’s “Waist-Deep in the Big Muddy.” Both are powerful antiwar songs.
In the first, the second line is “I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war.” The second, which Seeger wrote in the 60s during protests over the Vietnam War, includes the line, “We were waist deep” – and eventually – “neck deep in the Big Muddy, but the Big Fool said to press on.”
I found myself wondering whether singing those songs as teenagers will make the Mt. Eden kids think about war a little differently as they grow up. One reason that occurred to me is that I’ve been affected all my life by a version of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” that Mrs. Boyle taught us back in grade school choir.
The song was in our school-issued song book, but in the last verse, which usually reads “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” someone had gone through the books and replaced “die”, so that it read “As he died to make men holy let us live to make men free.”
Friendswood was founded by Quakers and their ideas governed the school district back in the day, so I’m sure that’s why the lyric was changed. But it’s a powerful change. Over the years it’s made me think about the best ways of changing things. I’m not a Quaker, or even a pacifist, but I rarely think violence is the most effective solution to a problem.
That’s probably another argument for music education.
The concert closed with a group sing of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” a song Pete Seeger often did in concert. My sweetheart and I were both wiping our eyes afterwards. It’s probably a good sign for a relationship if two people are moved by the same song, especially when the song is “This Land Is Your Land.”