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Up With People

I ran across some YouTube references to this while looking up something else, and the memories started to work their magic. I'd be interested to know if  there are those among you who sang in "Up With People" or the local "Sing Out" groups of the 60s and forward. I've always been under the impression that these groups were important in the evolution of "swing choirs," later called "show choirs." My older sister and brother were involved, but their popularity, at least the local group's, had waned by the mid-70s when I was of an age to sing with them. I saw a bit of a documentary about UWP, and it painted the group as a right-wing answer to the hippies, anti-war groups, and the like. Supporters claim the group helped avert World War Three. If anyone with personal experience can share, I'd be most appreciative.
Replies (6): Threaded | Chronological
on December 28, 2010 4:29pm
Hi, Russell.  I can verify that UWP was still very active in the '80s, because I had at least one student in my university entertainment ensemble who had toured with them.
Judging--very likely unfairly--by that one student, my impression was that their audition and selection process was less focused on talent and skill, and much more on accepting their belief system and being willing to devote a lot of energy to promulgating it.  I don't think that either singing or dancing at a professional level was expected.  I could be wrong, of course.
But no, I had certainly never associate UWP with the origin of the Swing Choirs of the '60s and '70s.  If anything, I would think it was the opposite--that students who had participated in and enjoyed swing choirs in school were sought after by the UWP organization because of their experience.  And of course the grand-daddy of it all was Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians, going back into the late '30s, '40s, and '50s.  Fred may not have been "the man who taught America to sing," as his promotional materials claimed, but he was certainly the one who established that a choral approach to popular music, folksongs, and novelty songs was perfectly valid and could be done with the highest artistic standards.  And that the words should always be clearly understood--what WAS he thinking?!!!
Where the dance element of Swing Choirs came from I can't tell you, except that the influence of Broadway and movie musicals was certainly pervasive.  But the MUSICAL underpinnings of Fred's work and of the later development of Swing Choirs, Show Choirs, and even Vocal Jazz, come from the non-academic college Glee Club tradition, and THAT has a very long history indeed!  The Pennsylvanians themselves were a fusion of college Glee Club with a dance Big Band (and Fred's band did play for a number of the annual dances right here at this school in the early '40s). 
So I can see UWP as a spinoff of all this, just as were The Young Americans (who performed at Disneyland in the early '70s and led to Disney forming their own Kids Of The Kingdom) and many other college show ensembles were, including The New Virginians right here.
All the best,
on December 29, 2010 11:14am
Hi Russell,
Up With People is still around.  It is based out of Denver, Co.  I traveled in 1978 as a cast member and worked as a staff member for two years during 1982-1984.  I can truly say it was one of the best experiences of my life.  After 30 years I still hear from many of the families and friends that I either traveled with or stayed in their homes.  In fact, my very first host Mom called me a couple of weeks ago to say "hello" and check on me and my family.  She is 87 years old.
The early years of Up With People was associated with moral rearmament.  The Vietnam War was taking place and the founder of Up With People, Blanton Belk, felt that not all young people were rebellious and on drugs.  Up With People, through its music traveled the world singing songs about brotherhood and unity.  They actually picked up young people from city to city in its beginning days to spread the message that we really need to try to understand all people of the world and learn to get along.
In 1978, I traveled with over 100 college age students from all over the world staying in about 82 different cities.  We always stayed with families in each town that we traveled to.  The interview process took place after the shows.  It was not based on talent but a desire to learn about other cultures and people.  Because the show was a musical show it attracted many musically talented students.  The band was made up of cast members.  The dancing was quite challenging throughout the 70's- 90's.  
When I worked for Up With People my job title was "Show Manger".  Basically, I was in charge of the show when it was out on the road.  We performed in many cities across the world.  Highlights include, Radio City Music Hall with Ben Vereen & the Rockettes, The National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D. C., Reagan & Kohl meeting in Germany, Queen of Belgium, etc.  It is really neat to have had those experiences as a 20 something year old.
As far as Up With People being part of the swing choir or show choir evolution I don't think there is a relationship.  Most of the music performed by Up With People is written by its own writers, The Caldwell brothers, Herbie Allen, Pat Murphy.
The program has changed over the past few years.  The students only travel for a 6 month program instead of a one year program.  The group has always been very involved in the community that they travel to but I believe this is even more so the case now as opposed to the 70's & 80's.  
This is a brief overview from my time and experiences.  I really can't say enough good things about the experience.  You might check out Up With People's web sight or e-mail them for more information.
on December 29, 2010 2:23pm
I have fond memories of singing with UWP in Simi Valley, CA, in the late '60s.  I enjoyed the folk song influenced music and meeting new people.  Thanks for reminding me of this.
on December 29, 2010 6:34pm
Hello Russell -
I toured with Up With People in 2000 with Cast D and just attended my 10 year reunion in Arizona this summer.  I know what documentary you are talking about - it has been a very controversial topic among those of us who have traveled with the organization.  Like Sandra, I can say that my experience with the group was one of the best years of my life.  It was a learning experience unlike any other.  I traveled with 120 people from 20 different countries throughout the US, Canada, Mexico, and Japan.  In our cast, personal beliefs were very diverse; people that were very conservative to people that were extremely liberal and everything in between.  There was also a lot of religious diversity - several religions were represented, as well as people who didn't consider themselves to be religious at all.  The one thing that brought us all together was a desire to learn about other people, cultures, and ways of life - and do our best to understand and accept them, even if we didn't agree with them.  Regarding the show, we had several very talented cast members - singers, instrumentalists, and dancers.  We also had several cast members who were less interested in the performing arts aspect of the program and were cast in smaller parts of the show.  Because the show we performed had a complete storyline, I think it would be better compared to a Broadway musical, rather than a show choir or swing choir.  At the end of my travel year, UWP had to cease operations because of financial difficulties, but have since started touring again with a slightly different program model. 
Good luck with your research
- Sarah
on December 30, 2010 3:10am
I'm delighted to see some posts from former UWP members, and I see that they have confirmed my assumptions about the organization and its priorities.  But I wanted to say that I did not mean to put down the organization in any way.  It's goals were/are simply not the same as mine, since I was actively directing some rather good college show ensembles which DID put talent and skill first--well, first after good attitude and professional standards!  But UWP obviously did some wonderful things and provided some wonderful experiences for a great many people, and should be appreciated for that.
And one of the challenges was, I'm sure, finding ways to use people of varied abilities within a large case, so that everyone had a great experience, and they seem to have handled that very well indeed.
All the best,
on December 30, 2010 12:38pm
I wasn't quite a hippy, but had long hair (got rounded up by a JH vice principal and told to cut it), wore a "peace flag" shirt and a leather headband, and I sang in a local "Sing Out" affiliate in the 70's (after losing the headband and the shirt, however). We sang some of the official UWP songs and toured a little, and at the time, I attributed our red, white, and blue outfits (red double-knit polyester pants!) to the run-up to the Bicentennial. Had I been aware of the right-wing origins of the UWP, I most likely wouldn't have participated. I think that the local spin-offs didn't strictly adhere to the policies of the parent organization, and besides some of the cheesy arrangements and inane lyrics, I remember it as an enjoyable experience.
The Arizona Star link you gave doesn't appear to exist any longer (even after copy-and-pasting the whole address), but here's a recent response in the same publication:
Here's a link to a portion of a lengthy web-exposé of AA that deal with the cult-like aspects:
And here's a link to the official website for the documentary (which also links to a blog):
David T
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