Deborah Henson-Conant

Telling stories with music at HipHarp.com

I first learned about the labor movement when I got my first union job, years ago as a harpist with “Danny Yale & the Regency Strings” at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco.  Here’s me at work – probably when I was around 25 or 26 – with one of my best buddies, Al Simon, on the bass behind me (although it looks, in this picture like he’s playing the harp column).  Al was originally a vaudeville performer and was probably in his early 60’s in this photo, so in my relationship with him, I got to touch a part of  history I loved.

Along with Al, I had the good fortune to be mentored by a harpist named Jack Nebergall – the man who got me this job and who insisted I memorize everything I played – an early commitment that’s empowered my whole life as a performer.

Why is this all so important to me? Most of my life I’ve been fiercely independent, creating and producing my own work, inventing, creating. This was a time when I got to step into something that was already there, a place that was already created for me.

What you see above was how it looked in the lobby … but behind the scenes was a teeming world of waitresses, bartenders, managers, busboys and countless other hotel staff.  That’s where I spent my breaks, and those were the people – aside from Al and Jack – who I ended up knowing and spending time with outside the hotel.

And that’s where I learned about the labor movement.  It’s where I learned the different aspects of a union: the business aspects and the social aspects, and got a sense how they affect each other.  The bartender, Kim,  was the one who led me there – in tiny pockets of conversation — usually less than a minute, while I was on a break from playing and he was concocting drinks in the back bar – a hidden bar the customers never see, where waitresses stood in a line waiting for the drinks they’d take out to the customers.  The snippets were short so I had time to think about them in between – a constantly interrupted conversation.  Kim later became a lawyer for the union – making a life’s work of fighting for the rights of the workers he fervently believed in.

He’s the reason I know anything about the history of unions.  He told I had to read this book, which I’ve carried around with me since my 20’s.  I’d like to say I read it every year on Labor Day … but the truth is I had to go searching in my bookshelf for it.

It’s easy to forget the meaning or reason for a holiday – to forget that it’s a remembrance day, and that there’s a reason we need to remember.  Nowadays, I can find myself on the other side of union negotiations: frustrated at trying to get the rights to share my own work when there are union musicians involved in the production – not even knowing where to go or how to ask or even WHO to ask.

It's easy to forget the meaning or reason for a holiday Click To Tweet

But despite that frustration, learning about the union movement – even the little that I know – has helped me understand that anything we create that involves other people – a union, a community,  an instrument, a school, a partnership, even our own lives – will  morph over time, will take the flavor of the times and the people and ideas that rise or crawl to the top, will need to be rebuilt again and again to stay healthy.

It’s also taught me that we need to know why we began, so we can go back and reconnect to our foundational principles, to see how we’re living those, or how far we’ve strayed from them.  At the very least, to take the opportunity, on a remembrance day, to talk to someone who remembers more than we do.

Who helps you remember? Click To Tweet

Al and Jack are gone.  I don’t get to talk to them about vaudeville anymore, but I do still get to talk to Kim sometimes, usually when I’m having a melt-down about a political situation.  But maybe … maybe … I can get him to tell me more about the history of the labor movement, and why it’s important – hopefully in more than 1 minutes snippets.

Who do you get to talk to about the history of the life you live?  Who helps you remember?