Every year the Washington-based Labor Heritage Foundation sponsors the Great Labor Arts Exchange, which attracts more than 100 union musicians, writers, actors and artists for three days of workshops. This year's exchange kicked off last night at the First Congregational Church with a benefit concert by three workshop leaders: Hazel Dickens, John McCutcheon and Sparky Rucker. When the three singers joined on the encore to lead the audience in the Georgia Sea Islands hymn "(Ain't You Got a Right to) The Tree of Life," they illustrated the power of song to unify and inspire.
West Virginia's Dickens began the show with country and bluegrass standards like "California Cotton Fields" and "The Coal Tattoo" that embodied the concert's themes. She was backed by an all-star bluegrass quartet that included Pete Kennedy, Barry Mitterhoff and half of the Lynn Morris Band. The evening's highlight, though, was Dickens's a cappella rendition of the two songs she sang in the movie "Matewan." When she sang the old funeral hymn "Beautiful Hills of Galilee," her big, piercing voice was the ultimate in "high, lonesome" singing.
Virginia's McCutcheon played the middle set, switching easily from banjo to acoustic guitar to autoharp to hammer dulcimer. As good as his singing was, the real treat was his storytelling, which built characters and suspense like good fiction. Tennessee's Rucker closed out the show with his robust blues vocals backed nicely on harmonica by his wife, Rhonda.
The Great Labor Arts Exchange climaxes Tuesday night at Silver Spring's Meany Center for Labor Studies with a free performance of the "Mother Jones Festival," a theatrical collaboration between the Bread & Puppet Theatre's Amy Trompetter and the women of the Pittston coal strike. Dickens performs for free during all 10 days of the Festival of American Folklife, which begins Wednesday.