FUN

Karen Silkwood Memorial Choir

By Don Orr Martin

“Jingle Coins,” “O Con All the Faithful,” “Clanging Bells.” These were the titles of some of the anti-Christmas carols ten or more of us sang in 1977. The venue was a huge new shopping mall that opened that year in Olympia. We drew in holiday shoppers with our familiar harmonies, and ever so slowly they understood these weren’t quite the same Christmas carols they remembered. New lyrics to “Jingle Bells,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Silver Bells,” and several others were borrowed from the Fallen Angel Choir and Family Circus Theatre in Portland with whom several of us were good friends. We also wrote a few new lyrics ourselves.

The choir performs at a local event c. 1978

The choir was a project of Theatre of the Unemployed, a radical theatre group that produced plays and musicals on controversial issues, like workers’ rights, racism, sex discrimination, homophobia, and corporate corruption. We called ourselves the Karen Silkwood Memorial Choir, named for the labor organizer and chemical technician who worked at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant in Oklahoma. She was exposed to deadly levels of radiation and was later murdered as she was about to report safety problems at the facility to the press in 1974. She had a special place in our hearts because our choir and theatre group were protesting the risks and proliferation of nuclear power plants in Washington State at the time.

Initially, the choir was a neighborhood cultural activity that started about 1976. Several collective households participated—the Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman Collectives among others. We got together a couple of times a month and sang old labor union songs from the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW, known as the Wobblies, used to give soapbox speeches on street corners in the early 1900s, often competing with Salvation Army bands. Their union songs were sung to the tunes of familiar religious hymns. It was a great teaching tool because ideas and slogans were easy to remember and pass along when they were set to music people already knew. Our choir also sang favorite folk tunes and antiwar anthems of our era. Eventually we started performing at May Day marches, various benefits, and even at a gay pride rally against Anita Bryant in Seattle.

In 1977 the imposing Capital Mall was built by California developers in what was once a wetland and forested area on Olympia’s westside. It forever changed the character of the town. The free parking on acres of impervious blacktop and the mall’s big box stores killed many downtown businesses. We called this retail monstrosity the “Capitalist Mall.” One member of the choir, Tom Clingman, wrote a protest song about it. This is the chorus:

Traffic they make fills up my street.
Small business can’t compete.
And they take the money back to Californ’
Shopping center is what their buildin’
Gonna give Olympia a golden gildin’
But it’s just more cars and urban sprawl.

But the Karen Silkwood Memorial Choir was perhaps best known for our anti-Christmas caroling. That first holiday shopping season after the Capitalist Mall opened, we put on scarves and mittens, Santa hats and sleigh bells, and strolled around the interior plaza serenading shoppers who reacted positively to our holiday “cheer.” Even store managers thought we were cute, until they realized our message was about the blatant consumerism of the season. Security officers eventually confronted us and permanently 86’d us from the public space they claimed was private property. But we found other venues and continued our caroling tradition through the end of the decade. Here’s a sample of some of the lyrics of our anti-Christmas carols:

Jingle Coins (to the tune of Jingle Bells)

Jingle coins, jingle coins, jingle in the till
Oh what fun it is to sell and call it all good will
Jingle coins, jingle coins, jingle in the banks
Christ came to save the winter slump for that we can give thanks.

The trinkets in our line are mostly from Hong Kong
Where there’s no overtime and no one thinks it’s wrong.
The labor there is plentiful and practically free
Producing little ornaments to dangle from your tree, oh…

Clanging Bells (to the tune of Silver Bells)

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks. Fight your way thru the mob
In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas
People buying, store ads lying, sellers doing their job
And above the canned carols you hear:

[Chorus]
Clanging bells. Banging bells. God, it’s the Salvation Army.
Clattering, chattering. Who needs a headache right now?

And the cop cars as they stop cars blink a bright red on red
As the muggers rush home with their treasures
Private towing profits growing hauling parked cars away
And above the horns honking you hear:
[Chorus]

O Con All the Faithful (to the tune of O Come All Ye Faithful)

O con all the faithful, appeal to their religion
O buy a plastic manager scene and set it up in the front yard

[Cut time]
12 life-like figures set the tone in life-like painted Styrofoam
Available with appropriate tape-recorded Bible verses

[A tempo]
O how we do abhor it. Wherever shall we store?
But we paid plenty for it, and besides it’s the biggest one on the block.

Here’s the full text of the song by Tom Clingman:

From the Oly Westside Hills to California

Developers down in California
Sit behind desks and inform ya
How they’re gonna help our community.
Trailer courts and roads galore
Try to sell you a little bit more
While messing up downtown’s economy.

[Chorus]
Traffic they make fills up my street.
Small business can’t compete.
And they take the money back to Californ’
Shopping center is what their buildin’
Gonna give Olympia a golden gildin’
But it’s just more cars and urban sprawl.

See the neighborhoods they’re destroying
With their tractors they go roaring
On down to the nearest patch of woods
Push all the trees in a great big pile
Fire it up and let it burn a while
That wood could’ve heated all our homes.

[Chorus]

Poor hard hats who built the place
Know about the deer they can’t replace
By next year they’ll both be moving on
Knock down the trees and dig a big hole
Yards of concrete into it go
Fill it up and then our jobs are gone . . .

[Chorus]

Poor Big Bob’s and Mama Eagan’s
Old McDonald’s gonna give ‘em a beating
And close down our favorite eating spots.
Sitting around in the rain gets old
Shopping mall is climate controlled
It’s California Winter Spring and Fall!

[Chorus]