Belmont, Geelong; November 1998
The International Harvester Choir had been a part of our family lives forever. Dad was a founding member and joined up when a notice was put up in the tool-room of the International Harvester Company in Geelong in 1943, seeking men with an interest in singing.
Since then he had sung in hundreds of concerts, churches, country and city halls right across Victoria as well as on a number of recordings. I was sitting next to my older brother in the Belmont hall as the male chorus were proudly singing in their 1000th performance in 1998. I hadn’t heard the choir for a while but there were many familiar songs in the program that day.
A particular song I had remembered from my childhood was the African American spiritual Steal Away To Jesus. There was always something about the dynamic of that song – the way the choir went from an almost whisper to a contrasting louder volume later in that song when singing about the ‘thunder’, ‘lightning’ and the ‘trumpet’.
As the choir launched into Steal Away To Jesus I felt the waves of emotion washing over me and I was crying. Luckily I had armed myself with a number of tissues knowing that this was going to happen.
Steal away to Jesus.
Steal away home.
I ain’t got long to stay here.
Unfortunately Dad was not there for performance 1000. He had passed away only weeks before as the result of a spreading cancer. The lyrics about ‘stealing away to Jesus’, being ‘called’ and ‘I ain’t got long to stay here’ were close to my heart as the grief was still very heavy. I no longer would hear Ralph Oke’s tenor voice that was always so strong and familiar in the recital.
My lord, my lord, he calls me.
He calls me by the thunder.
The trumpet sounds way down in my sanctified soul.
I ain’t got long to stay here.
In my family it was a rite of passage to spend a weekend with Dad as we travelled on a McHarrys coach from Geelong to a country Victorian destination with the International Harvester Choir. First was my older brother’s turn, my turn, and then my younger brother’s turn. This all happened at about age ten, eleven and twelve.
We would travel to places like Swan Hill, St Arnaud, Wangaratta, Heyfield, Corack East or Wonthaggi to perform a Saturday evening concert and a church service and/or ‘Pleasant Sunday Afternoon’ concert before returning back to Geelong.
We were billeted out overnight and I got to meet some lovely families. My interest in travelling to new and unseen parts of our state was as big an adventure as the concerts I attended. As a child, it was very interesting to observe my father mixing with people outside of my familiar church or family circles. My delightful conclusion was that Dad was always friendly, respectful and cheery with anyone he was having conversation with. It was pretty special to spend that alone time with my father on those weekends.
Dad started his career at the International Harvester factory at the North Shore plant as an apprentice fitter and turner. During the Second World War years he was in ‘protected industry’. He didn’t sign up for the armed services as he was still in his apprenticeship and building parts for Beaufort bombers and artillery. He still had a very important role in the war effort.
The choir’s repertoire drew from stage show musicals, sacred songs and spirituals: Stout Hearted Men, On The Street Where You Live, Climb Every Mountain and Oh Mary Don’t You Weep, to name just a few. There was always solid and reliable piano accompaniment.
Although the Australian arm of the International Harvester Company incurred financial problems, and Dad was retrenched from being a production planner in the early 1980s, he continued as an active member of the choir. At that point the choir became even more community-based as compared to industry-based. The choir is now the oldest male choir in Victoria and in 2015 appointed its first female conductor.
Not too long ago I was rather surprised, and thrilled to hear Dad’s voice again. Ralph and his friend Lew were interviewed by a community radio station in 1989 about the choir. The interview had been uploaded and archived on the Internet and I stumbled across it. As well as the interview there is a 1950 recording of the choir singing Old Man River.
The accompanying YouTube clip is not the International Harvester Male Chorus, but it is Steal Away performed in an identical style to that I remember with Dad.
The song will always remind me of my father, the Harvester choir, performance number 1000 and the very special weekend adventures spent with him.
© David Oke