Where there’s smoke, there’s a choir.
On Thursday, students from the O’Connor Method Camp honored the strike of Charleston tobacco workers 70 years ago. With bows raised, a group of about 50 from the camp played an orchestral version of “We Shall Overcome” at the old East Bay Street Cigar Factory.
Mark O’Connor, for which the group is named, said the song carries a deep historical significance, especially in the shadow of the Cigar Factory.
“One of the first places that ‘We Shall Overcome’ was heard and launched was right here at this cigar factory in 1945,” O’Connor said.
Playing barefoot in the grass, violin instructor Pam Wiley assembles the students in an arc to teach them of the 1,200 striking black workers, striving for better pay. The song and the strike is largely credited to kicking off the civil rights movement and change in America.
All the performing students in the method camp have had three to five years of experience in violin, viola, cello or bass. The weeklong method camp focuses mostly on American music, teaching the students about jazz, folk and spirituals.
While there is a tendency to believe that European music is more important in educational circles, O’Connor disagrees and tries to make sure students are not “stuck in the Baroque era with Vivaldi.”
“I think American music in the past 100 years has become some of the most important in the world,” O’Connor said.
With each song in the method book, the history and meaning of the song is displayed on the neighboring pages. Teaching music from the children’s own heritage, O’Connor said, is more likely to get children excited about the arts.
“It’s going to be music like this that will motivate children to participate and learn,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor begins with one round of the chorus solo, as the group readies their bows to join.
Several performers played along with the young orchestra, including Lonnie Root on cello. Root, who plays with rock and folk bands around town, said he first began playing around the same age as these kids today.
“I can relate a lot to what they’re learning,” he said. “I wish I had learned earlier.”
Although the method focuses mostly on American music, Root said he enjoys the diversity in styles.
“It totally doesn’t get away from classical, which is great,” Root said.
For Wiley, the cultural learning is the greatest takeaway from a day filled with music.
“It’s really what the method is all about: connecting the music to our American history,” she said.
Reach Nick Watson at 937-4810.