If President Trump’s election revived the protest movement on the left, the D.C. Labor Chorus is providing the soundtrack.
For 20 years, this group of activists, labor organizers and rabble-rousers with serious singing chops has belted out folk songs, show tunes and chants to spread messages of empowerment and resistance.
Demand for performances increased when Trump took office and has spiked again with the onset of the nation’s longest federal government shutdown. In response, the chorus has repurposed some favorite ditties to reflect the news of today.
The rotating set list includes “To Dream the Impeachable Dream,” to the tune of “The Impossible Dream” from the musical “Man of La Mancha”; “Furlough Day,” a takeoff on “Day-O (the Banana Boat Song),” by Harry Belafonte; and “We Will Resist,” based on Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”
At first, we were alarmed, we were horrified/ Kept thinking you could never win ’cause you’re not qualified.
But then we spent so many nights thinking how this is so wrong/ And we grew strong/ And we refused to go along.
Classic folk songs such as Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and “Honey in the Rock” are also part of the repertoire.
Before Trump was elected, the chorus had five or six gigs a year, said founding director Elise Bryant, executive director of the Labor Heritage Foundation, which works to strengthen the labor movement through music and the arts. Last year, it had 25 performances.
The group sang on Jan. 9 at an anti-shutdown rally organized by Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), inspiring even politicians such as Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) to sing along.
“They act like the musical arm of the resistance,” said Raskin, who also had the group perform at a memorial service for his father, Marcus Raskin, a pianist and left-leaning activist who died in 2017. “They’re not just there as entertainers. They are there as participants in the moment.”
These are not Trump’s “Make America Great Again” people, to say the least. Some, like alto Sarah Starrett, a solicitor at the Labor Department who is not affected by the shutdown, are careful to steer clear of politics at work.
But with the chorus, there is no such restriction.
“I can’t say the word ‘impeachment’ on federal property,” she said, referring to a recently distributed guidance on the Hatch Act in which the government warned that talking about sanctioning the president, or “the Resistance,” may constitute prohibited activity.
The group was especially busy over the weekend, performing at the Indigenous Peoples March on the Mall on Friday and at a Democratic women’s club event that evening. On Sunday, they donned dashikis and other dressy attire to sing three times: at the AFL-CIO interfaith Martin Luther King Day program in the District, at a Unitarian Universalist church in Bethesda and at an MLK Day ball in Silver Spring.
“We sing for all labor,” Bryant sang during an interview, echoing Kirk Franklin’s “Why We Sing.”
“We sing to organize. We are a mighty chorus. We’re singing for our lives.”
Union membership is down significantly from its peak in the mid-1900s, when about one-third of American workers belonged to unions. But labor choruses are still hanging on and even thriving in some places.
Groups in Seattle and San Francisco said they have seen no spike in invitations during the Trump era. Demand for Baltimore’s Charm City Labor Chorus is up only slightly, said Darryl! Moch, a consultant, activist, advocate, performance artist and minister who runs the group.
“It feels like people just need to be in an environment where there’s hopefulness,” Moch said. “Music is uplifting.”
He and other labor chorus directors attributed the D.C. group’s success to Bryant, a Detroit native who was the artistic director of the University of Michigan’s labor theater project “Workers’ Lives/Workers’ Stories” before moving to Washington and forming the chorus in the late 1990s. A former professor at the now-defunct National Labor College, she was elected president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women in 2017.
“Elise Bryant is kind of like our Emma Goldman,” Raskin said, referring to the feminist and anarchist activist from the early 1900s who said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”
If Bryant can’t sing, Raskin said, “she doesn’t want to be part of your revolution.”
Susan McNelis, a children’s performer who lives in Silver Spring, said joining the chorus in 2017 helped lift her from the pseudo-depression she had felt since Trump was elected.
“Otherwise,” she said, “I would still be on my couch, lamenting, burning the newspaper every day.”
In an era in which some left-wing groups have been torn by racial division, the group’s diversity is noticeable. It is about evenly split between men and women and has whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians. One singer is visually impaired.
Last week’s practice, on Jan. 14, drew 20 people, even though nearly a foot of snow had fallen the day before. Steve Jones, a piano tuner who belongs to the musicians union and writes some of the group’s lyrics, sat at a piano and struck a chord. Singers flipped through the black songbooks on their laps.
Bryant, wearing a red T-shirt that said, “I’m a drum major for justice,” stood at the front of the room at a music stand. She formed a circle with her thumb and forefinger and conducted a version of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” using a refrain written by Raskin.
“All for one, one for all/ Stop the shutdown, stop the wall,” the group sang.