The choir I just joined, the Labor Heritage Rockin’ Solidarity Choir, performed “A Musical Biography of Pete Seeger” at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco this morning. We were the main event in their worship service. After being introduced by their choir director, we filed up onto the stage at the front of their worship space, dressed in our black t-shirts and black pants. This “musical biography” combines narration and semi-staged dramatic vignettes, with songs which Seeger either wrote or made famous.
About ten minutes into our performance, the congregation applauded one of the songs. I was a little surprised; I could hear the bass section well and I knew we had not been at our best. But from where I stood I couldn’t hear the rest of the sections very well, I had no idea how the choir as a whole sounded. Then came the dramatic vignette where Seeger goes before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and when he is asked if he ever joined the Communist Party, he pleads the First Amendment, saying that he shouldn’t have to answer any questions relating to his freedom to associate. The congregation applauded for that, and I realized that they really liked what they were seeing and hearing.
I was a little surprised by this, because I kept hearing all the things the bass section did wrong — we fumbled some key entrances, we weren’t all singing in unison a few times, all the moments when we messed up. I was also all too aware of my own shortcomings as a singer — I don’t have the breath control I should, I’m not a confident enough singer that I can always stick to the written music when the singers around me are singing wrong notes, I sometimes lose my concentration. But the congregation didn’t care. They sang along with familiar songs like “Guantanmera,” and “If I Had a Hammer.” The soloists were very good; the speakers were moving; the message behind this musical biography was deeply moving; and, in spite our technical and musical faults, our section sang with feeling and power, and though I couldn’t really hear them I assume the rest of the choir did too.
The congregation gave us a standing ovation at the end of the worship service. That surprised the heck out of me, although that standing ovation wasn’t really for our choir as performers — that ovation was more for the power of Pete Seeger’s career as a singer and community activist, as captured by the script written by our music director, Pat Wynne. I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course. This kind of thing happens all the time in worship services and amateur musical performances in which an important message is delivered with genuine feeling. But when you’re standing at the far end of the bass section, and you can’t really hear, and all you can do is concentrate on singing the right notes when you’re supposed to, you may not be aware of what’s happening around you.