Five years after his production of The Cradle Will Rock was abruptly cancelled by the Works Progress Administration, Marc Blitzstein composed the score for the 1942 anti-fascist, anti-KKK documentary film Native Land, featuring today’s selection, “American Day.” Paul Robeson, frustrated with the type-casting of black performers in Hollywood, sang in and narrated this, his final film. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times had the following reaction to the film on May 12, 1942, following its premiere:
“Although this country is today engaged in open warfare against a foreign enemy which threatens our national heritage, the struggle to preserve our rights and freedom has been marked by long and bloody strife. And it is to remind us of the fight which the American people have waged to win and hold their civil liberties, especially against “the fascist-minded on our own soil” in recent years, that Frontier Films is presenting the feature-length documentary film, ‘Native Land,’ which opened at the World Theatre last evening…. Manifestly, this is one of the most powerful and disturbing documentary films ever made, and certainly it will provoke much thought and controversy. ‘Native Land’ is a graphic presentation through re-enacted scenes of incidents of brutal violations of the American Bill of Rights as revealed in actual testimony before the Senate Civil Liberties Committee in 1938. It is, to put it bluntly, a sharp indictment of certain subversive elements in this land—elements which are never precisely identified, other than by such terms as “the big shots,” “the interests” and “powerful corporations,” but which emerge by implication as all foes of free speech, of free assembly and the active opponents of labor organization.”
Would that I could draw no parallels between 1942 and 2019. Sadly, it seems racism and fascism are on the rise throughout our world over the past few years, and corporations have inexplicably mutated into persons more powerful than people. Will we ever learn, or are we destined to be caught in a perpetual “Groundhog Day?” Are we just “millions of ordinary people, who take the Bill of Rights for granted?”
“Wake up, brother, wake up.”
“I never died, says he”—and thus Paul Robeson sings of the union organizer Joe Hill, a man who did die for his cause. Perhaps today, as so much is said about dark times we live in, it is critical to remember there were much darker. And the society grew through such struggles, and eventually grew that much stronger. Progress is never inevitable. But music, when in the service of protest against injustice—meaning in the service of progress—cuts to our heart, as this song does. Quicker, more effective than many speeches and declamations, it tells us that ideals never die. And that, with sacrifice, human spirit does—inevitably—find its way to truth.
June 30 is close enough to July 4 that I’d like to conclude this week with “Ballad for Americans,” a patriotic cantata for soloist, chorus and orchestra. All through my childhood my father played the Paul Robeson recording on Independence Day. Between Robeson’s voice, the casual references to historical figures, the questions and the lists, elementary-school Amy found it absolutely thrilling. As I grew older, it also took on the good feelings that come with a family tradition.
It lands differently on adult ears. [see below for the lyric] For a while I hesitated to share it with the refined NYFOS readership. It is not subtle — not the music or the message. The fit of music to syllables is often awkward. There are many ironies I didn’t understand as a child: that Robeson was representing a nation where African Americans were treated terribly; that immigrants from many countries were being hailed, while U.S. immigration policies severely limited the entry of Jews fleeing Hitler. But it is so well-meaning. I hope you will enjoy it as a 10-minute respite from the lying, greed, hate, and fear that surround us at present.
“Ballad for Americans” (1939)
Music by Earl Robinson; lyric by John Latouche
An early version with two soloists — “Ballade of Uncle Sam” — was the finale of the Broadway revue Sing for Your Supper, which had 60 performances between April and July, 1939. The show was produced by the Federal Theatre Project, and only closed because Congress had abruptly defunded them.
Revised and retitled, and with Paul Robeson as the single soloist, “Ballad” reached a national audience live on the CBS radio network on November 5, 1939 (when radio stations still had their own orchestras!). There was a reprise performance on New Year’s Eve. The work was enormously popular and received numerous performances around the country. Robeson and Bing Crosby each recorded it in the summer of 1940. Remarkably, it was programmed at both the Communist Party’s convention in May 1940 and the Republican convention in June.
For more information about “Ballad For Americans,” I encourage you to listen to this 2015 segment from All Things Considered.
And keep an eye out for Howard Pollack’s new biography of John Latouche, being published in November. He kindly allowed me to read the chapter on “Ballad” last week.
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The lyric has had authorized and unauthorized adjustments and updates over the years. The version below mostly matches the video linked to above.
In seventy-six the sky was red
Thunder rumbling overhead
Bad King George couldn’t sleep in his bed
And on that stormy morn, old Uncle Sam was born.
S: Ol’ Sam put on a three-cornered hat
And in a Richmond church he sat
And Patrick Henry told him that
While America drew breath
All: It was “Liberty or Death.”
Ens: What kind of hat is a three-cornered hat?
A Woman: Did they all believe in liberty in those days?
Solo: Nobody who was anybody believed it.
Ev’rybody who was anybody they doubted it.
Nobody had faith, nobody.
Nobody but Washington, Tom Paine, Benjamin Franklin,
Chaim Solomon, Crispus Attucks, Lafayette.
A Man: The nobodies ran a tea party at Boston.
A Woman: Betsy Ross organized a sewing circle.
A Man: Paul Revere had a horse race.
Solo: And a little ragged group believed it.
And some gentlemen and ladies believed it.
And some wise men and some fools,
And I believed it too.
And you know who I am.
A Man: No. Who are you, Mister?
A Woman: Yeah, how come all this?
Solo: Well, I’ll tell you. Now let me—
Ens: No, let us tell you.
Then Mister Tom Jefferson, a mighty fine man.
He wrote it down in a mighty fine plan.
And the rest all signed it with a mighty fine han’
As they crossed their “t”s and dotted their “i”s
A bran’ new country did arise.
Solo: And a mighty fine idea.
A Man: Adopted unanimously in Congress July 4, 1776.
Solo: We hold these truths to be self-evident,
That all men are created equal.
All: That they are endowed by their creator
With certain inalienable rights.
Ens: That among these rights are Life!
Solo: Yes sir!
Solo: That’s right!
Ens: And the pursuit of happiness!
A Woman: Is that what they said?
Solo: The very words.
A Woman: That does sound mighty fine.
Ens: Building a nation is awful tough.
The people found the going rough.
And thirteen states weren’t large enough.
So they started to expand —
Into the western lands!
Solo: Still nobody who was anybody believed it.
Everybody who was anybody they stayed at home.
But Lewis and Clark and the pioneers,
Driven by hunger, haunted by fears,
The Klondike miners and the Forty-Niners,
Some wanted freedom and some wanted riches,
Some liked to loaf while others dug ditches.
Ens: But they believed in it.
Solo: And I believed it too.
And you know who I am.
A Man: No, who are you anyway, Mister?
Solo: Well, I started to tell you
A Woman: Yes, Mister, tell us who you are.
Solo: You see, I represent the whole…
Solo: That’s it!
Ens: Let my people go.
Solo: That’s the idea!
All: Old Abe Lincoln was thin and long,
His heart was high and his faith was strong.
But he hated oppression, he hated wrong,
And he went down to his grave to free the slave.
Ens: Man in white skin can never be free
While his black brother is in slavery,
“And we here highly resolve that these dead
Shall not have died in vain.
And government of the people, by the people and for the people
All: Shall not perish from the Earth.”
A Man: Abraham Lincoln said that on November 19, 1863 at Gettysburg,
Solo: And he was right. I believe that too.
A Man: Say, we still don’t know who you are, Mister.
Solo: Well, I started to tell you…
Ens: The machine age came with a great big roar,
As America grew in peace and war.
And a million wheels went around and ’round.
The cities reached into the sky
And dug down deep into the ground.
And some got rich and some got poor.
But the people carried through,
So our country grew.
Solo: Still nobody who was anybody believed it.
Everybody who was anybody they doubted it.
And they are doubting still,
And I guess they always will,
But who cares what they say
When I am on my way—
Ens: Say, will you please tell us who you are?
A Man: What’s your name, Buddy?
A Man: Where you goin’?
A Man: Who are you?
Solo: Well, I’m everybody who’s nobody,
I’m the nobody who’s everybody.
A Man: What’s your racket?
What do you do for a living?
Solo: Well, I’m an
Engineer, musician, street cleaner, carpenter, teacher,
A Man: How about a farmer?
A Woman: Office clerk?
Solo: Yes, ma’am.
A Man: Mechanic?
Solo: That’s right.
A Woman: Housewife?
A Man: Factory worker?
Solo: You said it.
A Woman: Stenographer?
Solo: Uh huh.
A Woman: Beauty Specialist?
A Man: Bartender?
A Man: Truck driver?
Ens: Miner, seamstress, ditchdigger,
Solo: All of them.
I am the “etceteras” and the “and so forths” that do the work.
A Man: Now hold on here, what are you trying to give us?
A Woman: Are you an American?
Solo: Am I an American?
I’m just an Irish, Negro, Jewish, Italian,
French and English, Spanish, Russian,
Chinese, Polish, Scotch, Hungarian,
Litvak, Swedish, Finnish, Canadian,
Greek and Turk and Czech
And double check American.
And that ain’t all.
I was baptized Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist, Lutheran,
Atheist, Roman Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, Presbyterian,
Seventh Day Adventist, Mormon, Quaker, Christian Scientist and lots more.
Ens: You sure are something.
All: Our country’s strong, our country’s young,
And her greatest songs are still unsung.
From her plains and mountains we have sprung
To keep the faith with those who went before.
Ens: We nobodies who are anybody believe it.
We anybodies who are everybody have no doubts.
Solo: Out of the cheating, out of the shouting.
Out of the murders and lynching
All: Out of the windbags, the patriotic spouting,
Out of uncertainty and doubting,
Out of the carpetbag and the brass spittoon
It will come again.
Our marching song will come again!
Ens: Simple as a hit tune,
Deep as our valleys,
High as our mountains,
Strong as the people who made it.
Solo: For I have always believed it,
And I believe it now.
And you know who I am.
Ens: Who are you?
For the final Song of the Day of my week here at NYFOS, let me introduce you to the reason I became a singer: Paul Robeson. If ever there was an human embodiment of the traits I most value in an artist and human – communication, fearlessness, skill, an open heart, a brilliant mind, hard work, and a deep sense of service – it was Robeson.
This song, “Old Man River,” is taken from the musical Show Boat, by Hammerstein and Kern. Though the role, Joe, was written with Robeson in mind, he was not available for the original Broadway production. When he did take it up, though, in London in 1928, in the 1932 Broadway revival, and, most notably, in the 1936 film, it made him a star. International concert tours, theater productions, and Hollywood films followed. By rights, modern Americans would remember him as one of our truly great artists, along with actors like Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, James Dean, and singers like Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Johnny Mercer. But it was not to be.
Fiercely political, Robeson viewed his work as inseparable from its political context, and advocated for pro-labor, anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-colonialist policies and organizations. In 1937, Robeson went abroad during the Spanish Civil War to meet and sing for Republican troops, which made him a hero to those who opposed fascism. His association with left-wing politics throughout the 1930s and 40s, visits to the U.S.S.R., and outspoken critiques of American racism led to his fall from grace in the mainstream American consciousness. During the McCarthy era, he was blacklisted, his passport was revoked, and his previously meteoric career was cut short. When the House Un-American Activities Committee asked why he didn’t stay in the U.S.S.R., given his political affiliations, he gave a tremendously patriotic response: “Because my father was a slave and my people died to build the United States, I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you, and no fascist-minded people will drive me from it!”
For an example of the way his politics informed his work, look no further than the song that made him famous, “Old Man River.” In Show Boat, the character of Joe has been described as a one-man Greek chorus, framing the human drama of the musical’s plot with a re-occurring musical gesture invoking the ever-flowing Mississippi River, and subtly comparing the unchanging river with the perpetual hardship of the African-American working on her shores. In the original lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Joe comes across as impassive and resigned, with perhaps the subtlest touch of political discontent with his lot and that of his people. Beginning in 1938, whenever Robeson performed this song in concert, he changed the words, giving the song a very different feel:
•Instead of “Dere’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi, / Dat’s de ol’ man that I’d like to be,” Robeson sang “There’s an ol’ man called the Mississippi, / That’s the ol’ man I don’t like to be.”
•Instead of “Tote that barge! / Lift that bale! / Git a little drunk, / An’ you land in jail,” Robeson sang “Tote that barge and lift dat bale!/ You show a little grit / And you lands in jail.”
•Most strikingly, instead of “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’; / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An skeered of dyin’, / But Ol’ Man River, / He jes’ keeps rolling along!”, Robeson sang “But I keeps laughin’/ Instead of cryin’ / I must keep fightin’; / Until I’m dyin’, / And Ol’ Man River, / He’ll just keep rollin’ along!”
Gone is any sense of impassivity or complacency. Instead of drinking, it’s standing up for yourself, speaking your mind, and organizing for rights that provokes the response of the law. Resignation is replaced by an unquenchable spirit. Instead of feeling sympathy for Joe, the audience is moved by his resilience in the face of oppression, perhaps even moved to action.
I could write about this man for days on end. The son of an escaped slave, he attended Rutgers University on a football scholarship (the third Black student in their history), winning academic, oratorical, and athletic awards, including two first-team All American selections, and graduated valedictorian. He attended Columbia Law School, supporting his studies with off-Broadway performance and a side job playing the End and Tackle positions at an upstart organization called the National Football League. He starred in Emperor Jones, the first Hollywood film with a leading Black actor. He was the first Black actor to play the title role of Othello on Broadway with a white supporting cast, and the first to do so in London since the great Ira Aldridge. Though he isn’t remembered as he might have been, he has been cited as an influence in the work of artists James Baldwin, Sidney Poitier, and James Earl Jones (who performed an acclaimed one man show based on Robeson), and was a model for the artist-as-activist model that became so important to the Civil Rights Movement.
Robeson was a great artist by any measure, but that wasn’t the end of his story– it was the beginning. The troubles he went through, and the corresponding collapse of his legacy in America, say much more about us as a nation than they say about him as an artist.
While I always loved music, it wasn’t until I discovered Robeson in my teens that music began to seem a possible avenue for my life’s work. That an artistic life could be so fully realized, and at the same time so interwoven and relevant to public life (for nothing could speak more clearly as to what a society fears than repression of its outspoken public figures) was, and is, a revelation.I leave you with his epitaph, recorded in a message commemorating fallen Welsh fighters on the anti-fascist side of the Spanish Civil War: “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”
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