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It is gratifying indeed that one of the world’s most eminent opera singers, Bryn Terfel, is performing in two concerts at the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff to celebrate the voice and life of Paul Robeson.
The son of a black slave in the US was a world-famous singer and actor who led a turbulent and courageous life.
When he died in 1976, millions of people around the world mourned the loss of one of the greatest people of the 20th century — a giant of a man who deserves a place alongside Nelson Mandela as a fighter for freedom.
Many mourned in Wales too, because of the special bond forged between Robeson and the people of Wales, especially the miners, their families and the black community in Cardiff’s docklands.
He was born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, to former slave the Reverend William Robeson and teacher Maria who died when he was just five years old.
Defying hatred and discrimination, he was a first-class student and athlete in high school, Rutgers College, Colombia Law School and the US National Football League. On the football field, he faced racist violence from players on both sides.
During the 1920s, he threw himself into the Harlem Renaissance alongside black communists, socialists and other radicals who inspired the flourishing of black and working class culture.
Robeson’s extraordinary bass baritone voice and his charismatic presence quickly led to starring roles in concerts and plays, with his wife Eslanda (Essie) providing invaluable moral, financial and professional support. Radio and recording work followed.
In 1928, Robeson came to London to play in the musical Show Boat, where his rendition of Ol’ Man River won him enormous popularity.
He and Essie decided to settle in the city, although the Savoy Grill made them less than welcome by refusing them a table.
One winter’s afternoon in 1929, he encountered a group of jobless Welsh miners who had walked to London to sing for handouts.
Enchanted by their harmony, he joined their procession before serenading them at the end with Ol’ Man River and a selection of spirituals.
Many decades later, in Talygarn Miners Rest Home, one of the marchers recalled that Robeson’s own donation financed their fares back to Wales in a railway carriage packed with food and clothing.
Thus began Robeson’s long love affair with the Welsh working class who flocked to his many concerts, including one in Caernarfon to raise funds in the wake of the 1934 Gresford mining disaster which claimed 266 lives.
Although he was by now a celebrity of film and theatre, the plight of so many workers in Wales, England, Austria and the US during the Great Depression still struck a deep chord, but it was Paul Robeson’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1934, as the guest of film director Sergei Eisenstein, that convinced him that capitalism should not only be replaced.
Though I have not been able to be active for several years, I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood
His experience there of the comradeship and equality between people of different races and nationalities, in a new society free from economic crisis, convinced him that it could be.
Subsequently, Robeson and his family spent up to a year at a time living and working among the Russian people.
The anti-fascist war in Spain further consolidated his politics. He went there in 1938 to speak and sing to the volunteers of the International Brigades who went from Wales and around the world to defend the Spanish Republic and democracy.
He had also become increasingly aware of the need to promote the African cultural heritage, consciousness and status of the black population of his home country. He studied 20 African languages, to which he added a structural knowledge of German, Russian, Arabic, Chinese and Yiddish. The Welsh language ballads would come later.
In 1940, Robeson returned to the cinema in an Ealing Studios film, The Proud Valley.
Shot in south Wales, it told the story of a young black man who wins the affections of the local community and its miners through hard work, hearty singing and martyrdom in an explosion underground.
After the nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, he supported the “people’s war against fascism.” He sang to US and allied troops while also speaking out against the shameful treatment of black soldiers by the US military authorities.
Paul Robeson faced the full might of anti-communism in the cold war that followed.
Although he never joined the Communist Party, he worked closely with communists and socialists in the fight against racism and imperialism, for peace and social justice.
When CPUSA leaders were put on trial under the Smith Act, he declared that “some of the most brilliant and distinguished Americans are about to go to jail” because they refused on principle to divulge their political affiliations. He would do likewise and join them in prison if necessary.
He opposed the Korean War and retained a lifelong commitment to the Soviet Union and its foreign policy, although he protested against the persecution of Russian friends and acquaintances.
His principled stance all but destroyed his career in the US. The film and theatre offers dried up, his concerts were attacked by violent right-wing mobs and he was summoned to appear before congressional committees to face accusations of subversion and treason.
Robeson faced down the House Un-American Activities Committee in spectacular fashion, telling the witch-hunters: “Because my father was a slave and my people died to build this country, 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. Is that clear?”
In Britain, he was placed under extensive surveillance by Special Branch and the intelligence services. National Archive files reveal much about the racist and imperialist outlook of his watchers.
The US government withdrew his passport, which prevented him from visiting the South Wales Miners Eisteddfod in 1951. Six years later, he fulfilled the invitation by singing to the miners and their families through the first transatlantic telephone cable.
After a worldwide campaign secured the return of his passport, Robeson travelled to the 1958 National Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale as the guest of local MP Aneurin Bevan.
Paul Robeson lived long enough to welcome the Cuban revolution, the liberation of Vietnam and victory for the US civil rights movement.
He died after a long period of poor health, but still a socialist and an advocate of peace with the Soviet Union and People’s China.
Too ill to attend a 75th birthday concert in his honour, he recorded a message for his many New York supporters, saying: “Though I have not been able to be active for several years, I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood.”
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