Thinking about Joan Baez, especially about her impassioned rendition of the old labor ballad of Joe Hill (and perhaps thinking of professor Gates as well) set me to thinking about other musicians whose singing has moved me and others, and who also have been passionate about politics. For me, “Joe Hill” will always be territory owned by Paul Robeson, that great and tragic American whose name was always mentioned with respect tinged with dismay and sadness in my childhood home, at least after the time I became aware of politics during World War II.
Whatever else he was, and he was many things, Paul Robeson was hugely talented, a great singer, perhaps the greatest American-born voice of his century. Still, as his biographer, Martin Duberman, points out in The New York Review of Books:
It is the familiar “liberal” anti-Communist judgment on Robeson [that] he was a Stalinist and a philanderer, personally agreeable, not very insightful and not very talented (though very, very lucky).
If I shared that view I wouldn’t be writing this, for surely Robeson’s eulogy of Stalin does not qualify him as a Stalinist in our present-day sense of that term. Duberman calls him “a great-hearted and sophisticated black radical.” In the politically complex time between the two world wars he found room in the world for his art and his radical, socialist politics. For the politically simplistic 1950s, he became a pariah, so much so that his career and his undoubted accomplishments were erased from the history of his time. Now, the erasure remains, a curious absence. Though we are able to speak of him again, we speak of him in the same breath with J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy.
We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.
Paul Robeson died in obscurity in 1976, but the Robeson voice can still be heard, on a number of recordings of surprising quality. Here’s Robeson’s recording of “Joe Hill.” It’s my first experiment making a video, and I’m rather proud of it. You can crank up the sound, if you like.