Union supporters who gathered outside John Block’s house on Saturday to protest unfair treatment of Post-Gazette workers might have expected to hear claps, cheers and chants.
They got music, too.
The Pittsburgh Labor Choir was there to show solidarity. They brought a guitar, a drum and most importantly, a fighting spirit.
“We want to be helping people to feel like they can sing,” said Edwin Everhart, the choir’s director. Throughout the rally on Devonshire Street, Everhart did just that — talking between verses while strumming along on his guitar, explaining songs and urging those gathered to join in.
The choir was formed in February 2020. “We have a couple of missions,” said Everhart. One is to study, look for and sometimes write protest songs. “Then the other thing is, paired with that very central mission, that we absolutely want to be at actions and supporting people.”
Since its formation, the group has performed everywhere from Pittsburgh’s Labor Day parade, where they marched along with teachers, to the music festival Pittonkatonk.
As striking Post-Gazette workers and supporters marched outside John Block’s house in Shadyside, the choir led the crowd in songs and chants. Everhart switched between playing guitar and drumming, while his fellow choir member Marien Cooke sang along.
Though not everyone in the choir could be there that day (“People have stuff scheduled for Saturday,” said Everhart), the number of people present doesn’t matter to those who do show up. Choir practices usually have anywhere from five to 15 attendees, and all are welcome.
The protest songs they sing come from a long tradition.
One song on Saturday was “Solidarity Forever,” a historic union anthem sung to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was originally written in 1915 in support of striking workers. The song has become a staple at rallies and protests.
You didn’t have to know the words to sing along. The Pittsburgh Labor Choir encourages musicians of all levels — including those who aren’t musicians at all — to learn as they go. They also encourage people to participate in a variety of ways: “Bring drums or other instruments if you got em,” read one of the choir’s tweets ahead of the rally.
“There’s a sense that people are afraid of singing. They’re ashamed to make a noise. They’re ashamed to sound bad,” Everhart said, with a shrug. “The point is not about sounding good, friends.
“You don’t have to be a professional,” he added. And members of the Labor Choir, by and large, aren’t professional musicians — members include attorneys, programmers, bricklayers, food service workers and more.
On Saturday, a beautiful fall day that brought many people out, the noise was so loud that the rally could be heard from blocks away (no pun intended).
That means the message of fighting for fair treatment of workers isn’t just making waves on social media. It’s making sound waves, too.