Earl Robinson and John Latouche: Ballad for Americans

Written by Amy Asch

Music Theater Historian

In category: Song of the Day

Published June 30, 2017

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.

+ + + +
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.

Some birthday!

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!

Ens: Liberty!
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…

[Ensemble hums]

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?
Solo: Also.
A Woman: Office clerk?
Solo: Yes, ma’am.
A Man: Mechanic?
Solo: That’s right.
A Woman: Housewife?
Solo: Certainly!
A Man: Factory worker?
Solo: You said it.
A Woman: Stenographer?
Solo: Uh huh.
A Woman: Beauty Specialist?
Solo: Absotively!
A Man: Bartender?
Solo: Posolutely!
A Man: Truck driver?
Solo: Definitely!
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?

Solo: America!
All: America!

author: Amy Asch

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Longtime NYFOS subscriber Amy Asch loves the Great American Songbook, and doing research about songs, songwriters, musicals and movies.  She compiled and annotated The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II (Knopf, 2008) and is co-editor with Dominic McHugh of The Complete Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner, which will be published by Oxford University Press in February, 2018.  Favorite projects include cataloging Irving Berlin’s office correspondence and cataloging the working files and audio archive of Jonathan Larson, composer of Rent.  She recently provided research for Rob Fisher and Sheldon Harnick’s Lyrics & Lyricists program “Songbook Classics by Unsung Lyricists.”


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