By Charles Innis
City College Labor Studies instructor and chorus director Patricia Wynne took home the Joe Hill Award on June 21 for her work with the San Francisco Bay Area Labor Heritage/Rockin’ Solidarity Chorus.
The Joe Hill Award is given annually by the Labor Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, to persons based on their activism and commitment towards labor and its associated arts, culture and history.
“It shines a spotlight on the cultural workers who give us music, movement, visual art, spoken word and song to lift our collective spirits so that we can do the work before us – bringing about economic, political and social justice for all,” Elise Bryant, Executive Director of the Labor Heritage Foundation told The Guardsman through email.
Previous recipients of the award include folk singer and activist Pete Seeger and Latino-American civil rights activist Cesar Chavez.
“In the tradition of Joe Hill, Pat uses contemporary popular music to raise consciousness around labor and human rights issues,” Bryant said, “You can see in her choral directing that she brings her whole self to this work.”
On the same day of receiving the award, a personally autographed copy of her book of performance pieces “Singing Out and Fighting Back” was inducted into the Library of Congress, an experience she recalls with glowing enthusiasm.
“You have no idea how happy that makes me,” Wynne said.
Wynne directs the Labor Heritage/Rockin’ Solidarity Chorus through City College’s Labor Studies Department, where she instructs the beginning, intermediate, and advanced classes.
“In one way it’s sort of a service organization—we perform where people want us to. They request us to perform at labor unions, nonprofits, marches, protests, pick-it lines, you know,” Wynne said.
It also functions as a way for chorus members to learn labor history through song, according to Wynne.
Membership isn’t exclusive to City College students. Anyone in the San Francisco Bay Area can join, regardless of vocal talent.
This open-arm approach to membership could be problematic for a chorus if certain people can’t hold a tune, but Wynne bypasses such obstacles by including speaking parts.
“Not everyone is a solo singer, but with a performance piece then people can be narrators or characters or what not,” Wynne said.
In her pieces, characters perform short skits relating to a labor or civil rights topic while choral interludes, consisting of mostly four-part harmonies, break the scenes up with song.
Her book “Singing Out and Fighting Back” holds about 80 songs and covers a range of topics, including immigration, globalization and the blunders of Capitalism.
The book was also designed by City College students in the Visual Media Design Department and assembled over the course of 3 semesters.
Wynne has been involved in the labor movement in some fashion for her entire life. A considerable amount of her inspiration comes from the political environment she grew up in.
“My father was a great unionist and he was very inspirational to me. I also grew up in a sort of political oriented summer colony as an early child,” Wynne said.
She admitted that winning an award for her life’s work was something she had never imagined.
“It wasn’t a great or huge step for me to do this,” Wynne said, “This is like part of my growing up, you know. It’s who I am.”