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Letter From Elsewhere: Half The Sky

"I Said To A Woman Can You Sing? She Said What? I said Sing.
She said Who? I Said You. She Said Yes. I Said Oh."

November Letter from Elsewhere

For years I wished I could sing. Then one day I saw an ad for a day class on “Singing for Non-Singers”. I went along and discovered I could sing a bit after all. The next week I ran in to an old friend in the street. She belonged to a women’s trade union choir I had long secretly wanted to join, but never thought I’d be good enough for. She insisted I come to their next rehearsal.

Choir Choir Pants on Fire has been part of my life for four years now. Much of it has been sheer enjoyment – singing in the Canberra Folk Festival, supporting good women standing for Parliament, even appearing on the Holmes Show. Yet often it just feels like hard work - turning up for practices after work or in the weekend, going over the tricky bits again and again, trying to get it right (and trying to satisfy our director, the redoubtable Sue Alexander); lining up in draughty church halls and standing on windy picket lines.

But something keeps me coming back for more. I don’t think I’d feel the same way about an ordinary choir, one that was focused solely on the music itself, though we do our best to do the music justice. It’s being part of that ancient practice of human voices singing together in support of something we believe in. The choir’s philosophy recalls Emma Goldman’s famous remark, just slightly altered: “If we can’t sing, we won’t be part of your revolution.”

Last year I wrote my first song for the choir. I felt that while quite a few of the songs we sang were based on a traditional idea of the working class, best summed up by that old Federation of Labour logo – the heavily muscled arm – today the typical “working woman” is a low-paid service worker. So I wrote “Half the Sky” for these women.


HALF THE SKY
Five in the morning, heading home to bed,
Been out all night cleaning to earn her daily bread,
Two hours sleep, she’s up again, her children must be fed,
Can’t afford to leave them so she works all night instead.

Six in the morning, too early for the sun,
When she hurries to the café, her day’s work has begun.
Chops and cuts and stacks the cups for your latte and long black,
But you never see her serving you, she stays out at the back.

We’re the women on the margins, in the corner of your eye,
The ones you never notice as you quickly pass us by.
No one can live without us, so can you tell us why
We get crumbs from rich men’s tables to hold up half the sky.

Three in the afternoon, last home care job today,
Another frail old woman hoping she will stay.
She’s not paid for listening, she should be heading home,
But she knows how much it means to talk when you’re old and all alone.

Seven in the evening, she smiles and says hello,
Then quickly scans your shopping, three more hours to go,
She had toast again for dinner, they keep her wages low,
And they tell her she’s not wanted when business gets too slow.

We’re the women on the margins in the corner of your eye,
The ones you never notice as you quickly pass us by.
Crumbs from rich men’s tables won’t give us strength to fly.
Turn around and look at us, we hold up half the sky.

Anna Kenny set it to music, and we’ve just recorded it, along with four other songs by her and other choir members, and twelve more ranging from traditional union ballads to songs by Ronnie Gilbert and Si Kahn, on our second CD, “Build High the Bridge”.

So yes, this is a blatant, unashamed advertisement for our choir. If you’re a woman and a trade union member, and you like to sing, you can join us. And if you want to know how to buy our CD, you can email me on mcqueen.else@xtra.co.nz

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