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
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:
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years, from 1950 to 1958, his passport was revoked because of his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)
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
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:
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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