Listen to New Voices on Studs Terkel our partnership with 826CHI-here! Read the Story

Tribute to Paul B. Robeson

DURATION: 00:53:58

Digital audio not yet public.


Studs Terkel Tonight is a tribute to Paul Robeson, who was born this day April 9th, 1898. He died in 1977. I thought, perhaps, I'd read a dispatch that came over the air on the night of his funeral. "As Black America tonight said a last emotional goodbye to Paul Robeson, the singer, actor, and civil rights crusader whose leftist convictions once made him an outcast in his own land. A crowd of more than 2500 packed a Harlem church for his funeral, to hear him mourned as a songbird who can no longer sing, an eagle who can no longer soar, a Joshua who can no longer fight any battles". There were four eulogists. Oh, and before the eulogists spoke, the congregation at the A.M.E. Zion Church in Harlem joined Robeson's recorded voice in singing "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder." One of the eulogists was his son Paul Robeson, Jr. who had broken a family silence that was maintained for many years, and he recalled his father's words at the time he was--before he was attacked, before the anti-Communist witch hunts had begun in the McCarthy era, and his blacklisting and self-imposed exile on being declared indeed a non-person in this society. His son said back in '37 his father, Paul Robeson, said to him, "The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I've made my choice. I have no alternative." "And although ill health" reads this dispatch, "forced Robeson to withdraw from public life in 1965, his son said, he retired undefeated and repentent". And there was a, a friend of his, the bishop, another eulogist, Bishop J. Clinton Hoggard, he said Robeson didn't change at all. He said, "Had his health been good," said the bishop, "He probably would have shown the same interest in the Vietnam War as he did in the Republican cause in Spain during the '30s. We can be sure," said the bishop, "He would have sung their freedom songs in the purest Vietnamese," and he joked of a man who spoke nine languages. Another eulogist spoke of a British music critic who had heard Robeson for the first time in London and he quoted him: "He broke our hearts with beauty." [singing

Paul Robeson [singing "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel"]

Studs Terkel The voice of Paul Robeson. Now, there was a gathering of friends and acquaintances of Mr. Robeson on Chicago's South Side. A little home-made tape recorder was used, so the quality, the technical quality not too good but the thoughts are quite clear. Among those present was Mr. Earl Dickerson, distinguished businessman of Chicago's South Side, insurance executive who was one of the first of the Black aldermen Chicago's City Council. He recalls his first meeting with this pioneer Black artist.

Earl Dickerson When I first met him, I was a young attorney just out of the University of Chicago, and I went to New York. He was at that time a student at Columbia University, and I met him with a number of the young intellectuals in New York City, and had an evening with him. Whenever Paul Robeson came to Chicago, my house was open. My wife Kathryn and I loved him. When many of his friends whom he knew more intimately than, than he knew us refused to accept him after Peekskill, our door was open. Paul Robeson lived in the rare atmosphere of a free man, and since I always loved freedom, I was glad to be a part of Paul Robeson's entourage, shall we say.

Studs Terkel A word about Peekskill, to which Mr. Dickerson referred. It's in upper-state New York, and in the early '50s during the worst of the McCarthy days, Paul Robeson, whose name was anathema to many professional patriots, was singing at a concert, he and Pete Seeger, and the people who had gathered there, were all, so that 25,000 came. The American Legion, other professional patriots had decried this gathering, and on the way back there were people lined up along the highways stoning the cars, and some of the people were badly injured. Thus was the hysteria caused by the mention of the name, indeed the appearance of Paul Robeson. [music] The opening chords of "Ballad For Americans", Paul Robeson, soloist. This reminds me of perhaps the most memorable radio experience of my life as a listener. Sunday afternoon, November 1939. Columbia Broadcasting System series "Pursuit of Happiness", Norman Corwin, producer, "Ballad for Americans", by John La Touche, Earl Robinson. Paul

Paul Robeson [Singing "Ballad for Americans"]

Studs Terkel Another rememberer of Paul Robeson, J. Mayo Williams, known professionally as "Ink" Williams, one of the earliest of Black football players as a professional and college player. He was an end at Brown University and he recalls playing with and against Paul Robeson, who was Walter Camp's All-American End at the time.

J. Mayo "Ink" Williams I met him in 1916 and in saying that, we are friends from then on. And I later played with him and against him. I had the pleasure of playing with him and the displeasure of playing against him. [laughing] And in saying that, then we went on into professional football and he and Fritz Pollard, Duke Slater and I are the pioneers in the National Professional Football League. Now, I later came in contact with Paul in New York on several occasions as my business at that time and still is the phonograph record reproduction business, and I would always go to his meetings. And it was about this time that he became a controversial figure, and nevertheless I would always go by to see him regardless of the situation. And I can remember one time in coming back from New York down near the Grand Central Station, and of course I had boarded the train or was going to board train from that station, so I thought I'd drop by to see Paul. And in doing so, I was followed from there right straight to the Englewood station at 63rd Street by the FBI. And getting back to football, when I said I had the pleasure of playing with him and against him, I played with him here in Chicago at a time when cabarets were in vogue, and Bill Bottoms had a team over Dreamland. We were playing for Dreamland--

Studs Terkel The Dreamland Ballroom.

J. Mayo "Ink" Williams Dreamland Cabaret.

Studs Terkel Cabaret.

J. Mayo "Ink" Williams And the game ended nothing to nothing because we were determined not to let Paul Robeson get away on--with anything. [laughing] Athletes as a rule are regarded as all brawn and no brains. And I will say that Paul Robeson disproved that. He was not only a great athlete in the football world, but he had more brains than most of the people saying that he didn't have

Paul Robeson [singing "Scandalize my Name"]

Studs Terkel As for my own memory of Paul Robeson, it was 22 years ago and I was asked to be toastmaster at Robeson's 50th anniversary celebration at the Civic Opera House. He was under devastating attack at the time because he had views, expressed views quite unpopular to the establishment. In fact, you might, he might have been called a premature civil rightist. The phrase used later on was premature anti-fascist. And he certainly was that. And at the--present at that gathering was Lena Horne, who was appearing at Chez Paree at the time, and she recalls the effect he had upon her. She was a young girl working in the cloakroom at the Cotton Club, a very celebrated club where Black artists performed in Harlem, and she wasn't too sure of herself. Very pretty girl, but was always being put down because of the color of her skin. And then he, Robeson, appeared, and suddenly she said she felt transformed, his very presence did, and so did those who were doing other menial jobs, the janitors and the porters and the maids in the ladies' rooms, and they all became different people in his presence, recalled Lena Horne during this celebration. And then I remember--I remember then his--another occasion he was talking about his football experiences, and so during this gathering to which we're referring when people reminiscing, I was reminiscing about that, too. [pause in recording] I remember his speaking on some other occasion, I forget what the occasion was, talking about, I know Mr. Williams would like this. He was end at Rutgers, and he was the only Black man on the field. It was some Ivy League school they were playing. It may have been Harvard or Princeton, and there were several white guys, obviously racist, in the backfield of the opposing team, and he heard a whisper among the white players: "If you look a Black guy in the eye, he'll turn away and you can make all kinds of yardage. Just stare him in the eye!" So Robeson heard this, he's playing end, he was on the defensive team at this moment, and one of the guys who said it, tough guy, he's looking Robeson right in the eye! And he gets the ball, Robeson says, "Bang! I threw him for a 12-yard loss." [laughing] And then he, he gets up again, dusts himself off, and the other guy says, "I'm going to look him in the eye." So he goes to the other--goes to the fullback now, guy weighing about 240 pounds, this fullback is looking Robeson in the eyes, and he's looking right and then Robeson goes, "Bang! I threw him about a 15-yard loss." And then the third guy picks it up, the other halfback, then was a fullback, two halfbacks and a quarter, and then the other halfback, he looks him in the eye, "Bing! A ten-yard loss." He says, "I lost about 35 yards on those look him in the eye." From then on, they go around him, what goes around, so there's a question, it is his way of interpreting myth? You know, his way of shattering myth very simply: You do it.

Paul Robeson [singing "Every Time I Feel the Spirit"]

Studs Terkel We continue with the program. More songs and reminiscences.

Unnamed Speaker Studs, are you familiar with, did you see Robeson in Othello?

Studs Terkel Oh, yeah.

Unnamed Speaker Could you tell us something about Othello and something about the quality of the performance? A lot of young people never got the opportunity to see Robeson in the great, one of the greatest roles I think that has been done of Othello. Could you tell us

Studs Terkel Sure. I think if, before I'm going to talk, you have to talk about something Robeson's own development, too. He went through a period as he told it himself once, he was brilliant all the way, but at the same time he also suffered from a myth, I believe. He was in a film called Sanders of the River--

Unnamed Speaker I

Studs Terkel You look at this film today, it's an incredibly racist film. Yeah. Now, he was a young actor at that time, and he didn't realize at that time he was being used. And then later on, he did. And so it's a growth from Sanders of the River to Othello. You might say is a, is this almost the essence of art, from playing the role of the good, loyal, Black African to the white colonist. Sanders was, you see, putting down rebellious Blacks, you see. That Robeson did that role, you see. Young, you see. It was a--this is a, this is question of growth, what growth can be to Othello. In Othello, of course, you have the fusion, you might say, of the artist and the role. In Othello you have a heroic figure, obviously, one of the most heroic figures in, in Shakespeare, and he has many. But in Othello you have someone--he finds himself in an alien culture who is respected for his unique talents, and yet feared, too, in a way, looked with awe upon by the Venetians at the time, even though as he says, and he did, he served them well, you see. But at the same time never got--its own, it's his own stature that is so overwhelming aside from the poetry of the role. And in Robeson you have a guy whose real life, you see, whose real life in which he took a beating--an alien-dominated culture to a Black, you see. Here is Robeson, Othello, you might say, in this Venice.

Paul Robeson [singing "Canoe Song"] I'd like to do a short excerpt from Shakespeare's Othello. It is the last speech of Othello, he has killed Desdemona. From savage passion, no. Othello came from a culture as great as that of ancient Venice. He came from an Africa of equal stature. And he felt he was betrayed, his honor was betrayed and his human dignity was betrayed. And so when they come for him from Venice, he speaks and says, "Soft you! A word or two before you go. I have done the state some service and they know it. No more of that. I pray when your letters, when you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am, nothing extenuate nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak of one that loved fool wisely but too well. Of one not easily jealous but being wrought perplexed to the extreme. Of one who's subdued eyes, albiet unusued to the melting mood drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees their medicinal gum. Set you down this, and say besides that in Aleppo once, where a malignant and a turbaned Turk beat a Venetian and traduced the state, I took by the throat the damned heathen dog and smote him thus! I kissed thee, 'ere I killed thee. No way but this, killing myself, to

Studs Terkel Claudia Cassidy, in a very eloquent piece about Paul Robeson and Mary Anderson written for the Chicago Tribune back in December 1963, Christmas time, spoke of both as having voices that "cradle the woes of the world." She spoke of Miss Anderson and then spoke of Paul Robeson and the beginnings as she remembered it.

Claudia Cassidy He began as a lawyer but moved instinctively to the stage. He was a giant of a man in earlier days, with a wide, warm smile, a flick of amusement, and that extraordinary voice. He strode along for years playing "All God's Chillun Got Wings", "Emperor Jones", and the "Showboat" of "Ol' Man River". And when he came to the barbaric splendor of Othello, he was at first too gentle for its stallion scream. It was a time before he caught the glints of steel and the tongues of flame. Years ago, I asked him if he would like to sing Boris Godunov, and he said he was learning it,

Paul Robeson and [Singing]

Claudia Cassidy It did not happen here, not in the opera house, though now and again he would sing a scene from Boris in marvelous mezzo voci, or he would pour out Monteverdi's great lament "Lasciatemi morire", or he would sing the ballad of its kind I liked best, "Joe Hill". Imagine, the first time I heard him sing it, I did not know that Joe Hill really lived and died by a firing squad in a prison in Utah. Sweden, where he came from and which to this day thinks he was framed, recently put on a play about Joseph Hillstrom, who became Joe Hill. His funeral was held here in Chicago because he told his IWW friends, "I don't want to be found dead in the state of Utah." It was in Utah 30-odd years later that Robeson sang "Joe Hill" and told his audience he was quitting the concert stage to sing where and what he pleased.

Paul Robeson [singing "Joe Hill"]Dreamed I saw Joe says. But Jill says Joe they stopped you. Joe says it takes more than to says Joe and Joe and standing as big as my smiling is says Joe.

Studs Terkel What are your memories of Paul Robeson?

Unnamed Speaker Well, I don't think that I can make any better contribution than to repeat what Mary McLeod Bethune said of him. You remember her statement?

Studs Terkel What did she say?

Unnamed Speaker The tallest tree in the forest.

Paul Robeson [singing "Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho]

Studs Terkel Eddie Balchowsky was a young American back in 1937, '38, who went to Spain as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of volunteers to fight against Francisco Franco on behalf of the elected Republican governor of Spain, and the odds were overwhelming, and Eddie is one of those few survivors. Paul Robeson.

Eddie Balchowsky In the town of Tarizona de la Mancha, the province of Don Quixote. I was stationed there in training, and one day I was on my way to the Estada Mayor, the brigade headquarters, and I was walking down this road, and I looked up in the doorway and there was this giant, and I recognized him, of course, he didn't recognize me. He had, you know, he had never really seen me before, but I knew him, and I just looked up at him and I said, "Are you going to sing for us, Paul?" And I can't understand how, but he said, "Yes, I'll sing if you'll play for me." And I had the key to the only piano in town. It was in the bombed-out cathedral, and I raced back to the cathedral to open the piano because it was held together by strings and wires and bobby pins and rubber bands and--no key. I couldn't open the piano. I had to fix it. And then I realized the only place the key could be was out on the rifle range on the edge of town. So I ran out, and sure enough, I ran right to the spot where I was lying prone firing. And there was the key. I came back, fixed the piano up, Paul came to the cathedral. There were at least a thousand men in the cathedral representing at least 20 or 25 countries. And Paul stood up on the stage all by himself and said, "What do you want me to sing?" And a thousand voices all hollered different songs in different languages. And as was his custom, you know, he walked up to the edge of the stage and, and cupped his hand to his ear. And as soon as he heard a song, and then recognized the name of it, he s -- he held his hand up and he sang it. This went on for about 45 minutes. And finally, you know, I, my ego or whatever it is got the best of me, and I got up and I screamed, "Volga Boatmen!" And he said, "All right. You play it, I'll sing it." And I got up and my knees were knocking, believe me, but we got through it. That was the first time I accompanied him. Then at the front, you ask me what, what part of the front it was, and all I can remember was that it was somewhere in the Aragón and we were in a trench. And Paul, of course you know was six feet four, and the trenches were about five feet deep, and he just walked right down the trench singing to the men, disregarding, you know, the, the fascist fire, just totally disregarding it. I mean, just being there to, to ch -- you know, to raise their spirits. Then I didn't see him again until I came back to Chicago and there was, he gave a concert at the, a Y, YWC, a YMCA, I think, over on Washington Street, a small one. And the Mississippi River had been flooded that, that, that week, and Lawrence Brown, his accompanist, would not fly, and the trains could not cross the river. And I'm sitting in the audience waiting for Paul to sing, and he's standing there and he's waiting for, you know, for what? And he spots me, and he motions with his

Studs Terkel He remembered you from Spain.

Eddie Balchowsky Yes, he did. He, he motioned to me to come up there. And I walked up on the stage, and he handed me a, a sheaf of music, and it was all transposed music, I mean, like "Ol' Man River" was in the key of E flat, he had it in the key of A. I mean it was keys that I had never played these songs in, but we got through that one. Oh, and another thing, there was a, a party given, there was a young Spanish republican fighter who all we knew him was by his first name, his first Spanish name. And there was a party to raise money for, for the Spanish army. And Paul was there, and I was there, and Paul sang and I sang, and he sang, "Los Cuatros Generales", and that's when I sang the, a song that he taught me. And then we parted again, and that was the last I saw of him, and I, I'm just grateful that I knew

Paul Robeson him. [singing

Studs Terkel What else to be said? Perhaps, in the words of Bessie Smith's old blues song, "It's Been a Long Old Road" for Paul Robeson, beginning with his college days as an All-American football player to his pro football days to his days as an actor in a theater. In early Eugene O'Neill plays, "All God's Chillun Got Wings", "Emperor Jones" up to "Othello", a concert stage, his travels through the world, the languages he mastered: German, Russian, French, Italian, Yiddish, Hebrew as well, no doubt, as some African dialects, his spirituals. You might say in the life of this artist who for so long has been considered a non-person because of his independence, at times very unpopular stands, is reflected the agony and the glory of a people.

Paul Robeson [singing

Studs Terkel And, so, tribute

Paul Robeson