Want to Start an Occupella?
Here’s How We Do It
We started in October 2011 and have been figuring things out as we go along. We wanted to give others the benefit of our experience though every place will be different and you will probably come up with other problems and other solutions. Here's the main rule: Have fun!
There are five song-leaders at the core of the Bay Area Occupella, but that's not a magic number. My guess is there should be at least three to start, so you can be sure at least one will show up at any song circle or demonstration where you've promised to lead singing—especially important in flu season. We decided that we won't accept a gig as Occupella unless at least two of us can commit to it. Sometimes we break that rule. We started using a small PA system at the BART sings, but the people in the information booth couldn't hear the customers. Now we do without which works fine with several leaders—it could be difficult with just one.
We all have experience performing and leading songs and working in organizations so I think we can see things both from the point of view of the singers and of the organizers of the event. But if you don't have all that experience, just jump in—people love to sing. Occupella isn't really the five of us, it's all the people who join us at demonstrations, transit stations, and Occupations and sing along.
Where we sing
We started with song circles at Occupy encampments and then evolved as Occupy did and became a planned part of Occupy events and now of demonstrations organized by other like-minded groups. During the winter, we organized our own sings at Bay Area Rapid Transit stations where we—and our listeners—could be out of the rain. We discontinued them in the summer months and took them up again in October.
At first we were offering our services when we heard of demonstrations and events we wanted to take part in; now we wait for requests to come in. This is for two reasons: we don't want to overcommit, and when people ask for us, they tend to make better use of our music. Now and then we'll do a more performance-oriented thing—a fund-raiser, say, and we can do songs that take more focussed listening.
What we sing
We have put up lots of songs on this website (occupella.org), but we don't use them all, and we haven't printed them all out for the songbooks we use. We suggest you go through the songs and pick the ones you like and feel comfortable leading so your fellow singers don't have to page through lots to find the one requested. We put them in alphabetical order in three-hole-punch report folders, putting the zipper songs in the front on colored paper. We find used plastic folders with clear fronts at the East Bay Center for Creative Reuse, but you can find paper ones if you have to buy them new. Most of the songs are in large enough type on the PDFs that two or three people can easily share a book. We bring along five or ten to a gig—more if it's a big one.
Whoever is playing guitar usually brings a music stand but can make do with somebody holding the book for them. The guitar players have their songbooks in three-hole binders so they stay open more easily on the stand. Bring clips, clothespins or rubber bands for windy days. Most of the time we have at least one guitar player, sometimes three, but we can go a cappella or tambourine-only when we need to. We didn't put guitar chords on most of the songs because different song-leaders will want to play in different keys. You can find chords for a lot of the songs online if you search.
How we operate
To work with the Occupations themselves, the main attribute we found we needed was flexibility. As we went beyond the Occupations, we saw that we needed to get organized. The five of us meet once a month to go over gig requests, practice for the occasional performance, try out new songs. Our website wizard, Nancy Ibsen, communicates by email from her home in Prescott but has met with us once when she was in town.
When we started doing regular sings at BART stations, we would hand out postcard sized schedules of our appearances (always with the heading "No rehearsals!") but now we have a business-size card referring people to our schedule on the website. Yahoo-groups and other services have web calendars you can sign up for and use to publicize your local schedules. We all have our own mailing lists that we have been sending our schedules to as well. We have appeared in local news weeklies and on radio several times, and our name is becoming known around the Bay. One of the regular singers made Occupella signs we hold or put up with masking tape where we sing. You can see us at a BART sing on YouTube.
Why we sing
We find this is a way to be politically active without burning out, because we are doing something that renews and refreshes us. It seems to do the same for the folks who sing with us. It keeps people from getting bored standing on a street corner holding a sign. It cheers up passersby as well (and the woman who sweeps the Montgomery BART station), and we get a kick out of that. And people will listen to songs, especially humorous ones, when they won't listen to speeches. Or at least not to speech after speech after speech. E. Y. (Yip) Harburg, who wrote the words of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," said "Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought."
At a deeper level, we believe singing can create community and make people more courageous and more peaceful at the same time.