Paul Robeson: activist, communist and spokesperson for the oppressed of the earth
Tuesday, 19 June 2018 17:47

Paul Robeson: activist, communist and spokesperson for the oppressed of the earth

Published in Music

On the 120th anniversary of Paul Robeson's birth, Jenny Farrell tells the story of his life. 

"The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative."

- Paul Robeson at a rally in London’s Albert Hall on 24 June 1937, in support of the democratically elected Spanish Republic.

Paul Robeson, son of an escaped slave, was born into apartheid America on 9 April 1898, 120 years ago. Best known as a bass-baritone singer, he was also an outstanding actor and consummate athlete, fighting against racial discrimination in sports. He was a fearless political activist in the struggles for emancipation at home, a supporter of all liberation movements, a friend of the Soviet Union and the socialist world. He sang in over 20 languages, including Chinese, Russian, and African dialects. He was the first singer to perform an entire programme of spirituals and songs of the African-American experience, giving them the recognition of a concert stage and making them known worldwide. Robeson was also the first to refuse to perform before segregated audiences. He was the first African-American actor to perform as Othello in the US, based on his ground-breaking interpretation of this character and the first in Britain since Ira Aldridge in the 19th century. He was the most significant African-American actor in the US on stage and screen and first African-American actor to gain international prominence, bringing dignity and respect to African-American characters. He was a worldwide symbol of the artist as activist and spokesperson of the oppressed of the earth.

When he died in 1976, he lived in seclusion with his sister in Philadelphia, standing firm on all his political convictions, yet never having fully recovered from the enormous pressure of the witch-hunt against him. The responsibility for this tragic trajectory lies with the racism and anti – communism of the McCarthy era.

Robeson met and married Eslanda (Essie) Goode, first African-American analytical chemist working at Columbia Medical Center in New York, activist, writer and orator, in 1921. When it became clear he could not work as a lawyer because of racism, he began his singing career in the mid-1920s with radically new interpretations of spirituals. The spirituals express the hardship of slavery in biblical language, and often contain veiled messages and resistance. Thus, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, not merely expresses Robeson’s own experience of losing his mother at an early age, but also describes the severance of families through slavery. Further, Robeson’s interpretation adds his father’s experience of those African-Americans who fled the South to escape from slavery. Another spiritual, “Go Down Moses”, celebrates the release of the Israelites from captivity, something Robeson’s audience understood referring to their own freedom.

A turning point in Robeson’s life were his years in London, 1927-39. Here, he formed his outlook on world affairs, became an internationalist, fully embraced socialism, identified with the oppressed working class, regardless of colour. In London he discovered Africa and forged life-long friendships with Jomo Kenyatta, Nkrumah, Azikiwe (also, the future Indian leader Nehru) – and African seamen in the ports. Robeson began to study African culture, learn African languages, and embrace languages as gateways to the nations of the world: “It is fascinating … to find flexibility and subtlety in a language like Swahili, sufficient to convey the teachings of Confucius”. He also came to realise that alongside “the towering achievements of the cultures of ancient Greece and China there stood the culture of Africa, unseen and denied by the imperialist looters of Africa’s material wealth … and I came to learn of the remarkable kinship between African and Chinese culture.” Robeson indeed went on to develop a theory whereby a universal pentatonic tonality links musical folk cultures across the continents.

Robeson worked as a celebrated actor and singer in London, playing Othello and other important roles. During these years, he came to realise one could not rely on middle-class African-Americans in the emancipation struggle, recognising their dependence on their White masters. Robeson grasped that the lives of the oppressed were connected, evident in their music, and that alliances must be forged across geographical and racial differences, along the lines of class. He joined the working-class Unity Theatre in London, in an effort to help build workers’ theatres and develop a working-class culture in its full meaning.

Concomitantly, Robeson became active in the political issues of the time: the Spanish Civil War, anti-fascism, and the liberation struggles in Africa and Asia. Indeed, he became the supreme emblem of this global battle for emancipation. Through his interest in Africa, Robeson looked to the Soviet Union, which had overcome the backwardness of Czarist Russia. He first went there in 1934, struck by “a place where coloured people walked secure and free as equals” - he arranged for his son to attend school in Moscow for two years, a fact cited later as a reason to withdraw Robeson’s passport. Robeson learnt Russian to perfection and felt great empathy with the USSR.

Robeson sings the Song of The Volga Boatmen

Robeson’s journey to Spain in 1938 was a milestone in his life: “I sang with my whole heart and soul for these gallant fighters of the International Brigade. A new, warm feeling for my homeland grew within me as I met the men of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion … My heart was filled with admiration and love for these white Americans, and there was a great sense of pride in my own people when I saw that there were Negroes, too, in the ranks of the Lincoln men in Spain.”

His partisan involvement in the Spanish Civil War shows Robeson’s courage in the international struggle against fascism. In beleaguered Madrid, the Republican forces used Robeson’s music as a weapon, broadcasting it through loudspeakers to the fascist trenches.

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the Robesons returned to the struggle in America, only delaying for Paul to finish filming The Proud Valley, a film about an African-American becoming one of a mining community in Wales, filmed on location in the coalfields. This film, he “was most proud to make”, forged a deep bond between Robeson and the Welsh.

Back in the US, acting was an important source of income, e.g. playing Othello in the incredibly successful Broadway production in 1942/43, whilst continuing his political commitments.

In the US, Robeson used his celebrity effectively, in a prolonged campaign against segregation, heralding the boycotts of the civil rights era. He headed the anti-lynching movement, leading a delegation to the White House. When Truman refused to act, Robeson, in December 1951, presented a petition “We charge Genocide” to the United Nations, on behalf of the Civil Rights Congress, charging that the U.S. violated Article II of the U.N. Genocide Convention by failing to prevent the lynching of African-Americans.

At the Paris Peace Convention in April 1949, he stated: “It is unthinkable that American Negroes could go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed them for generations against the Soviet Union which in one generation has raised our people to full human dignity.” This speech resulted in a witch-hunt against him. In August 1949, the notorious racist and anti-communist assault took place at Peekskill, thwarting a concert which had been organised with Howard Fast and Pete Seeger. It left many seriously injured.

peekskill riots 

Angry locals from Westchester County, New York shout hate-filled insults at the carloads of concert-goers arriving to hear the singer Paul Robeson, the most famous African-American of the day, perform at an open-air concert in Lakeland Acres, north of Peekskill, on September 4th, 1949. A state trooper smirks and does nothing. Photo: History Today.

This his unyielding stand on the rights of African-Americans, and Robeson’s continued support of the USSR and world peace, led to his silencing. The state department withdrew his passport, and that of his wife and son, denying him the right to travel.

By 1952, Robeson was, according to Pete Seeger, “the most blacklisted performer in America”. No commercial hall was available to him, no producer promoted him, and his acting career finished. The FBI threatened concert organisers, shops and radio stations banned his records. From the height of fame, Robeson was turned into a non-person. From a career of intense activity he was blacklisted, deprived of public life and the source of his income. The African-American bourgeoisie failed to support Robeson, and colluded in this campaign.

He fought back by giving famous concerts, which circumvented the travel ban. He sang on the Canadian border to audiences on the other side. He gave transatlantic telephone concerts in England and Wales. The national ‘Let Paul Robeson Sing’ solidarity committee, the British Actors’ Equity Association and 27 MPs organised for Robeson to sing by telephone. This epic concert in St Pancras Town Hall on 26 May 1957, unforgettable for anybody who witnessed it, increased the pressure on the US government to return the passport.

 JF St Pancras town hall

In June 1958, years after taking his passport, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny a US passport on political grounds. Robeson immediately embarked on a worldwide tour, flying first to London. He sang to millions on television and radio and became the first lay person - and the first non-White - to take the pulpit in St Paul's Cathedral, with 4000 spectators inside and 5000 outside.

In the late 1950s, the world was changing, with African nations beginning to achieve independence. Robeson’s last concert tour in 1960, took him to Australia, where he gave the first recital at the Sydney Opera House - to the trade unionists who were constructing the building. He was the first to speak publically here about the oppression of the indigenous people by Europeans.

In Australia and elsewhere, Robeson sang “Ol’ Man River”, one of his best-known songs. Robeson changed the words of this song, originally written for The Show Boat, transforming it from acceptance of oppression to a song of resistance: the desire for freedom would prevail:

There’s an old man called the Mississippi,
That’s the ol’ man I don’t like to be.
What does he care if the world’s got troubles?
What does he care if the world ain’t free?

Tote that barge, lift that bale,
You show a little grit an’ you lands in jail.
But I keeps laffin’ instead of cryin’;
I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’,
And Ol’ Man River, he just keeps rollin’ along.

I would like to thank Christine Naumann, former curator at the Academy of the Arts Berlin, Paul Robeson Archives, for her advice.

Singing for Peace and Socialism: Birmingham's Clarion Singers
Tuesday, 19 June 2018 17:47

Singing for Peace and Socialism: Birmingham's Clarion Singers

Published in Music

Graham Stevenson reports on the recent concert.

Birmingham's Clarion Singers, 77 years young this year, recently celebrated with an Autumn Concert with a full programme of songs at All Saints Centre, in Kings Heath, Birmingham.
The 25-strong amateur choir – women dressed in red, men in black – led with Cavalry of the Steppes, a well known song by Lev Knipper, often associated with Cossacks.

With typical aplomb, Clarion has changed the arguably slightly pompous standard final verse into an altogether more subtle refrain, sung with gusto and speed, almost boomingly reverberating around the hall.

Strong in our courage and determination
Never shall invaders take our freedom.

Jane Scott, choir leader, applies seemingly effortless command of the many and varied singers, unquestionably having changed lives by allowing the joy of music into open hearts. Wonderfully, the soundness and sureness of her judgement is clear in the flawless sound that emerges from the ultimate display of collectivity. No special test of skill or prior experience is demanded of new members, no audition. In the spirit of Music for all, Clarion welcomes all into its left-of-centre heartstrings.

An impressive rendering of the Funeral March, immortalising victims of Tsarist repression in 1905, which prompted initial revolutionary stirrings that came back in a dozen years, whilst honouring those who fell as victims as the song intends, sees Clarion view the work as not just for funerals but for life itself. They start in despair, "banners lowered" but end with stirring hope, the message being that death shall not defeat. Our dead live on: our music will always reflect that.

Scarecrow by John Tams is an anti-war song. A solo goes: "I see the line advancing with a steady timeless grace." But it is the repeated refrain that conveys powerful message in its poetry:

Blame it on the generals
Blame it on their guns
Blame it on the poppies and the pain
Blame it on the scarecrow in the rain.

Reconciliation by Irishman, Ron Kavana, to Clarion's own arrangement, tells us that there's a "time to fight and a there's a time for healing". After “the struggle the sweetness comes”, a song about comradeship, with a clear eye on "Fair weather friends".

The Song of John Ball, by Sydney Carter, celebrates the 1381 Peasants' Revolt. It is amazing to think it was written only 40 years ago, as Carter succeeded in making it sound like a mediaeval ballad. It is a clear, lyrical vision of an egalitarian, caring communism, and particularly appropriate as we celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution:

Who'll be the Lady,
Who'll be the Lord,
When we are ruled by the love of one another?

Sydney Carter's piece gave the baritones more work to do and the audience clearly loved the message:

Sing, John Ball, and tell it to them all
Long live the day that is dawning!
For I'll crow like a cock,
I'll carol like a lark,
For the light that is coming in the morning.

Special guests Bournville Brass performed several pieces before the interlude. A long way from former mining villages, Britain's second biggest city has far fewer big brass bands of 28 players that it once did when giant fortresses of labour, hundreds of factories, dominated the skylines.

Five pieces, a tuba, a horn, a cornet or two, and a trombone, effortlessly melded into the distinctive bright, mellow sound one would expect in a larger ensemble – especially when rendering Singin' in the Rain, when a definite jaunty note sauntered into the room. Feet tapping in tune, the audience instinctively began swaying:

Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo...

Surely, that was Gene Kelly I saw getting out his umbrella?

Song of Peace or Finlandia, by Sibelius, in an arrangement for women's voices speaks for itself, but the delivery makes more of the music and words combined.

Quite Early Morning by Pete Seeger is of its time. A time that has reasserted itself, hopefully the second time as farce, if international thermonuclear war could ever be so treated:

Some say that humankind won't long endure
But what makes them so doggone sure?
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing.

In 1951, Geoffrey Parsons of Unity Theatre wrote Civilisation, rediscovered in Clarion's archives. Musical Director, Jane Scott, has produced a remarkable four part arrangement.

Tell shopping centres that Ode to Joy is not just for Xmas! And tell the EU that Beethoven integrated Schiller's poem into his 9th Symphony for the brotherhood of humanity, not the Single Market.

The choir, rather sweetly, slipped in an additional song just before their traditional finale. Long standing Clarion members, Jan and Chris, are about to depart for Northern climes, and they were treated to a specially written farewell song (by Annie Banham) to the tune of England Arise! The classic socialist hymn. Not a dry eye in the house:

Shall we shed a tear?
Sheffield's fairly near
An hour and a quarter if you get the train.

Jan and Chris, like Clarion, have

sung it all,
on fire trucks and pavements,
Cradley Heath and Kendal.

Then came, of course, The Internationale, song of the most militant sections of the working class the whole world over.

Clarion Singers are at  https://birminghamclarionsingers.wordpress.com/ and Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/BirminghamClarionSingers/ and Twitter: https://twitter.com/ClarionSingers

Music and Marxism
Tuesday, 19 June 2018 17:47

Music and Marxism

Published in Music

In the second part of his series, Mark Abel asks how Marxists should judge music.

In the first part of this series of articles, I argued that critique was at the heart of any application of Marxist theory, and that therefore a Marxist musicology must be a critical, rather than a disinterested (or complacent) activity. But this immediately raises the question of what kind of judgments can be made about music, and on what basis. Where is the meaning in music and how might it be revealed?

Perhaps the most obvious and most common way that Marxists (in general) make judgments about any kind of cultural text, whether literary, dramatic, or visual, is on the basis of its discernible, or overt, political meaning. But since, arguably, music as such does not have a discernible political meaning, the focus of this method of attributing value in the case of songs tends to fall on their lyrical content. The immediate effect of this approach is to regard the music as no more than the accompaniment to the sung words, an enhancement of what is held to be really important in the song – the words.

On this basis, a strong trend in the history of Marxist approaches to music involved the valorisation of forms of music which prioritise the clear delivery of lyrics and downplay the importance of instruments. The ease with which judgments could be made on the basis of the political values expressed in the lyrics was one of the reasons why much of the Left in the mid-20th century became particularly associated with folk music. The other was that this kind of music proved to be well-suited to mass, amateur participation at political events. The protest songs of singers like Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger drew on a variety of sources, like this American union song, ‘Which Side Are You On?’

 

 

The value being attached to the music itself, in this relationship between the Left and folk music, relates to the tunes’ simplicity, even unobtrusiveness, in relation to the message carried by the words.

To the extent that the actual musical content was a factor in making political judgments about folk music, it was an instance of the use of another kind of criterion – the supposed class basis of the music. Here we have a judgment based on a concept of popular authenticity: the idea that some forms of music are part of a folk culture which is the authentic expression of a people, that is, of ordinary, poor, oppressed or exploited people. This quality is held to set such music apart from ‘bourgeois’ art or highbrow music.

The authenticity criterion was applied at around the same time to another music – jazz – whose progressive nature was held to derive from its connection with an oppressed section of society, as well as its resulting difference from both the classical concert tradition and commercial popular music. The logic of this latter criterion meant that when jazz began to develop in both directions – an artistic one with bebop and a commercial one with the big bands – there was a need for a new focus. That need found fulfillment in the Dixieland Revival, which was essentially the celebration of early, ‘traditional’ (‘trad’) jazz as the authentic, popular and democratic original form of the music. Much of the soundtrack of leftwing political events in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain and elsewhere comprises both folk-like singing and marching jazzbands. This is footage of the 1959 Aldermaston march: 

 

Although politically interesting things can be said about the musical procedures of jazz compared to other forms of music-making, part of its attraction for progressives was the perceived ‘outsider’ status of its original New Orleans protagonists. The British trad-jazz revival of the 1950s was an echo of a similar American revival led by New Deal progressives in the 1930s and celebrated the apparent purity of a music produced by an oppressed community in another part of the world.

If Billy Bragg might be regarded as a descendant of the folk-protest tradition, the late twentieth century fashion for ‘world music’ was a descendant of the trad jazz revival. Far flung parts of the globe were scoured for sounds to satisfy a demand amongst Western progressives for authentic popular expression which had not (yet) been poisoned by the values of capitalism. This was, however, a pale, somewhat compromised, echo of the earlier movements in that whereas both the folk and the trad jazz scenes were built around performances by idealistic musicians dedicated to keeping a form of music alive, those doing the scouring for world music represented the very forces that threatened this music’s integrity – multinational record companies. Listen to these tracks from Ken Colyer’s Crane River Jazzband, which performed at many political events, to hear the quality of the recreation of the New Orleans sound by 1950s British musicians:

 

 

What is common to all these cases is that the political judgment is being made largely on non-musical, or extra-musical, grounds: this music is politically sound because of who makes it, or where it comes from. This is also true of the parallel tendency of valorising art-music composers for their supposed commitment to Marxism, socialism or progressive politics. On this basis, composers such as Alan Bush and Michael Tippett were celebrated by sections of the British Left, their political stance evidenced partly by their anti-elitist involvement with non-professional music-making, such as choral societies, but mainly by the themes of their works, particularly operas (thereby relying on overt verbal meanings). This is part of Bush’s opera about nineteenth century Northumbrian miners, Men of Blackmoor:

 

 

And this is Tippet’s oratorio Child of Our Time, which incorporates arrangements of African American spirituals, thereby combining in one work all the criteria for progressive approval discussed so far.

 

 

What is left out of such judgments is the musical success or otherwise of the outcomes of these efforts, as though good intentions are enough. In addition, this approach suffers from the ‘intentional fallacy’ of believing that art is simply the product of the execution of an intention on the part of its creator. This holds that an artist is solely responsible for the art she produces, and this will be socialist art if the artist holds socialist beliefs and principles.

In fact, this is a form of idealism which has nothing to do with Marxism. Marx initiated an approach which understood art, by virtue of its social roots, as expressing something beyond the intention of its individual creator, perhaps even at odds with its creator’s personal views. For example, he thought that the novelist Balzac had succeeded in cutting through bourgeois ideology to show the truth of social life despite his own conservative politics.

It is a cornerstone of Marxist approaches to culture that works of art are social products. Indeed, more than that, the very language available for the creation of artistic expression, whether literary, visual or musical, is socially and historically determined. This means that musical judgments based on the intentions of the composer can never be the whole story. But it also means that simply pointing to the social roots of a particular music is not enough either.

Both are ways of avoiding tackling the difficult issue of the meaning involved in the music itself, a meaning which is not stable but will mutate as circumstances change. For example, as time went on, the post-war British trad jazz bands arguably became a staid parody of the raw, innovative music they sought faithfully to emulate.

Exposing how those meanings inhere in the very language of music is the central task of a Marxist musicology.