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A collage of portraits of each of the six artists and groups featured in the Singing in Solidarity video compilation
The Singing in Solidarity compilation video features (left to right, top row): Thea Hopkins and Ialoni; (middle): Rachel Sumner and Traveling Light, Martha Gonzalez, and Piper Hayes; and bottom group: Windborne.

Singing in Solidarity: Women’s Voices Celebrate Labor Day

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This post is written by Theadocia Austen, the producer of the Center’s long-running Homegrown Concert Series, among other public programs.

In celebration of Labor Day, we wanted to honor the contributions of women to all forms of labor, of both the past and present, and what better way to do that than through song. So we started looking back at our Homegrown Concert videos, of which many are available online, as well as our Archive Challenge series and other documented performances, to create a special concert video. The result is this compilation of performances by Thea Hopkins, the women’s ensemble Ialoni, Martha González, Rachel Sumner and Traveling Light, Piper Hayes, and the group Windborne. They all feature the voices of women, with the support of their male colleagues. Watch the Singing in Solidarity video below.

In the above video, each of the songs explores a different dimension of labor from women’s perspectives. The first three songs focus on the roles women have played in community, from childrearing in the home to leading healing in a community after a tragedy that has affected everyone. The first song is a Creek lullaby performed by Thea Hopkins, and is based on a recording in the Center’s archives performed by a young woman of the Creek Nation in 1943. The second and third songs are by the ensemble Ialoni, from the country of Georgia, who sing two ritual songs of mourning to honor family members who have died and now are missing from their community.

Other songs consider a range of labor topics, including the condition of the poor earning a few pennies on the streets, issues with unprotected industrial work in the factory, and uniting for better pay. With her band Queztal, Martha González contemplates the futures of children who earn money performing “fire eating” tricks for passersby. The excerpted song, “Tragafuegos (Fire-breathers),” is about young Mexicans who try to earn small change performing dangerous tricks in traffic intersections throughout Mexico.

Another dimension of women’s work are songs that mark the contributions and sacrifices of women laboring in industry. Unions of course have a central place in the story of American labor, and so we have included a well-known song from the 1930s, “Join the C.I.O.”  In contrast, we’ve also included a song of workers unprotected by organized labor: “Radium Girls (Curie Eleison),” a song about women who contracted radium poisoning from painting the faces of watches with glow-in-the-dark paint in the early 20th century. The song describes how difficult it was for them to raise awareness of the danger of their work or receive compensation for its harm.

The final song takes a lighthearted but still timely look at paying creative talent for their work. It’s a parody of a traditional song about lead mining, now applied to the current world of entertainment, and highlights how difficult it is for musicians to make a living through streaming platforms, when each streamed “play” only earns four-tenths of one cent. Read more about each excerpted performance below.

A portrait of singer and musician Thea Hopkins with guitar
Singer and songwriter Thea Hopkins. Photo by Ryuji Suzuki.

Singing in Solidarity performances in order:

Thea Hopkins: “Creek Lullaby”

Throughout the world, women have traditionally been responsible for laboring in the home, including childcare. This first excerpt features Boston, Massachusetts singer-songwriter Thea Hopkins, a member of Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe of Martha’s Vineyard, performing the song “Creek Lullaby” from a field recording of a young Creek student named Margaret who was recorded by Willard Rhodes at Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas in 1943. The recording is part of the AFC’s Willard Rhodes 1943 Field Recordings Collection (AFC 1943/020), and also the 1954 Indian Songs of Today LP published by the Center.

Hopkins performed “Creek Lullaby” during the Center’s 2022 Archive Challenge program.

Ialoni: “Diash Darjol” and “Mirangula” (mourning songs from Svaneti)

Women play a central role in many traditional cultures, including leading public as well as private mourning rituals when members of their community have passed. These deaths mark a change both in the fabric of the immediate family and the community as a whole. In these two mourning songs from Svaneti, a mountainous province in northwestern Georgia, the women’s ensemble, Ialoni, sing of a mother who has lost her daughter and son-in-law to suicide. Ialoni was formed in 2009 in Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia. Their repertoire draws from all three branches of traditional Georgian vocal polyphony: ecclesiastical, folk and city music. The group selects its repertoire from archival records and manuscripts, field recordings, and published transcriptions, with a special emphasis on reviving relatively unusual, original and complex songs. Ialoni performed during the AFC’s 2021 Homegrown from Home Concert Series, which you can watch here.

Martha González, with Quetzal: “Tragafuegos (The Fire-breathers)”

“Tragafuegos” was inspired by the people, especially children, whom Martha González observed trying to earn small change in hazardous intersections throughout Mexico, performing this risky trick. In the song, González asks: “Did these people grow up dreaming that they would be fire breathers? … What dreams do they have that maybe they’ve put on hold? Or maybe they’ve stopped dreaming.”

In the liner notes to their Smithsonian Folkways album, Imaginaries (2011), which includes “Tragafuegos,” González and Russell Rodríguez write:

“Martha González utilizes dance as a central tool in the composing process to tell the story of the fire breathers, who risk their bodies and lives to entertain commuters for tips in the congested urban spaces in Mexico… Using toxic gasoline to ignite, spit, and create light and shadows in the night, the Tragafuegos rely on the generosity of drivers as they whiz by. Fire breathers are often children who paint their faces like clowns, and as you witness these children or grown men ignite the sky with their fire, they cast both light and shadows on your soul. Fire / fire / the torch and its owner / In each chest burn tears, laughter and a dream.”

González is a 2022 MacArthur fellow also known for her work as a Chicana “artivista” (artist/activist), combining her passions as a longtime musician, feminist scholar, and activist. Quetzal performed during the AFC’s 2011 Homegrown Concert Series, as part of the concert, “Agustín Lira and Alma / Quetzal Cantos de mi Cantón (Songs from My Home), Chicano Music from California,” which you can watch here.

A portrait of Rachel Sumner and Traveling Light with their instruments
Rachel Sumner and Traveling Light. Photo by Sasha Pedro.

Rachel Sumner and Traveling Light: Radium Girls (Curie Eleison)by Rachel Sumner

Lennon Award-winning songwriter Rachel Sumner is a fixture of the Boston roots and Americana scene. Also a singer and multi-instrumentalist, she fronts the trio Traveling Light with Kat Wallace on fiddle and Mike Siegel on upright bass. Together they specialize in applying their deeply rooted bluegrass know-how to new interpretations of traditional folk songs and tightly crafted original songs written by Sumner.

The Radium Girls were factory workers in the early 20th century who were poisoned by their work with radium, mainly by painting “luminous numbers on watch, clock, and instrument dials using radium-laced paint in factories in New Jersey, Illinois, and Connecticut,” as discussed by (now retired) reference librarian Arlene Balkansky in the post, Radium Girls: Living Dead Women, on the Library’s Headlines and Heroes blog.

Sumner and Traveling Light will perform an Archive Challenge concert in summer 2024 at the Library of Congress, featuring their own take on a variety of material from AFC’s collections.

Piper Hayes: “Join the C.I.O.”

Canadian folk-pop singer-songwriter and social activist Piper Hayes from Hamilton, Ontario, has toured performs and teaches workshops across North America, Europe, the U.K., and Nepal. She is a two time nominee of the Ontario Arts Council’s Colleen Peterson Songwriting Award. The Singing in Solidarity compilation features her Archive Challenge performance of “Join the C.I.O.” from Alan Lomax’s 1937 field recording of Kentucky singer Aunt Molly Jackson in New York City, as part of the AFC’s Alan Lomax and Mary Elizabeth Barnacle Collection. You can hear the recording online at the Association for Cultural Equity. You can also read more about Aunt Molly Jackson in this Folklife Today post by Stephen Winick.

Windborne: “0.4 Cents a Play”

The Singing in Solidarity compilation video ends with a song that highlights the age-old problem of undervaluing creative labor. “0.4 Cents a Play” is based on the traditional song “Four Pence A Day” from Northern England about low wages and dismal working conditions in the lead mining industry there. The singers of Windborne have rewritten this text to reflect the fact that many musicians (and other creative laborers, including writers and actors) are underpaid for their work, especially with respect to the rate at which musicians are paid for “plays” on streaming media.

Windborne is Lynn Mahoney Rowan, Will Thomas Rowan, Lauren Breunig, and Jeremy Carter-Gordon. The four singers grew up immersed in the traditional song and dance communities of New England and discovered a love of world folk music in their teens. Windborne’s concert, which you can watch in full here, was part of the AFC’s 2021 Homegrown at Home Concert Series.

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