Saturday, June 23, 2012

Paul Robeson and Rebel Music

"The powers that be, bent on inculcating narrow-gauged formulas about the necessities of human nature and human society- on the acceptance of which the continuation of their hegemony depends- must always vilify those purveying a more sanguine message."

Martin Duberman, writing about Paul Robeson

This piece by Norman Finklestein on the music of Paul Robeson appeared in the series Rebel Music in the New Left web site.

Like Finklestein Paul Robeson is a huge inspiration for me (previous blog pieces are here)

Finklestein who is a controversial scholar, writer and activist on the Israel-Palestine conflict who has suffered for his political stance, writes of the ways that Robeson's music inspired his political engagement and nourished him during his political struggles.

Finklestein's piece is reproduced below:

In the 1960s everyone was listening to rock and psychedelic music. I sat at home, alone, listening to Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, the Weavers.

In the early 1970s I discovered Paul Robeson. He exerted a huge influence on me in my youth.
Most people nowadays have never heard of Robeson. He was an African-American renaissance man: extraordinary athlete, scholar, linguist, actor.

He was also a Communist, committed to the Soviet Union.

During the McCarthy era, he famously said that "I will not retreat one thousandth part of one inch," which became my credo in life.

Ultimately, Robeson's pro-Soviet beliefs destroyed his professional career and, once the truth about Stalinism came out (like many others, he was quite naive), my impression is that it destroyed him internally.

Robeson was best known for his rendering of folk music from around the world, first and foremost, African-American spirituals. Initially I enjoyed listening to Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho and the more lively spirituals, but over time I came to appreciate the slower, drawn out ones. They expressed the deepest yearnings of an oppressed people, with which I could identify. His renderings of Russian and Yiddish melodies also resonated.

It's an era that's past, probably for the better, so no one reading this can possibly understand the sentiments his music awakened in me.

But the music, the person -- the willingness to make sacrifices for an ideal and for a cause (however mistaken) -- moved me in my youth and gave me a sense of purpose, as well as of solace in moments of setback and defeat.

After I was denied tenure I started listening to Robeson again.

"Nobody knows the troubles I've seen,/Nobody knows my sorrows."
"Were you there,/ When they crucified my Lord?"
"Go down Moses,/Way down in Egypt's land,/And let my people go!"
"Some come crippled,/Some come lame,/Some come walking in Jesus name,/Bear the burden,/In the heat of the day."

I still keep a picture of Robeson pinned to the wall above my desk.


Stephen Bess said...

Great post on Robeson. Yes, the spirituals speak to the soul. This is why some renditions only require moanings because it's deep down in the soul; it heals from within. Thanks!

Colin Penter said...

Thank Stephen for your interest and comments. Yes you put it nicely- speaking to the soul and healing from within. Every time I listen to Robeson's version of Shenandoah, Motherless Child or Balm in Gilead I am in awe at the profundity of his performance and delivery.