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The Choir of Hard Knocks – Parable for the 2020 Summit

The Choir of Hard Knocks – Parable for the 2020 Summit
By Stephen Smith

“Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all”
- Andre Breton

The Australia 2020 Summit sets out to be a showpiece for ‘open democracy’. This is the hope of its helmsman, Kevin Rudd. But as a planned event, it faces the dilemma of how to spark the spontaneity so vital to innovation and change. His plan may also falter at another point. The Summit seeks a new vision. Yet far from teaching us to be more resourceful, it will depend on the views of experts and celebrities. As a way out of this impasse, we shall draw on a parable of our times.

Politics – so often just a loop of images and sound bites. Leaders and opinion polls do no more than mimic each other. The alternative – and our means of redemption – is to look at creating our own reality. Pop culture is a Gnostic highway that is rich with such a theme.

To follow this path we need to look past the Summit’s grand display of one thousand flowers in bloom. Instead, we go back to the local - and the streets we know. The parable we choose is that of the Choir of Hard Knocks.

The Choir of Hard Knocks gives shelter to its members. Where society may fail in providing physical shelter, the Choir offers emotional support to its disadvantaged and homeless members. As anyone who has seen a performance will attest, on stage, they create a glow of recognition that is missing once they fall back to the cold hard streets. Above all, by the example of this unlikely group, we see that those who for whatever reason find it hard to fit into society’s expectations are nonetheless still capable of realizing their dreams.

I caught the show earlier this year at a full house at Canberra’s Royal Theatre. The impression was to bring the walls tumbling down before their collective voices. In the end, their voices won us over such that you could hear our sing-along from every row.

The Choir changes our view about music. What strikes me as unique about them is the revival of a kind of folk lore. It is a street culture, banished by the media’s linking of talent with fame and celebrity with cultural worth. The Choir reminds us that ordinary people can create that magic spell in music as in other fields of the arts. The lesson here is more jolting because these people are not just ‘ordinary’– they include the homeless and lost. While we have been preoccupied by pop icons, we ignore the essential origins and simple joy of music that exists within us and around us. While we flock to the blockbusters, we miss how deep creative talent flows beneath the towering neon where the noise and hum of consumerism never stops.

As Bob Dylan tells us in Desolation Row:

Ezra Pound and TS Elliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers.

What Dylan is saying here is that while much art has become empty discourse between elites, the genuine article is practiced every day before our eyes. The arts are thus part of our living culture - and the streets are alive with the sound of music.

In this spirit, the Choir is the true embodiment of popular surrealism. Like the calypso singers and fishermen in the Dylan song, the Choir reminds us that simple joy and the ability to strike a chord in each other is alive and well. High art and commercialism (and Summit participants) may battle it out in the ‘captain’s tower’, but in the end the stage belongs to the people.

A common error is to miscast surrealism as a rock video style of zaniness. Its true origins go back to the twenties and thirties and figures such as Andre Breton and Robert Desnos. Let us now define what we mean by ‘popular surrealism’. It is a way of seeing how that which is most ordinary can also be extra-ordinary. It is seeing the marvellous in the everyday. Surrealism is part of the day to day experience. A further aspect of surrealism achieved by the Choir of Hard Knocks is the audience’s sense of surprise and shock from the juxtaposition of two distinct realities. On one side is our preconceived idea about high culture. The surprise that awaits us is to see street culture subvert a formerly staid medium such as the choir.

To our ears, the Choir offers something special. It demonstrates that talent, fine voices and music’s power of emotion are not the exclusive license of pop icons. Above all, we find a message for us all: that the spirit is never diminished no matter what hard knocks life deals out.

In this respect, the Choir is part of an uprising of street talent we find happening all over the world. The Choir of Hard Knocks is a relatively new sensation in Melbourne. However, the Sydney Street Choir has a similar story to tell over its seven years. Looking overseas, there are stories that connect to the same experience - such as the Montreal Homeless Men’s Choir.

Swapping the Choirmaster’s baton for a football, we find that the Homeless World Cup aims to achieve similar goals in the sporting field. Australia has entered teams in the last two Homeless World Cups. It in turn is an offshoot of the street soccer movement where you don’t need an expensive grass pitch to play on. Sport is a fresh avenue for winning respect, and like the street choir, it can build self-esteem.

For the Choir members, many have never been applauded in their lives; and the rapturous applause at the end of a show is of course the reward for every performer – from the greatest to the most humble. For the street choir, the applause is the recognition society has never provided, and tragically, in the present social reality – perhaps never can.

Chances are some of the 2020 invitees will have heard the Choir of Hard Knocks. To make the best of the Summit, its participants would do well to put into practice some of the Choir’s street level messages. Not only within the arts, but also by application to life. A ‘vision’ needs to be a popular one; but we can do without the same old spectacle of experts and celebrities that displaces that which it claims to represent.


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Well . . .

The singing wasn't actually all that great.

When I have got to know people I have always been surprised at their talents.

With support and useful feedback extraordinary things are possible.  But this takes skill in relating to people (perhaps one reason why the choir's performance wasn't better than it was).

Ivan Illich (how relevant he still is!) pointed out that the size of group that can be addressed by the unaided human voice is disappearing (the crowd and isolation are the two poles of this phenomenon).  It is this group size that these groups create, it is this group size that is needed to restore our democracy.  We need venues where this size of group can gather and flourish.


I agree, Evan, and suggest that perhaps we could call these venues  Nganbirra.

Sing his praises

Great article, Stephen. I'm in complete agreement with you.  Let's hope that at some point in the show some, if not all of the cast stray off script and point out that the audience could (and should) be participants rather than mere spectators.

The Right Direction

I've worked on a similar philosophy for a long time, Stephen.  The reason we started at this pub (15 years ago in June) was to keep alive a home for grass-roots music in a world that (at the time, things are improving) considered it unviable and therefore left it without much of a public identity.  A friend of mine started up an open mike night at a community radio station for similar reasons.

Over the time things have changed, "folk" is no longer a dirty word, and people are longing for the talent in the person next to them equally as much as the song that's had the biggest marketing budget. 

There was a Live Music Task Force set up in the UK about six years ago, fronted by Feargal Starkey, that was operating on a mission statement that they didn't want their next generation of music to be owned by Virgin and EMI.  Rehearsal studios, performance spaces, those sought of things were high on the agenda.   Anybody who's read Richard Florida's book Towards a Creative Society (my father sent a copy to everyone in the SA Cabinet) would understand that you have to create places for things to happen in, or they won't happen.

Aside: while in the middle of writing this post, I've just taken a phone call asking if I was interested in being cast as a violin player in a prison band for a forthcoming commercial flick (Broken Hill-The Movie is the working title.)  Yep, things are changing enough that I might not land on the "cutting-room floor".

Of music, kids and pubs

So Richard, do you play the violin? If so we expect you to bring it to the NYE musicfest in the back yard here this year. We also do one up at the farm every second Easter and everyone down to the smallest child has to make a cultural offering. It was great to hear a four year old singing the full Road to Gundagai, but the real show stopper was an 84 year old playing the concertina to a  baby, trying to get it to go to sleep. (It was actually a doll in a doll's pram.) Every time he stopped playing the baby cried on cue (he had mimicked a baby crying on tape which started on cue). After about ten stops and crying episodes the baby was asleep and so was he.

My step daughter is a theatre director down there (though she has just moved with her family to Melbourne), and she worked for some time with the Unley Youth Theatre. At one stage she did a show just using street kids and it was amazing how those kids developed and started integrating back into society. It is all about self esteem and confidence. 

But it is not only the arts that can help the disadvantaged. It is really heartening to see the kids we took as farm help in their teen years, kids who had little opportunity in life, now married and working full time. As one said of my late brother: If it wasn't for him I would be on the streets by now. I saw recently where some young addicts were making full recovery while working on isolated properties in Queensland. Getting them away from the negative environment and giving them a purppose makes sense.

I see there is some consternation in Ireland at the number of little pubs that are being forced to close with changing times. Now that will be a cultural loss.

Common knowledge

In spite of the Task Force, stuff (and yes legislation was actually passed to enshrine the right to Morris dance in a pub) London's going through venue hiccups too.  It's the age of the corporate pub, I'm afraid, Jenny.  What people don't seem to care about are the aural traditions, the "common knowledge" that will be lost in the pubs passing.  As long as we're watching our LCD widescreens in the isolaition of our homes, we're much more malleable than if we're interacting

I don't play the violin, Jenny, I play the fiddle, and when I've been asked by media what the distinction is, I tell them it's a state of mind.  I also can find my way around English concertina, harmonica, button accordions (more comfortable with diatonics than chromatics), piano, mandolin, tin whistle, recorder, double bass, guitar, ukelele,  hammered and appalachian dulcimers, 5-string banjo, autoharp, celtic harp (a little)  bodhran and spoons,  Most of the learning of these instruments has been in festival and pub sessioins.   The way things are changing it's going to be rare to have such chances of education by aural tradition, unless people are proactive.

I could write more on this and probably will when time permits; right now it's one of those days.

It seems that I have won the movie part, though now I'm playing percussion on the back of a double bass with the bow, as a demonstration of a music teaching technique that I'm not aware of yet.

A one man band

Richard, great that you got the part. And it sounds like you are a one man band. I find that living with a musician means you need a lot of extra space. All our wardrobes are full of gear and instruments of one sort or another. But I would not have it otherwise. Music is so good for the soul.

Music IS good for the soul

So why are modern generations being taught to be its consumers instead of creators? My point in listing the instruments, Jenny, wasn't to skite but to refer to a set of noisemakers that an extremely low percentage of modern youth will ever encounter. John Butler seems to have revived the banjo, but sshhh don't tell the kiddies. How many of these instruments will be seen a hundred years ahead except for as curiosities?

I learned two weeks ago that in 1947 Adelaide there existed a Banjo-Mandolin club. To unfamiiar readers, this is a hybrid instrument. Anyway I've met a couple of the former members. One runs an instrument shop in the city, and the other used to be the musical director for Ch 9.

By not enccouraging more playing and singing, we may be denying ourselves access to the part of us that can't be visited by writing words and painting pictures. Then again, by buying songs instead of writing them we're losing something too I heard Kevin Rudd joking about the last thing being needed was a team of musicologists (what about ethnomusicologists, the anthropological poor-cousins?) writing a new national anthem. That this should even be raised jocularly is almost appalling. No offence to the PM, but it shows a lost piece of cultural soul.

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