International Harvester Male Chorus
Lew Abley and Ralph Oke of the International Harvester Male Chorus (formed in 1943) discuss the history of the Chorus with Gwlad McLachlan.
Initially, the Chorus was made up of International Harvester employees but soon after its formation other men were invited to join. Ralph also discusses his time at the Harvester during World War II and his role helping to assemble aircraft for the war effort. This is an edited version of an interview that was originally aired 3YYR, Geelong Community Radio, in September 1989 as part of the Keeping in Touch program.
GWLAD MCLACHLAN: I'm Gwald McLachlan. And with us in the studio today we have members of the International Harvester Male Chorus-- Lew Abley and Ralph Oke. Thank you very much for coming in, Lew and Ralph.
LEW ABLEY: Pleasure.
GWLAD MCLACHLAN: Lew, how did the chorus start? What was your first involvement?
LEW ABLEY: Well, my first involvements goes back about perhaps 18 years. That's all. My next-door neighbor says, how'd you like to come and sing with us? And so-- and it started me off like that. But I'm sure Ralph goes back much further than I do.
GWLAD MCLACHLAN: Well, how far back do you go, Ralph?
RALPH OKE: Well, I go back right to the very, very start. Because when I was an employee at Harvester as a third-year apprentice in the tool room a notice went up on the notice board that on a particular day at a particular time they were going to call together any people who were interested in the Harvester choir in forming a choir of male men. And so it was that this notice went on the board.
And at dinner time one day, a group of about 25 chaps gathered around the store in the tool room. And there it was promoted by a gentleman who was a storeman that just happened to be the father-in-law of our present president, Ollie Missen. His name is Burt Ruppin.
And this group got together. And they decided there and then that they would form a choir. And this was in 1943. That goes back something like 46 years ago, which dates us quite a bit, doesn't it?
GWLAD MCLACHLAN: The choir-- has it changed in the sound very much over the years? Are you still singing the same type of music?
RALPH OKE: Well it's the same type of music, but we've had five-- five conductors. And each conductor brings his own interpretation to the music. And so even though we're singing a particular song now, it's probably quite different from what we sang years ago.
GWLAD MCLACHLAN: I think it might be good to have to listen to this song that I've chosen from that first record. Now this is "Old Man River," a very beautiful, well-loved song. And so I think we'll have a listen to that, and then we'll come back and talk more about it.
[MUSIC - INTERNATIONAL HARVESTER MALE CHORUS, "OLD MAN RIVER"]
RALPH OKE: I think if you speak to most people in Geelong, somebody has worked at Harvester. Nearly every person knows something about Harvester, knows somebody or-- because I can remember during the war time, there was around about 2,500 people employed there. And this created employment for a lot of people in Geelong. It's rather sad that the place did close up, really, because it has provided employment for so many people.
GWLAD MCLACHLAN: Of course, the war broke out very soon after. And so then you had to go manufacturing for the war effort.
RALPH OKE: Right. Yes. And we were apprentices at the time. Half a day a week we used to have to come into school and to the Gordon. And then we'd have to ride our push bikes back out to Harvester again and go from half-past five till half-past eight at night.
For an extra three hours overtime, we used to get three shillings for that. Whether-- whether people do that these days, I don't know. But it was pretty tough going in those days.
We made all sorts of parts. We made mine parts. And we used to make jigs and fixtures for commonwealth aircraft. We made the-- I remember working on the tail-- in the tail assembly of a Beaufort bomber, I think it was. Great big jig. It looked like the Sydney Harbour Bridge. And I'm not very tall now, but I was smaller then.
And this was called my folly. And I used to have to be on a great big stand working on this great big tail-plane thing. But we did a lot of work. And sometimes we had to work right over weekends and things like that.
At that time the American Air Force had the rear end of the-- of the factory. And we weren't allowed in that area at all of course. They used to assemble Boston Bombers and Kittyhawk aircraft and things like that.