Saturday, 29 November 2014

"Let Paul Robeson Sing!"

The other night, I was at a poetry evening in honour of the singer/songwriter Nick Drake, part of a series of readings and concerts. During the evening it was suggested that another singer who should have a similar commemoration in Wales was Paul Robeson.
Paul Robeson was a black American singer - what connection could he have with Wales?

It started in 1928, when he was starring in Show Boat on the West End in London. That's where he sang the song he is most famous for - "Ole Man River". A group of unemployed Welsh miners had walked to London to bring attention to their hardship - a smaller version of the Jarrow March, and Paul Robeson met them and marched along with them.
Paul Robeson was not only a singer - he was what we would call now a human rights activist (and what MI5 later called "a fanatical communist" in their file on him - he had close links with Soviet Russia). Not only did he meet the miners and support their campaign for better treatment, but he also sang in concerts all around Wales right up until 1960 - for the 1957 Miners' Eisteddfod he performed via transatlantic phone line, because his passport had been revoked.
The CIA had a thick file on him, too, and considered him a dangerous subversive who said inappropriate things about race relations in the US and colonial rule in the British Empire. When he got his passport back in 1958, Welsh miners had been part of the campaign to allow him freedom to travel again, using the slogan "Let Paul Robeson Sing!". In later years, Welsh miners were part of the movement to free Nelson Mandela, partly because of their associations with Paul Robeson.
In 1939, he lived in Wales while filming Proud Valley, the story of a black American who became a miner in Wales. It was based on a true story, and was the film Paul Robeson was most proud of, because it showed the struggles of working class people honestly, and because he was portraying a man who happened to be black, rather than a stereotype.
He only took part in three more films in the rest of his life, Native Land and Tales of Manhattan in 1942, and The Song of the River in 1954. Native Land was a documentary about trade unions, which he narrated, and Tales of Manhattan is an anthology film about a tail-coat passing from hand to hand and changing the lives of the people who wear it, with the tattered jacket being put on a scarecrow at the end. The Song of the River was an East German film about six great rivers of the world and the international workers' movements along them.
All of which is a far cry from the 1935 film Sanders of the River, which is the other famous Paul Robeson film, where he played a native chief in Nigeria, and sang while paddling a canoe. That was not a film he was proud to be part of in later life, though initially he thought it might be a good way of looking at colonial life in the British Empire.
He died in 1976, after a long period of retirement and ill health, though he supported the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Paul Robeson's son, Paul Jr., continued his father's associations with Wales, inviting the Onllwyn Male Voice Choir to Carnegie Hall in 1998 to sing at a concert commemorating the centenary of Paul Robeson's birth, and travelling to Wales to talk to school children. He also spoke at the Senedd in Cardiff in 2008 on the 60th anniversary of the start of the NHS.
Paul Robeson's grand-daughter Susan came to Wales to the Eisteddfod in 2010, where Swansea University were launching a new "learning resource" based on a successful exhibition called "Let Paul Robeson Sing!" It can be found at People's Collection Wales online and the South Wales Miners' Library. Susan Robeson was keen to meet anyone who remembered her grandfather while she was at the Eisteddfod.

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