This week´s song of the week started life out as a traditional Negro Spiritual, and dates back to the era of slavery in the United States when the children of slaves were sold away from their parents. It´s an expression of the despair and hopelessness of a child who has been torn away from his or her parents. Some interpret the lyrics metaphorically with the subject of the song yearning for the African homeland and/or heaven.
I heard a version of the song on the latest episode of Boardwalk Empire – Sunday Best . This was a 1923 recording by Earl Hines (on piano) & Lois Deppe (singing). When I started this post, it wasn´t available on youtube, but here you have it, along with the crackle:
Now here´s another recording by Paul Robeson (1898- 1976) with EMI Records in the 1930´s. I´ve chosen Robeson´s version, because it gets right to the soul of the spiritual. It also gives me the opportunity to talk about his remarkable life.
Robeson´s father, William, was a slave, who escaped from a plantation at age 15 and would go on to become the minister of Princeton´s Witherspoon St Presbyterian Church. His mother, Maria, was from a prominent Quaker family of mixed ancestry, African/Anglo-American and Lenape (native American Indian). His father resigned from his position as minister after a disagreement between him and the white financial supporters, although he had the unanimous support of his entirely black congregation. The loss of this position forced his father to look for menial jobs. His mother who was almost entirely blind, died tragically in a house fire when he was 6. William was not able to support the family financially, so they moved into the attic of a store in Westfield, New Jersey.
William began preaching there, and at age 11 or 12, his son Paul would fill in for his father during sermons when he was called away. Robeson went to Somerville High School, where he took part in theatre, in Shakespeare´s Julius Caesar and Othello as well as siging in the chorus, and it was here that he started to show promise as an athlete, excelling in american football, basketball, baseball and track. He was also subjected to racial taunts as a result of this, which he ignored.
He took a summer job as a waiter on Rhode Island where he met and befriended Fritz Pollard, who would go on to be one of the first two African American players in the NFL in 1920.
In 1915, Robeson became only the third African American student to enroll at Rutgers Uninversity, where with much perseverance in the face of resistence, he managed to get onto the college´s Scarlet Knights Football Team. He also joined athletics and the debate team, and sang off-campus for spending money, as well as on-campus with the Glee Club informally, as membership required attending all-white mixers.
After a standout junior year, he was recognised by The Crisis (the official magazine for the NAACP National Association for the Advancement of Colored People founded in 1910) for his athletic, academic and singing talents. This should have been a high-pont of his life, but his father fell gravely ill, and Robeson took responsibility for caring for him, shuttling back and forth between Rutgers and Somerville. The burden would be shortlived however, as his father died soon after.
At college, Robeson argued the case for the African-Americans who were fighting to protect America in WWI, while not being afforded the same opportunities as whites back home.
He finished university with four annual debating triumphs and varsity letters in multiple sports. He won first team All-American selection for his play at end in American Football in his junior and senior years. He was accepted into Phi Beta Kappa Society nationally and also the Cap and Skull at Rutgers. In addition to this, he was recognised by his classmates, who voted him class valedictorian, and the college newspaper published a poem featuring his achievements. In his valedictorian speech he pleaded with his classmates to work for equality for all Americans.
Like me, you might be getting the impression that Paul Robeson was something of a high achiever. We´re only getting started…
After Rutgers, Robeson entered the prestigious New York University School of Law in 1919, and to support himself financially, became the assistant football coach at Lincoln. Harlem had by now changed from a mainly Jewish American population to an almost entirely African-American one, and Robeson was attracted to it for this reason. He transferred to Columbia Law School in 1920 and moved to Harlem.
Here he met his future wife Eslanda “Essie” Goode, who persuaded him to give his theatrical debut as Simon in Ridgely Torrence´s Simon of Cyrene. They married in 1921.
Pollard recruited him to play for the NFL´s Akron Pros, while he continued studying law. After graduating, he practised law briefly, but ended up giving up the profession due to the racism he encountered while trying to work.
In December he won the lead role, Jim, in American Playwright (and future Nobel Laureate) Eugene O´Neill´s All God’s Chillun Got Wings. Robeson performed in the premiere, portraying “the black husband of an abusive white woman who, resenting her husbands skin colour, destroys his promising career as a lawyer”. (wikipedia)
The play climaxed with the protagonist metaphorically consummating his marriage to his white wife by symbolically emasculating himself. The opening was postponed while a nationwide debate raged over the plot.
While Chillun was delayed, another play The Emperor Jones was revived with Robeson starring as Brutus. It both terrified, but also galvanised him, as it was an almost 90-minute soliloquy. Reviewers across the board judged Robeson an unequivocal success. The controversial, Jim in Chillun, was less well received.
His acting put him in the spotlight and he was accepted into elite social circles, and propelled by the ambitious Essie (who quit her job to become his agent), he became an almost overnight success. She negotiated his first silent movie role, the 1925 race film Body and Soul. In contrast Robeson was uninterested in fame.
To support a charity for single mothers he headlined a concert singing spirituals and performed on the radio. After they heard his recordings, he was signed as a recording artist by Victor Records.
Robeson played the dockworker Joe in the London production of the American musical Show Boat (music by Jerome Kern & lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II), and his rendition of Ol´ Man River became a benchmark for all future performers of the song. Some black critics were not happy with the play because of its use of the word “nigger”, but it was immensely popular with white audiences. The play was attended by Queen Mary, and Robeson was summoned to Buckingham Palace for a Royal Command Performance for the King of Spain Alfonso XII. He bought a house in Hamstead, London. He would later return to Broadway to perform Showboat to rave reviews.
While in the U.S. HE starred in a lucrative film version of The Emperor Jones, which became the first sound feature film to star an African American, and the last for over two decades in the U.S.
On returning home to England, he publicly criticised African Americans´ rejection of their own culture and declared that he would reject any offers to perform in European operas, because the music had no connection with his heritage. He enrolled in the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London an studied Phonetics and Swahili, as well as Igbo and Zulu. At the same time he wrote an essay “I Want to be African” where he talked about his desire to embrace his ancestry.
He took a role of Bosambo in the movie Sanders of the River, which he felt would be a realistic portrayal of colonial African culture. Having friends in the anti-imperialism movement and an association with British socialists led him to visit the USSR after being invited by Sergei Eisentein in December 1934. A stop-over in Berlin alerted him to the racism in Nazi Germany, and when he arrived in the USSR he declared that he felt the colour of his skin was irrelevant in Moscow.
The release of Sanders of the Rivers in 1935 made him an international star, however the stereotypical portrayal of a colonial African were seen as an embarrassment to him as an artist. The Commissioner of Nigeria protested that the film was slanderous to his country. Robeson thereby resolved to become more politcally conscious in his later roles.
He wrote that the struggle against fascism during the Spanish Civil War was a turning point in his life, and from then on became a political activist and a political artist. He used his concerts to advocate the Republican cause and his renditions of Ol´Man River became a battle hym of defiance. At a concert in Wales, he commemorated the Welsh who were killed fighting for the Republican side, and there he recorded a message that would become his epitaph:
“The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”
He travelled to Spain in 1938 to support the international brigade. He visited the battlefront and gave the Republicans a morale boost when their victory seemed unlikely. Back home in England he also hosted Jawaharlal Nehru in a show of support Indian Independence. Nehru talked about the relationship between Imperialism and Fascism.
With the outbreak of World War II, he returned to the U.S. to become America´s “number 1 entertainer” starring in motion pictures Ballad for Americans and The Proud Valley, the latter was one of the movies he felt most proud of. With the attack on Pearl Harbour, and America´s entry into the war, he started taking part in concerts on behalf of the war Effort.
After participating in Tales of Manhattan, a film he felt was “very offensive to my people” he declined to act in any more films, because of the demeaning roles avaivable to black people.
He would go on to support freedom from persecution for African Americans and other minorities, inclulding speaking out publicly on issues such as: addressing Major League Baseball Club Owners in a failed attempt to have them admit black players; opposing the Canadian government´s move to deport thousands of Japanese Canadians; pleading with President Truman to apprehend and punish those guilty of lynching four African Americans; appearing on the radio calling on all Americans to demand Congress pass civil rights legislation; and also campaigning successfully for South African famine relief in 1946.
On October 1946 he testified before the Tenney Committee that he was not a Communist Party Member.
He strongly supported the campaign to elect Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace (vice president under Roosevelt). Wallace ran on an anti-lynching, pro-civil rights platform and attracted a diverse group of voters including liberals, trade unionists and communists. On the campaign trail, Robeson performed for “overflow audiences… in Negro churches in Atlanta and Macon.”
Robeson believed that the labor movement and trade unionism were crucial in the civil rights struggle for all oppressed people.
In 1949 he learned that his performances had been cancelled at the behest of the FBI and his recordings were commerically banned, so he went back overseas to work. He agreed to be apolitical while on tour, as a precondition for his right to travel. However, while he was on tour in Paris, he spoke at the World Peace Council against Imperialism. His speech was wrongly perceived by some to equate the U.S. to a fascist state, something which he flatly denied. The speech led to him being considered an enemy of mainstream America. He spoke in favour of freeing twelve Communists convicted during the Smith Acts trials of Communist Party Leaders, including his life-long friend Benjamin J. Davis.
The controversy over his Paris speech led to him being blacklisted. The College Football and All America Review omitted his name from the 1917 All-American team, and he was not listed as ever playing for Rutger. Months later NBC cancelled his scheduled appearance on former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt´s television programme, and declared he would never appear on NBC. The Civil Rights Congress objected saying that “censorship of Mr. Robeson’s appearance on TV is a crude attempt to silence the outstanding spokesman for the Negro people in their fight for civil and human rights [and that our] basic democratic rights are under attack under the smoke-screen of anti-Communism.”
In 1950 he was denied a passport, and restricted from leaving the U.S. He and his lawyers met with officials of the State Department to find out why he could not travel abroad and they were told that “his frequent criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States should not be aired in foreign countries”—it was a `family affair’.”
He would go on to make controversial statements supporting Stalin and the USSR, and appear before Congress pleading the Fifth when asked if he was a Communist Party member. Over the years protests formed in the U.S. to revoke his travel ban and in the U.K. a petition was signed by thousands of actors, writers, trade unionists, M.P.s and others with the title “Let Paul Robeson Sing”.
During the Cold War, and the McCarthy Era, it was difficult to find his films in cinemas, listen to his music on radio or even buy his music. Because of his blacklisting in the media, on stage, in theatres, on radio & film and in the civil rights movement, he virtually became a nonperson.
Robeson published his autobiography Here I Stand in 1958. He gave two sold out shows at Carnegie Hall. After the landmark case on the right to travel (related to the First Ammendment free speech rights) Kent vs Dulles, Robeson was granted a passport, and left for London. At this time he was under constant surveillance by the CIA, MI6 and the State Department, but he was also flooded with professional offers.
Using London as a base, he performed internationally, including sold out shows in the Lenin Stadium in Moscow, where he needed a police escort to escape a tumultuous reception at the airport (18,000 people turned up). In Moscow, he complained of dizziness and heart problems and was diagnosed with operable cancer.
He toured Australia and New Zealand for two months reaffirming his support of Marxism saying”…the people of the lands of Socialism want peace dearly” and denouncing the inequality faced by the Maori people. In Australia he was told of the deprivation endured by Australian Aborigines and became angry demanding the Australian government provide them citizenship and equal rights. He attacked the view of them as uncultured, declaring:
“‘there’s no such thing as a backward human being, there is only a society which says they are backward.'”
Following health problems, he withdrew from public life in the 60´s and returned to the U.S. for the remainder of his life, returning to Harlem and living their with his wife Essie.
After his death at the age of 77, “…the white [American] press, after decades of harassing Robeson, now tipped its hat to a ‘great American,’ paid its gingerly respect to him and and the vituperation leveled at [him during his life] to the Bad Old Days of the Cold War, and implied those days were forever gone, they downplayed the racist component central to his persecution, and ignored the continuing inability of white America to tolerate a black maverick who refused to bend…” Duberman (courtesy of wikipedia)
However controversial some of his views were, his life was a struggle for the freedom of African Americans, Africans and all oppressed peoples, and though he may have been wrong at times, you can´t deny his bravery in the face of public and governmental pressure.
So it was apt then that the first act to play at the Woodstock Festival in 1969, the inspirational folk singer Brooklyn born Richie Havens, improvised a song using elements from Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child when he ran out of songs to play after being called back for multiple encores. The refrain for the song was a simple “freedom”, which instantly became an anthem for the woodstock crowd and the “summer of love” generation. Here he is playing with his own inimitable style:
So, peace out! Hope those two cats have inspired you a little.
See you next time…