Bodies on the Line:
The Great Flint Sit-Down Strike
Bodies on the Line: The Great Flint Sit-Down Strike is an hour-long oratorio for orchestra, chorus and solo mezzo, tenor and bass/baritone. Commissioned by the Oakland Symphony, I (Martin) composed the music, the librettist and dramaturg was Rebecca Engle. It was premiered May of 2023 and conducted by Guest Director Tito Muñoz. For a copy of the score or to watch the video contact the composer via this website.
About the oratorio
Today the city of Flint, Michigan is best known for its water crisis, but what's nearly forgotten is that in 1937 two-thousand Flint auto workers rose up against General Motors, the largest corporation in the world. The strikers, frustrated and desperate, occupied the plants for forty-four days in what became known as the "Great Flint Sit-Down Strike." There were numerous strikes in our history, why is this one different? Quite simply, the workers won. After fourteen strikers were shot by police the story was not confined to Flint -- it made headlines across the nation. FDR and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (the country's female cabinet secretary) became involved in reaching a resolution. Throughout the U.S. citizens formed intense opinions as to whether the "sit-downers" were heroes fighting for their dignity or criminal trespassers. The strike spread to fifteen more cities and Flint was filled
with journalists from three continents. Meanwhile, inside the plants some very courageous workers hunkered down; believing another police assault was imminent, they were ready to die. Their unlikely victory, achieved by a high-risk act of deception, is considered a seminal event in creating America's blue-collar middle class.
What's an oratorio?
An oratorio is a large musical work for orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists. Like an opera, it tells a story, but without the singers' movements about the stage, make-up, sets, etc. Oratorios were popular during the Baroque Era, faded away, and over the past 20 years have been making a comeback.
How did the story come to life?
Librettist/dramaturg Rebecca Engle and I spent ten days in Michigan poring through the strike's historical records. In our hands we held newspaper articles, press releases, letters between strikers and their families, messages scrawled on scraps of paper, a worker's diary -- it was a time-tunnel to the 1930s. I felt the thrill of touching history. Rebecca sifted through this mountain of material and assembled a compelling, architecturally strong story with memorable characters.
MUSICAL AMERICA REVIEW by Steven Winn Bodies on the Line: Social Injustice of a Different Era May 25, 2023 With its opening volley of concussive orchestral thuds and clanking percussion, Bodies on the Line: The Great Flint Sit-Down Strike delivers the assaultive sound and feel of a 1930s automobile assembly line. In doing so, this ambitious, hour-long oratorio, which received its world premiere on May 19 by the Oakland Symphony, declares its dramatic and ideological design. Composed by Martin Rokeach, with a libretto and direction by Rebecca Engle, the work is about the clash of systems and institutions. Mass production and the labor movement. Capitalism and popular protest. Economies of scale and the concenration of wealth. Feminism and the future of society. Presented at Oakland's glorious 1931 Paramount Theater, an art deco palace built just a few years before the story unfolds, Bodies on the Line has a solemnity and grandeur as well as a granular feel for its era. A large chorus dressed in factory work clothes, stood massed on risers behind the orchestra, along with three principal soloists and others drawn from the ensemble. Two projection screens, flanking a central one for supertitles, carried period scenes of large factories and throngs of workers. The oratorio plays out in 13 sections that move the narrative from a broad-brush portrayal of the multiple factories General Motors operated in Flint and elsewhere, under brutal conditions for workers, to a more intimate account of the strikers, their strategy, and the financial and personal costs of a grueling but ultimately successful six-week sit-in. Baritone Morgan Smith, in the thankless role of avain and ruthless GM President Alfred P. Sloan, embodied ownership. Tenor Marc Molomot played a worker, whose spare but affecting real-life diary Engle tapped for her libretto. Molomot's voice . . . added a sense of vulnerable resolve to his character. Mezzo-soprano Melody Wilson sang with grit and grace as both a union organizer's wife and FDR's Labor Secretary, Francis Perkins . . . . . . If concertgoers were expecting a triumphant celebration of the successful sit-in, they got something more nuanced and authentic instead. In both documenting and transcending the Flint strike, Bodies registers in a wider, deeper dimension. Over restlessly shifting harmonies, skillfully deployed by guest conductor Tito Muñoz, Rokeach's somber hymn-like music and Engle's text reminded listeners that the struggle for justice in Flint and elsewhere is open-ended and far from over. Flint's recent water crisis goes unmentioned, though it is certainly part of the same issue. Instead of water, Engle's libretto ends on the word "breath," a basic human need that George Floyd's death, among others, so painfully affirmed.
To see a 5-minute video excerpt here's a link to mezzo-soprano Jessica Bowers singing the final movement, Still We Stand; the pianist is Lino Rivera. In this solo aria the narrator, Genora Johnson, describes the aftermath of the strike. What you hear on the piano is a reduction of the orchestra's part. Though Melody Wilson sang the role for Oakland Symphony, this excellent recording was made for a 2022 broadcast interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmVeo3TRmBA