PICK A BALE OF COTTON

One of the key events in ‘Ghost Love’ revolves around my lead character Tonia singing in her university choir.

In Soviet Russia schoolchildren were encouraged to perform on stage, and if you had a good voice, that meant being part of the school and, later on, the university choir. As I wrote earlier, if you had talent you could attend a music school in addition to the usual school, but going to the music school cost money, in my case it was 21 Roubles per month (to compare, my Grandma’s monthly pension was 56 Roubles). In my music school the choir met every Saturday and we performed at various celebrations: the Great October Revolution Day (7th November), May Day (1st May) or Victory Day (9th May) being the most important ones in the Communist calendar.

Me in the music school choir second from the top right
Me in the music school choir second from the top right

This is a picture of me trilling away at one of those performances (I am second from the right in the top right corner). How glamorous we all looked in our celebratory write aprons and white ribbons in our hair! You also had to wear long white socks which I used to hate for those occasions (I’d always get cold in them!).

Tonia has a good voice so she’s naturally part of her university choir which features twice in ‘Ghost Love’. The first time we meet her rehearsing for a performance on the Great October Revolution Day – a BIG deal in Soviet times ‒ and, just like my university choir had I’ve made the choir leader an American. Not as strange as it might sound; there were quite a few American Communists in Moscow then, having fled the States to avoid persecution by McCarthy. All of us studying English used to flock to the choir sessions just to listen to her great accent (real English spoken by a real American, wow!) and to learn some of the old American songs. One of them was “Pick a Bale of Cotton”. I suppose the song is a little non-PC now and I’ve tried to communicate this by the observations made by Georgie, the rather outspoken English girl:

They worked hard for the next hour, running through the three numbers the choir would be performing at the Revolution Day Concert in November. Of these ‘Pick a Bale of Cotton’ was Tonia’s favorite, she found ‘Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream’ and ‘If I Had a Hammer’ a little too ponderous for her taste though the occasional asides by Georgie regarding the lyrics – ‘racist crap’, ‘fucking nonsense’ and ‘sentimental bullshit’ being the most memorable – did enliven their performance. And sandwiched between Georgie’s comments and Natasha’s rotten singing – the girl was tone deaf, which probably accounted for her terrible English pronunciation – by the time Mrs Maier called it a day and dismissed the choir Tonia had a monumental headache…”

The one thing about my singing in the school and later university choir, it stood me in good stead when I began to sing jazz (something else which features prominently in ‘Ghost Love’). When I came to England in 1998 I fronted the band performing in the jazz-themed hotel my husband and I set up. An interesting few years which culminated in my recording a critically-acclaimed nuJazz album called “Jazz Noir” (you can watch me singing that great Marlene Dietrich number ‘Falling in Love Again’ if you follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2J5Phukc8Y).

Alas for poor Tonia the consequences of becoming a jazz singer were much more threatening … but to find out why you’ll have to read ‘Ghost Love’!

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