Thursday, September 1, 2011

Music for the Underdog: Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson, like Nina Simone, did a lot of stuff that I just consider pap...musical numbers that are popular but often leave me flat. Now the fact that they each had amazing voices and used them to full effect means that I will even listen to their, to me, less interesting music and enjoy it. The power behind their vocal chords is on the scale of a force of nature, and so in some ways either of them could sing just about anything and it would sound kick ass...kind of like Stevie Ray Vaughn singing Mary Had a Little Lamb. Doesn't matter what they do, they sound good.

But as with Nina Simone, Paul Robeson becomes deeply profound when he combined his force-of-nature voice with a political message.

Now in some ways I don't agree with all of Paul Robeson's political me he bought into communism to a degree that today seems amazingly naive, and he seemed too willing to forgive atrocities if they were committed from the left. But the truth is, given where he was coming from, who he was, and the nature of the world at the time, I could image making the same mistakes he is easy to criticize in retrospect.

Beyond having one of the greatest voices of all times, Paul Robeson was also an amazingly accomplished person in every way, especially amazing since he lived at a time when blacks were hardly given any opportunities to excel. He was a Phi Beta Kappa Society laureate at Rutgers University and an All-American athlete in the early 1920's. This was prime Jim Crow days and a time when the KKK was resurgent, even getting at least tacit support from President Woodrow Wilson. So any black man who could excel in that environment deserves considerable kudos. And it is no wonder that a brilliant black man growing up in that environment would lean towards the radical.

Some of his earliest political activism was in support of Welsh miners when he lived in Britain. And I think it is this dedication to workers' rights at a time before unions were strong that defines his activism. The Spanish Civil War also played a strong role in his developing political activism.

Here is Paul Robeson speaking eloquently and singing in support of the Spanish and Basque people after the Guernica massacre in the Spanish Civil war, speaking out against fascism in Europe before most of America was willing to do so:

Here is some rare footage of Paul Robeson performing in London...not one of the songs that is my favorite, but what a presence and what a voice!

There are three songs in particular that Paul Robeson sang that just plain bring tears to my eyes. Each is a song about a tragic, ambivalent hero or group of heroes who die standing up for what is right. I can't help but do them in historical order, being the history nerd I am.

First is John Brown...

John Brown was a figure of considerable ambivalence in America. In high school when I took the AP US History test one of the essay questions had to do with tracing the changing view of John Brown as the Civil War approached. The earliest reports in the contemporary press portrayed him as an insane the time the first shots were fired by the Confederate rebels, the Union was portraying him as a saint, the sentiment represented in the song.

The basic fact is that John Brown, a white man, was prepared to fight and die to liberate blacks. Slavery was a god awful institution that America should be deeply embarrassed to have ever condoned, and the revisionists that try to excuse the Confederate support of slavery disgust me, even though I know the Confederacy was more than JUST slavery. But slavery was a key part of the Confederacy, as I have written about before. So in many ways the figure of John Brown truly is a heroic one. Dying to free slaves...hard for me to fault that. His actions also have to be seen in context of Bleeding Kansas, where many pro-slavery Southerners resorted to similar violence to perpetuate and spread slavery. By modern definitions John Brown could arguably be seen as a terrorist, however good his cause. And yet if that is true, then the pro-slavery "Border Ruffians" of Bleeding Kansas were no less terrorists.

John Brown's actions fighting slavery are cited as major steps in the lead up to the Civil War. Though there were many other factors that led to abolition of slavery, including the widely popular Uncle Tom's Cabin, and a similarly popular story at the time of white sailors shipwrecked and enslaved in the Sahara south of Morocco, (now largely forgotten, though amazingly presented in a modern form in Skeletons of the Zahara by Dean King ). Abraham Lincoln himself cited the story presented today in Skeletons of the Zahara as one of his main inspirations for opposing slavery. But John Brown was an early martyr for abolition and though he may be a controversial figure, it is hard for me not to see him as a hero.

A similar ambiguity surrounds the subject of the second song, Joe Hill.

Joe Hill was a Swedish immigrant and migrant worker who became a major early union organizer. He was, in essence, an earlier version of Woody Guthrie, wandering from job to job, organizing along the way and writing songs to inspire union activists. In the end Joe Hill was convicted and executed for murder, possibly over a woman...whether he was guilty or framed by the "coppers" remains a mystery. Even the ashes of Joe Hill have an odd history. His ashes were put into hundreds of small envelopes to be distributed to union groups around the world to be spread upon the wind. Some of the ashes were apparently impounded by the US Postal service as "subversive" ( is a tribute to have even your ashes considered subversive!) and weren't rediscovered until 1988. Abbie Hoffman supposedly suggested that these ashes should be eaten by modern pro-union songwriters like Billy Bragg and Michelle Shocked. The story goes that Billy Bragg ate his share, and keeps Michelle Shocked's portion should she ever wish to partake.

Here is Paul Robeson singing "Old Man River" and "Joe Hill" to workers in Australia:

The last song I want to emphasize is, to me, the most powerful. It is in Yiddish and was sung, somewhat to the surprise of his Soviet handlers, by Paul Robeson on one of his trips to the Soviet Union. The emotional response of the Soviet audience, despite possible repercussions to them according to Stalinist policies, is as much a part of the performance as the song itself.

The song is Zog Nit Kein'mol...commonly called "The Partisan's Song" but it literally means "Never Say," meaning "Never say this is the final road for you." It was written by a Jewish inmate in the Vilna Ghetto when he heard about the Jewish uprising in Warsaw.

To quote from the description that accompanies that video:

This famous song was sung by Robeson as part of his legendary Moscow Concert of June 13, 1949.which Paul Robeson gave while on his tour in the Soviet Union, at the time under the Stalin oppressive dictatorship.
This song was sung by him as a tribute to the Jewish partisan fighters of the Ghetto. It was also a surprise that Robeson gave at the Concert. His son tells of the introduction of the song from his father's memoirs that: "... One could hear a pin drop during my father remarks about the deep and enduring cultural ties between the Jewish communities of the Soviet Union and the United States, about the common tradition of the great Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem, and about the continued vitality of the Yiddish language. Finally he announced that he would sing a song of the Jewish partisans who fought to the death against their Fascist oppressors in the Warsaw Ghetto. Since the song had to be sung in Yiddish, he would explain the lyrics in Russian, as follows:

'Never say that you have reached the very end
When leaden skies a bitter future may portend;
For sure the hour for which we yearn will not arrive
Arid our marching steps will thunder: we survive'.

For a moment there was no sound from the stunned audience; then a single intrepid young woman stood up and applauded, and the entire audience joined in a swelling wane of applause before my father could sing a single note. Only this response to my fathers remarks remains on the recording; Stalin's censors simply cut out his remarks, and they have disappeared..."

The Song of the Wamaw [sic] Ghetto Rebellion sung in Yiddish (Zog Nit Keynmol) - remains an a crowning jewel of this recording of the Concert. The combination of power and pathos with which my father delivered this song transfixed his listeners. When he finished, the audience released its accumulated tension like an explosive charge. Although his listeners included many of Moscows Jewish intellectual elite who were waiting for Stalins axe to fell on them, the great majority were Russian members of the Party elite which was being decimated by a purge. Jews and Russians alike, in some places seated side-by-side, were either walking in the shadow of death or had lost someone close...

After that first release, the ovation continued to swell and recede in a series of waves which ebbed and flowed. People stood, applauded and cried out; they called my father by his patronymic-Pavel Vasilevich; some who were total strangers fell info each others arms and wept; still others sat silently with tears streaming down their faces. The first part of the audiences response is captured on this recording, but the rest has been cut by the censors. Still, the sound of this cry of hope is unforgettable, and there is little doubt that it was heard by the Master himself.

Here is a mixed English/Yiddish version of Robeson singing Zog Nit Kein'mol:

It struck me listening to Robeson's Yiddish version of Zog Nit Kein'mol that to my not so trained ear his Yiddish sounded perfect. Someone who grew up speaking Yiddish as his "mame loshen" (mother tongue) confirmed my impression and pointed out that Robeson did other Yiddish songs very effectively. Here is one where he sings a tragic/comic song about the Tsar:

Again the Yiddish is perfect and he gets the tongue-in-cheek tone perfectly.

There are many other amazing songs sung by Paul Robeson...though honestly "Old Man River" and "Danny Boy" don't do much for me, though I'll listen to them if Robeson is singing them. "Amazing Grace" means little to me spiritually, but it is a beautiful song and Robeson does it wonderfully:

Paul Robeson, literally and figuratively, was one of the first strong black voices in modern America.He is a hero not just of American blacks but also of the Welsh working class where he remains an inspiration. Like the key figures he sang about, he may have been a somewhat ambivalent figure, but a heroic one nonetheless. I have met his son once or twice at events planned by a mutual friend and local Brooklyn politician, Chris Owens. His legacy has lived on through his family and his influence even if he has in many ways slipped out of America's mainstream cultural consciousness.

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