FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Walking the Lonely Road

by RON JACOBS

When we think of Paul Robeson, those of us who know  his work hear that bass voice professing a melody like no other voice bass ever recorded.  His voice on “Ol’ Man River” is the undercurrent of that mighty river pulling the silt across its bottom and leaving the oppressed working people along its shores behind.  His version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” provides a new depth to the meaning of forlorn.  These songs, barely political, speak to us of the despair that has been the historical situation of the African-American since the first one was sold to the European slaver and packed into the hold of a slaving ship.  They also resonate with a hope that the more fortunate often find difficult to comprehend.

Unlike some of his contemporaries that also had the white man’s ear, Paul Robeson was never afraid to share his opinion about that history of oppression and its legacy.  Nor was he quiet about the oppression of his fellow colonized peoples.  This naturally did not endear him to the wealthy and powerful.  Of course, this was not his intention, either.  Born in North Carolina of a slave father who was also a freedom fighter, Robeson did not have to go far to find reasons for his beliefs.  Racial apartheid and the accompanying irrationality and brutality were part of his family’s everyday life.  Even after he had made it professionally, he knew that to many people he was just another black man.  On top of that, he was also a Communist in an era when being such was tantamount to being a witch in the middle ages.

Freedom Archives of San Francisco, California, recently released a CD of oratory from  Robeson titled Words Like Freedom.  This is the latest in the Archives series of audio and video releases recognizing the freedom struggle of black Americans.  Earlier releases included a collection of conversations and speeches by and about Robert Williams and a video about the police torture of several Black Panther Party members — some of whom find themselves once again on trial for the very same crimes they were tortured by police for in the 1970s (charges that were dropped in 1975).

Robeson’s stentorian voice enhances the messages of resistance and freedom on this disc.  He talks about his life, slavery, the black freedom movement, and art, among other things.  The longest excerpt is from his testimony in front of the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC).  Unlike many others that were called before this committee and failed to stand up to its intimidation, Robeson challenges the hateful men he finds himself facing and unmasks their racist line of questions with an unequivocal statement of his belief in freedom and social justice.  After a contentious go-around with the chair of the committee, a Representative from Pennsylvania, Robeson was asked: “Now, what prejudice are you talking about? You were graduated from Rutgers and you were graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. I remember seeing you play football at Lehigh.”  Robeson responded with a joking reminder that Lehigh beat UPenn in football while he was there.

The Senator and Robeson shared a thought or two on the subject of football and then the Senator repeated his question: “What prejudice are you talking about?”   Robeson responded: “Just a moment. This is something that I challenge very deeply, and very sincerely: that the success of a few Negroes, including myself or Jackie Robinson can make up — and here is a study from Columbia University — for seven hundred dollars a year for thousands of Negro families in the South. My father was a slave, and I have cousins who are sharecroppers, and I do not see my success in terms of myself. That is the reason my own success has not meant what it should mean….”

Although there is no music on this cd, the orations are like music to this ear.  The depth of passion one hears on Robeson’s musical recordings is equaled in these excerpts.  The people that put together this CD hope to see it enter libraries and classrooms so that it can serve not only as the study of a great man who never wavered from his principles despite the temptations of wealth and the threats of his government, but also as an inspiration to those who listen to it.  Words Like Freedom is historical proof that artists and performers can be successful in the capitalist culture of the US without selling their heart or their soul.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net

 

 

 

 

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sandes Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Honduras Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Stratos Ramoglou
Why the Greek Economic Crisis Won’t be Ending Anytime Soon
David Price
The 2016 Tour of California: Notes on a Big Pharma Bike Race
Dmitry Mickiewicz
Barbarous Deforestation in Western Ukraine
Gilbert Mercier
Donald Trump: Caligula of the Lowest Common Denominator Empire?
Patrick Bond
Imperialism’s Junior Partners
Mark Hand
The Trouble with Fracking Fiction
Priti Gulati Cox
Broken Green: Two Years of Modi
Marc Levy
Sitrep: Hometown Unwelcomes Vietnam Vets
Robert Dodge
On President Obama’s Hiroshima Visit
Andrew Moss
Bridge to Wellbeing?
Ed Kemmick
New Book Full of Amazing Montana Women
Michael Dickinson
Bye Bye Legal High in Backwards Britain
Missy Comley Beattie
Wanted: Daddy or Mommy in Chief
Charles R. Larson
Russian Women, Then and Now
May 26, 2016
Paul Craig Roberts
The Looting Stage of Capitalism: Germany’s Assault on the IMF
Pepe Escobar
Hillary Clinton: A Major Gold-Digging Liability
Sam Pizzigati
America’s Cosmic Tax Gap
Ramzy Baroud
Time to End the ‘Hasbara’: Palestinian Media and the Search for a Common Story
José L. Flores
Wall Street’s New Man in Brazil: The Forces Behind Dilma Rousseff’s Impeachment
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail