Paul Robeson is one of the outstanding figures of the 20th century. His father was a run-away slave and his mother came from an abolitionist Quaker family. He was a staunch fighter against racism and used his deep bass-baritone voice around the world in the cause of peace and freedom, in support of trade union struggles and against fascism. He also worked tirelessly for friendship and peace between the US and the former Soviet Union. Robeson also excelled in a range of sports and was twice named to the All-American football team. He was also a great linguist and a qualified lawyer. He earned international acclaim for his role as Othello in Shakespeare’s stage play in London and as Joe in Showboat.
During his visit to the Soviet Union he was deeply impressed with the lack of racism, saying that for “the first time I felt like a full human being.”
With his support for socialism and political activism, it is not surprising that he fell foul of the House Un-American Activities Committee which accused him of being a communist during the McCarthyist years. He was blacklisted by major concert halls, radio and television. In 1949, two of his inter-racial concerts in Peekskill were attacked by racist mobs while the police stood by.
“I’m going to sing wherever the people want me to sing … and I won’t be frightened by crosses burning in Peekskill or anywhere else,” Robeson declared. He certainly lived up to that statement. He steadfastly refused requests to remove politics from his singing.
The FBI considered him to be “dangerous”. His US passport was revoked in 1950, preventing the singer from travelling overseas to perform. But during the eight years of struggle to regain his passport there were a number of memorable international concerts.
In 1952, the Mine, Mill and Smelters Workers’ Union of British Columbia in Canada issued an invitation to Robeson to their annual Convention which he accepted. As Americans did not need a passport to travel to Canada, Robeson did not expect any problems attending the convention. But the US authorities, under an order from President Truman, refused to let him leave the country.
Undeterred, Robeson addressed the Convention with a special telephone hook-up put together illegally by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
A special concert under the Peace Arch on the border between the two nations was organised. Letters were sent to all unions in the region, asking them to “seize the opportunity to register their protest against the United States government”.
Inside the US the planned concert at the Peace Arch became the centrepiece of a two-month tour. “I want to sing to and for my people and the workers. No tickets over a dollar.”
On May 18, 1952, Robeson addressed and sang to from a flat-bed truck, just one foot from the border on the US side. Thousands of people came from miles around on both sides of the border for this historic concert for peace and the freedom of the Negro people (the term used in those days, since replaced by Black American).
The union recorded the concert which was released as a 78rpm vinyl record.
A second concert, in May 1953 under the Peace Arch drew another large crowd. This concert was also taped. In this concert he gave an extended speech. In it he offered a bright future:
“I know there is one humanity – that there is no basic difference of race or colour, no basic difference of culture, but that all human beings can live in friendship and in peace. I know it from experience. I have seen the people. I have learned their languages. I sing their songs!”
Robeson returned again for two more concerts in the following years.
The recordings of the first two concerts have been remastered by Folk Era and reproduced on a CD, The Peace Arch Concerts.
The CD includes the Opening remarks by Robeson and Harvey Murphy, a union delegate from Vancouver who had proposed the first concert at the Peace Arch. Harvey Murphy also introduces the Joe Hill song.
The CD contains many old favourites including Ol’ Man River, Love Will Find a Way, Loch Lommond, Without Thee, Scandaliz’ My Name. In all there are 18 musical items as well as the speeches from Paul Robeson and Harvey Murphy.
The CD comes with a small 22-page booklet outlining the background of the concerts and a brief biography of Robeson. Considering the primitive equipment used to record the concerts the quality is surprisingly good.
The second CD, Freedom Train and the Welsh Transatlantic Concert, is another recording of an equally historic concert.
Robeson had appeared in the film Proud Valley which was filmed in the Rhondda Valley in Wales. He became very close to the coal miners in the Valley, living there and learning their culture during the making of the film in 1938-39.
“I went down into the mines with the workers, and they explained to me that ‘Paul, you may be successful here in England but your people suffer like ours. We are poor people, and you belong to us. You don’t belong to the bigwigs here in this country’,” Robeson is quoted as saying in the eight-page set of notes accompanying the CD.
In 1947, the right-wing American Heritage foundation announced a plan for the original text of the Declaration of Independence and other historical national documents to tour the US on a special red, white and blue train called the Freedom Train.
The name “Freedom Train” has special meaning for Black Americans, whose parents or grandparents as slaves had escaped to freedom on the symbolic freedom train of the underground railroad.
But the authorities refused to guarantee that the exhibition would not be segregated. The poet and play-write Langston Hughes, who had a similar political outlook as Robeson at the time, composed a poem called “Freedom Train”. Robeson concluded many concerts from that time on with a reading of the poem, which sent a powerful political message:
I hope their ain’t no Jim Crow on the Freedom Train,
No back door entrance to the Freedom Train,
No sign FOR COLORED on the Freedom Train,
No WHITE FOLKS ONLY on the Freedom Train.
The poem concludes with the well known call for:
A Freedom Train,
That’s yours and mine.
Robeson had been invited by the South Wales Miners to their annual Eisteddfod in 1953, 1956 and 1957. Still denied a passport and blacklisted by the FBI, Robeson, sent taped messages to the first two Eisteddfods. For the third invitation in 1957, with the laying of Transatlantic telephone cable, he was able to speak to the South Wales miners in Treorchy by phone from the US.
The growing anti-American sentiment, surrounding this concert in particular, saw the US officials restore his passport. In speaking to the miners he noted that his right to travel had just been restored. He made the 1958 Eisteddfod one of his first overseas engagements when the ban on travel was lifted.
Folk Era have remastered the recording of the concert, including Robeson’s greetings and an introduction from Wil Paynter who was instrumental in organising the participation of Robeson.
The CD starts with Robeson reading Langston Hughes poem. The songs include All Men Are Brothers, Slumberland, Wales, Y Deln Aur (The Golden Harp), This Little Light Of Mine, and Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel.
There is also a wonderful rendition of We’ll Keep A Welcome In The Hillside, performed by the Treorchy Male voice Choir.
The two CDs are historic records of two highly significant political events in the history of the freedom struggle in the US. As musical items, the voice of Robeson cannot be beaten, nor can the political message.
Folk Era have many more CDs of folk and other music. Visit: rediscovermusic.com The CDs are available from Shop@CPA. The Peace Arch Concerts $20 including p&p Freedom Train and the Welsh Transatlantic Concert $20 including p&p
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