Two heroes of mine featured on Radio Four’s Saturday Live a couple of weeks ago, one talking about the other. Tony Benn on Paul Robeson.
Tony Benn chose a Paul Robeson rendition of the song ‘Joe Hill’. The ballad begins:
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me
Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead,”
“I never died,” says he.
“I never died,” says he.
Hill was born in Sweden in 1879 and emigrated to the US in 1902. He travelled the country from east to west as an itinerant worker and became a Labour Organiser, campaigning for the rights of workers across the States.
In 1914 Joe was in Park City, Utah, where due to a series of coincidences, he found himself charged with the murder of a former policeman and the policeman’s son.
Despite the circumstantial nature of the evidence against him, Hill was convicted. Appeals from the likes of Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson for clemency were to no avail and he was executed on November 19 1915.
According to Wikipedia, just prior to his execution, Hill had written to Bill Haywood, an IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) leader, saying, “Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize… Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.”
That Paul Robeson should record such a powerful version of the song should be no surprise. Robeson’s career as a concert singer and actor bought him popular and critical acclaim and his travels brought him into contact with socialists and African nationalists. He became a prominent figure in left-wing activism, arguing the case for black rights and workers rights in general.
His politics and especially his support for the Soviet Union after visiting Moscow in June 1949, brought Robeson under the scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee. When asked by the committee why he hadn’t stayed in the USSR, Robeson replied:
‘Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have part of it like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?’
Robeson’s passport was confiscated. His popularity declined with the prevailing anti-left attitude of 50’s America and although his work and activities pre-figured so much of the civil rights movement in the 60’s his reputation never really recovered. The records I’ve featured in the slideshow above are up in the shop. They’ll probably never sell but I’ll keep them there, for as Tony Benn said “(The) inspiration of courageous people who stick to their guns is very important”.
Read more about Paul Robeson on the excellent Revealing Histories site here http://www.revealinghistories.org.uk/legacies-stereotypes-racism-and-the-civil-rights-movement/articles/resistance-and-paul-robeson.html