I was going to write how there are few things as moving as hearing Paul Robeson sing “Ol’ Man River” but the version of Show Boat played at our house (and in the car) no fewer than 12 times over the weekend was not the 1936 version with Robeson in it that we watched a few years back but rather the 1951 Howard Keel technicolor release. It is extremely moving however. Of course, after learning more about Robeson’s life, I understand that the 1951 film is more prominent and available due to a lasting legacy from the 50’s and 60’s when the US government removed Robeson’s works from public circulation. Ol’ Man River wasn’t just a song, it was his life. Robeson also had an appreciation for the Soviet Union and that nation’s ability to look beyond skin colour and for this he was branded a communist sympathiser. So he courted controversy… but what a fascinating and historically significant life he led!
A few years back the Manic Street Preachers put out “Let Robeson sing” - a strumming tune with lyrics chronicling a period in Robeson’s life where he struggled against censorship and constitutional rights (specifically he was no longer allowed to leave the country and talk about how America treated its black citizens). MSP are known for their socialist ideals and once had a well-documented meeting with Castro, so a song about Robeson’s life seemed quite fitting on the surface. But it also turns out that the proudly Welsh rockers’ socialism was truly born out of their working class background and the years of miner’s strikes that defined Wales in the 80’s. And so it was in Wales back in the middle of the century that Robeson spent a great deal time entertaining miners and mine disaster victim’s families to such a popular extent that, to this day, he remains a national hero.
All this has led to some pretty interesting and somewhat challenging discussions (on the topic of black segregation not the Manic Street Preachers... yet!) with the kiddos. The history of black and white relations is a tough thing to comprehend, for child and adult, especially as removed from it as we are here in our (seemingly?) tolerant society. Maybe its just me, but explaining how a man was once forced to sing to Canadians from the US side of the border is not a simple task:
VIDEO Let Robeson sing by Manic Street Preachers (high-quality version; may require small downloading time... worth it... truly!)
VIDEO SONG Ol' Man River by Paul Robeson
For the likes of politically charged Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Easterhouse and the Manics i'm grateful. Cause I listen to an awful lot of fluff as well.
“Now let the Freedom Train come zooming down the track
Gleaming in the sunlight for white and black
Not stopping at no stations marked colored nor white
Just stopping in the fields in the broad daylight
Stopping in the country in the wide open air
Where there never was a Jim Crow sign nowhere
And no lilly-white committees, politicians of note
Nor poll tax layer through which colored can't vote”