Robeson’s initial popularity came from the singing of “old Negro spirituals” as they were called at the time. Roughly half of those songs were based on Old Testament Jewish biblical texts, from Go Down, Moses to Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel? and Ezekiel Saw the Wheel. They took life as slave songs, which Robeson learned from his father.
Virtually all of the great “freedom songs” from the pre-Civil War days in America were in fact anti-slavery songs, which explains their powerful drive towards freedom, and the reason why African-American slaves so identified with the ancient Jewish story from bondage to freedom. They were able to infuse their own experiences into the biblical stories and find the symbols they needed to express both their sorrow and their hopes for a better day a’ coming. Some of those songs, such as Oh Freedom, were absorbed whole cloth into the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Others, such as Keep Your Hands On That Plow were adapted with new lyrics, such as Alice Wine’s Keep Your Eyes On the Prize.
Paul Robeson made these songs his own, and built his reputation as a concert freedom singer in the 1930s and 1940s, long before there was a freedom movement to support him.
Indeed, by the time the civil rights movement reached its crest at the 1963 March on Washington, Robeson’s time in the spotlight had already passed. In many ways Robeson was the horse that brung ‘em, and we can only imagine what Robeson might have added to that historic afternoon.
So the Jewish foundation of Robeson’s music was clear from the start, and it went far beyond his selection of Old Testament Spirituals with Jewish themes for his core repertoire. His theme song, Ol’ Man River, which sounded like a mock spiritual, was written by Oscar Hammerstein, Jr., the same Oscar Hammerstein who would later team up with Richard Rogers. In 1927, however, Hammerstein was writing lyrics for Jerome Kern, both of them Jewish Americans. Together they wrote the songs for America’s first great musical, Showboat, based on the Edna Ferber novel.
There is a wonderful story about Oscar Hammerstein’s widow, who went to a party at which someone sat down at a piano to play “Jerome Kern’s greatest song, Ol’ Man River.” Mrs. Hammerstein approached the piano after the performance was concluded and sat down at the keyboard. She turned to the guests and said, “Excuse me, but Jerome Kern did not write Ol’ Man River. Jerome Kern wrote, and here she pounded the keyboard, “Bom, bom, bom bom,” the first four signature notes of the refrain. She then paused and said, “My husband wrote Ol’ Man River.”
When Robeson took the song out of the context of the stage show and the movie, however, and onto the concert stage, he made significant changes to the lyrics. One was in the passage, you gets a little drunk and you land in jail, which he changed to You makes a little fuss and you land in jail. A second change was more critical and elevated the song in stature to a great protest song. He changed the final line from I’m tired a’ living, and scared a’ dying” to I must keep fighting until I’m dying, for Old Man River he just keeps rolling along.
The second great song that Robeson received from the Jews was his best-known patriotic hymn, The House I Live In. The music was written by Earl Robinson, who was also known to Robeson fans for having written the musical score for the above-mentioned Ballad for Americans. The lyrics were written by a songwriter known in Hollywood as Lewis Allen. His real name, however, was Abel Meeropol, which, as I’m sure you know, was as Jewish a name as you could have. That might have been enough to make him want to use a more “American” sounding pen name when he became a commercial songwriter. Abel had a more personal and urgent reason to change it however; he became notorious when he and his wife Anne adopted the orphaned children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Michael and Robbie, ages nine and seven respectively when they were adopted. Meeropol had no reason for everyone to know his political life story, not during the height of the red scare in the early 1950s. So Abel Meeropol became “Lewis Allen.”
Nor was this his first foray into songwriting success. He had already given one great African-American singer her best-known political song when he wrote Strange Fruit for Billie Holiday in the early 1930s. When Robeson picked up The House I Live In in the mid 1940s Meeropol’s reputation was secure-two of America’s greatest Black singers got two of their greatest songs from a Jewish American high school English teacher in New York City. Their shared passion for social justice transcended the Old Testament/American slave spiritual connection and became a hallmark of twentieth century popular song.
For even though Frank Sinatra may have made the best known recording of The House I Live In, in the short film that came out in 1948 with a street full of multi-racial kids providing the moving backdrop to his restrained but inspiring version, nobody, not even Sinatra, sang it like Robeson. With Robeson the song became personal-a testament of what his love for America meant to him, but also a warning that he wasn’t providing a Kate Smith/Irving Berlin my country right or wrong kind of patriotism.
When Robeson sang the line The right to speak my mind out-that’s America to me, he put all the power of his “right to protest for right” as Martin Luther King would so memorably phrase it, into the performance. Again, that passion for social justice came from a Jewish sensibility, as well as a Black one, with both Billie Holiday and Paul Robeson finding their best voices interpreting the words of a Jewish outsider whose Old Left culture made them sympathetic to each other’s struggle.
Ol’ Man River and The House I Live In were not the only songs that endeared Robeson to his Jewish audiences as well as Black ones. Perhaps because he recognized his indebtedness to Jewish artists, Robeson went further than any African-American artist had done to pay tribute to the Jews who died in the Holocaust in their own language. He sang and recorded Hirsh Glick’s great anthem from the Vilna Ghetto, Zog Nit Keynmol.
Hirsh Glick was a twenty-three year old poet in the Vilna Ghetto when they received word of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in April of 1943. He wrote the song shortly after he himself was arrested and taken to the concentration camp in Estonia, from which he died the following year trying to escape. It is also known as The Partisan Song (Partizaner Lied, in Yiddish) and has since become a worldwide Jewish anthem of resistance, the soundtrack to the vow “Never Again.” With music by Dmitri Pokrass, it is sung at memorial meetings for martyred Jews. (English lyrics by Ross Altman.)
Robeson’s matchless baritone lends it the power of an entire chorus:
Zog nit keyn mol as du geyst dem letstn veg
Khotsh himeln blayene farshtein bloye teg
Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho-
S’vet a poyk ton undzer trot – zaynen do!
(Never say that you were only born to die
Though the lead eclipse the sun in the sky
You can hear it in the distance like a drum
Our marching feet proclaim we have come!)
Fun grinem palmenland biz vaysn land fun shney
Mir kumen on mit undzer payn, mit undzer vey
Un vu gefain s’iz a shprits fun undzer blut
Shprotsn vet dort undzer gvure, undzer mut.
(From land of palm trees to land of whitest snow
We shall be coming with our pain and with our woe
And where the earth is now flowing with our blood
Shall our strength and our dignity take root.)
S’vet di morgnzun bagildn undz dem haynt
Un der nekhtn vet farshvindn mitn faynd
Nor oyb farzamen vet dizun in dem kayor –
Vi a parol zol geyn dos lid fun dor tsu dor.
(The morning sun shall dry away our tears
And with them all the agony of years
And if the sun itself should vanish in the night
Then this song will keep on shining like a light.)
Dos lid geshribn iz mit blut un nit mit blay
S’iz not keyn lidl fun a foygl af der fray
Dos hot a fold tsvishn faindike vent
Dos lid gezungen mit naganes in di hent!
(This song was writ in blood and not with lead
It’s not the kind of song that birds would sing-instead
It was a people who were making their last stand
Who sang this song with pistols in their hands!)
But it wasn’t the singing of Negro Spirituals that put Paul Robeson in the crosshairs of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948; or Ol’ Man River, a song that transcended the political divide between left and right; or The House I Live In, a patriotic song that had been given the Frank Sinatra seal of approval; or even Zog Nit Keyn Mol, a song that commemorated Jews who had resisted the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Oh no, the song that put Paul Robeson in the crosshairs of HUAC was the song that made him the voice of labor’s martyred troubadour Joe Hill, who was executed in Salt Lake City, Utah on November 19, 1915. That was Paul Robeson’s political testament, and the words were written by Alfred Hayes, a Jewish immigrant poet from England, who joined the literary left in New York City during the 1920s.*
Long before Robeson wrote his autobiography Here I Stand, the song Joe Hill, with words by Alfred Hayes and music by Earl Robinson, showed what Robeson stood for: Where workers strike to win their rights…
where workers fight and organize…
in every mine and mill…
it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.
Robeson’s complete identification with a song that was sung on every picket line and at every communist rally and May Day parade throughout the 1930s and 1940s made him the premiere political artist of his time and was at the heart of his well known aesthetic credo: “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”
By the time Joan Baez opened her set at Woodstock with Joe Hill in 1969 there was a new generation and a counter-culture of sufficient strength that a protest singer could make statements through song that only enhanced their popularity and sold more records. When Robeson sang Joe Hill in the 1940s it led to his records being taken off the shelves-there was a price to pay for singing songs like that, and Robeson paid it in full.
The Negro Spirituals, Ol’ Man River, The House I Live In, Zog Nit Keyn Mol and Joe Hill-virtually every great song of resistance that Robeson put his stamp on and that put their stamp on Robeson, was written or co-written by Jews. Their link is permanent, inescapable, and helped to define the legacy of this towering figure in 20th Century music, the man his enemies called “the most dangerous man in America,” and his friends called, “The tallest tree in the forest.” For both Paul Robeson’s enemies and his friends recognized his greatness.
And so, at long last, did the U.S. Post Office, which put Robeson on a first class Black American Heritage stamp to celebrate the Centennial of his birth on April 9, 1898. Twenty-two years after he died the man without a country was welcomed home.
In closing, Faulkner could have been talking about Robeson when he said, “He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.” And, he might have added, it is the singer’s duty to sing about them. Paul Robeson did, and that is why he is immortal.
*See Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left, by Alan M. Wald, © 2002 University of North Carolina Press. In doing background research for this essay I also came across two articles of particular interest, both of them available on-line: 1) Paul Robeson-Forgotten Hero of Jews, African-Americans, by Noma Faingold; and 2) Paul Robeson’s Chassidic Chant of Levi Isaac of Berditschev by Jonathan Karp. (Available on the University of Pennsylvania web site.)
Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at Greygoosemusic@aol.com.