Paul Robeson
[ Issue 9 ]

Paul Robeson captivates Emily Bronto

Bikwil celebrates Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson is Bet Briggs' centenary homage to not only the singer's beautiful bass voice but also his "belief in the oneness of humankind" and his long-time and worldwide crusade against oppression.

Wherever Robeson came and sang throughout his long career and crusade he identified with people and their causes

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For a Singer and His Song  — Bet Briggs


Paul Robeson is, indisputably, one of the great voices of this century. Throughout his life he sang, spoke and wrote with passion and love for the world’s oppressed people. He lives on in his rich legacy of recorded song, speech and written word.

His beautiful bass, heard and loved the world over, was once described by opera singer, Mary Garden, as being “like a great calm ocean with depths unknown”. What a lovely description and how poignantly appropriate now! For this year is the centenary of Robeson’s birth and also the International Year of the Ocean. For me, that coincidence of events evokes a powerful image and an accompanying sense of the eternal, of things enduring. Just as a vast ocean reaches many different coasts and countries, shaping shorelines and the lives of people scattered along them, so, too, Robeson’s voice reaches millions of people, influencing, encouraging and inspiring them.

His gift was recognised 55 years ago, when, on June 1, 1943 he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters at Morehouse College. In his address, President of the College, Dr. Benjamin Mays, said:

You have had the courage to dignify and popularise the folk-songs composed by the oppressed peoples of the earth. You have proved that you have a mission in song and a deep, abiding faith in that mission. In your singing you champion the cause of the common man. Whether it is a Negro spiritual, the folk-songs of France, or Canada, the songs of the Mexican peons, the Jew’s longing for release from persecution, the brave chant of the Russian soldier, the songs of Madrid at the time of bombardment, or a song portraying the heroism of London and China, you Mr. Robeson, embody in your person the sufferings of mankind. (Paul Robeson, Here I Stand, 1972 ed., p. 114)

Seven years after this acclaim Robeson’s voice was silenced at home and abroad: for eight years, from 1950 to 1958, his passport was revoked because of his left-wing political and social views and civil rights activities. Yehudi Menuhin described this period and the ostracism Robeson suffered as “one of the saddest moments in American social history, depriving black and white Americans alike of the gifts of one of their most passionate spokesmen”. (Yehudi Mehuhin, The Music of Man, 1979, p. 296)

During that infamous time Robeson wrote Here I Stand, his eloquent declaration of his principles and aspirations for the rights of his people. His book was first published in early 1958, four months before he won his struggle to regain his passport. For me reading it 40 years later, it has been a revelation. I am so impressed by the integrity of its message and passion of the erudite mind which produced it I regret not reading it long ago. His message is compelling, relevant now and all-embracing: speaks for all the oppressed.

In the chapter, Love Will Find Out the Way, he explains how living in England for 12 years from 1927 to 1939 influenced and strengthened his ideas and beliefs. One passage in particular reveals the essence of his thinking and his stand and his deep humanity and dignity:

It was in Britain — among the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish people of that land — that I learned that the essential character of a nation is determined not by the upper classes, but by the common people, and that the common people of all nations are truly brothers in the great family of mankind. If in Britain there were those who lived by plundering the colonial peoples, there were also the many millions who earned their bread by honest toil. And even as I grew to feel more Negro in spirit, or African as I put it then, I also came to feel a sense of oneness with the white working people whom I came to know and love.

This belief in the oneness of humankind, about which I have spoken in concerts and elsewhere, has existed within me side by side with my deep attachment to the cause of my own race. Some people have seen a contradiction in this duality: white people who have seen me as a “citizen of the world”, singing the songs of many lands in the languages of those peoples, have wondered sometimes how I could be so partisan for the colored people; and Negroes, on the other hand, have wondered why I have often expressed a warm affection for peoples whom seem remote and foreign to them. I do not think, however, that my sentiments are contradictory; and in England I learned that there truly is a kinship among us all, a basis for mutual respect and brotherly love.

My first glimpse of this concept came through song, and that is not strange, for the songs that have lived through the years have always been the purest expressions of the heart of humanity. (pp. 48-49)

He reinforces these principles and sentiments in the Epilogue of his book. He quotes the closing lines from his friend, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s poem Let the Rail-Splitter Awake, saying in these lines Neruda “speaks for me”:

Let us think of the entire earth
and pound the table with love.
I don’t want blood again
to saturate bread, beans, music:
I wish they would come with me:
the miner, the little girl,
the lawyer, the seaman,
the doll-maker,
to go into a movie and come out
to drink the reddest wine . . .
I came here to sing
And for you to sing with me.

(p. 111)

Wherever Robeson came and sang throughout his long career and crusade he identified with people and their causes. On his Australian concert tour in late 1960 he met the Aboriginal people and learned about their appalling living conditions. The more he learned the more anguished and angry he became. “The indigenous people of Australia are my brothers and sisters”, he declared at a peace reception for him at Paddington Town Hall, Sydney. He vowed to return to assist their cause but could not keep that promise: a year later his health broke down and his career ended. His presence among the Aborigines and empathy with them was, however, so strong that Lloyd L. Davies, lawyer and Aboriginal activist, who had met him in Perth during the tour said he had given their cause “a tremendous boost”. (Martin Baum Duberman, Paul Robeson, 1989, p. 491)

How inspiring if he were here now to grace the work of reconciliation between black and white Australians, to sing for us all and for us to sing with him!

His presence was palpable on April 9 this year when the centenary of his birth was celebrated. Affectionate tributes were accorded him on Sydney FM radio stations 2MBS and the ABC. I heard with delight the “great calm ocean” of his voice and songs he made famous. Among the feast of favourites were some special to me: Trees, Just A-wearyin’ for You and, of course, Ol’ Man River as I’d never heard it before: a record of him singing it accompanied by pianist, Alexander Yeroklin in an historic recital in the Tchaikovsky Hall, Moscow, June 14 1949; also there were Water Boy, Were You There When They Crucified My Lord and (as Robeson described it in Here I Stand, p. 100) “the sublime grandeur of Deep River” . . . And there was Joe Hill.

Now there’s a song!: a moving ballad in memory of Joe Hill, poet, singer and union organiser who was arrested in January 1914 in Salt Lake City, Utah, on a murder charge, found guilty and executed by a firing squad in November 1915. He was only 36.

Like Paul Robeson, Joe Hill, in his short life, struggled and suffered for a cause: in Joe’s case the American labour movement. He was born Joel Emmanuel Hagglund in Sweden in 1879. As a young boy he started work to help support his widowed mother and family. When his mother died in 1902 Joe emigrated to America. Rebellious and idealistic he worked at many jobs, became involved in the union movement and in 1910 joined the radical Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW). He helped to spread its beliefs by writing songs of protest, two well-known ones being Casey Jones and The Preacher and the Slave, and singing them at union meetings and on corners and picket lines.

When Joe was convicted for murder on circumstantial evidence his plight aroused strenuous dispute. Unionists believed he was framed. Concerned people around the world protested against his sentence. Among notable citizens pleading for clemency was Helen Keller. Even US President Woodrow Wilson’s and the Swedish government’s calls for a retrial failed to save him. Whatever the truth of his guilt or innocence he became a martyr in labour and union circles and a hero in American folk lore.

The day before he was executed he sent a telegram to the leader of the IWW saying: “I will die like a true-blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organise.” That same night a speaker at a protest meeting in Salt Lake City cried out: “Joe Hill will never die!” These two expressions and the belief that Joe was framed became the theme of a poem by Alfred Hayes, written in 1925, ten years after Joe was executed. In 1926 Paul Robeson’s friend, composer Earl Robinson, set Hayes’ words to music. So was born an enduring song. Powerful in the directness and simplicity of its melody and lyrics, it’s more than a stirring song of protest. When Robeson sings it, it becomes a moving hymn with meaning for the oppressed everywhere, here and now in our own disputatious times.

As Joe Hill was part of his concert repertoire Robeson sang it many times in many different settings and circumstances and to some notable audience responses. In 1947 in a concert at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City where Joe Hill the man had died and where Joe Hill the song had never been sung before, Robeson actually ended the concert with it. His passionate rendition was heard in stony silence and not applauded. How different a few years later in another city far from America. In August 1958 after he had regained his passport and was able to leave the US to resume his career, he gave a public concert which was televised in Moscow at the Lenin Sports Stadium. Eighteen thousand wildly enthusiastic people heard him sing folk songs of many lands in their original languages and those old favourites John Brown’s Body, Ol’ Man River and Joe Hill. (Duberman, p. 468)

Closer to home I’ve responded delightedly, years after the event, to an impromptu concert Robeson gave in Sydney in November 1960. It was captured on film and I’ve seen it more than once on ABC TV. Invited by the Building Workers Industrial Union Robeson is visiting the construction site of the Opera House. There he is under that magnificent roof long before its beautiful bare arched concrete ribs were lost to view. (I once stood under it myself and marvelled.) He is wearing a hard hat with “PAUL” printed on it: the workers had presented it to him. He is meeting and talking with them, then he is singing, unaccompanied, Joe Hill.

Another poignant link with Joe Hill happened at Paul Robeson’s funeral service on January 27 1976 at the AME Zion Church in New York. Robeson’s boyhood friend, Bishop J. Clinton Hoggard, delivered the eulogy and ended it with a paraphrase from a line Robeson used to sing at the end of Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn for me, but live for freedom’s cause”. (Duberman, p. 550)

In freedom’s cause three men, Joe Hill, Pablo Neruda and Paul Robeson, stand together. They speak for one another and for all. They become one voice. The message endures. The voice endures. So does a song.

Joe Hill ends as it begins:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you or me,
Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead.”
“I never died,” says he.
“I never died,” says he.

Nor has Paul Robeson.

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