By David Frank
I remember listening to Paul Robeson, many years ago, in a class on American history. It was an LP called Ballad for Americans, and we played that ten-minute title track, first recorded in 1939, over and over. Robeson’s bass baritone boomed out a condensed version of American history, and as we listened, we covered the board with words such as Liberty, Equality, Slavery, Exploitation, Discrimination, Democracy – terms that captured the tensions between the American dream and the American reality. It was a perfect introduction to the course.
And it was a perfect introduction to Robeson. He was born in New Jersey in 1898. His father was a runaway slave who became a minister in the Presbyterian Church. His mother came from a family of free blacks active in anti-slavery agitation. As a young man, Robeson distinguished himself as a scholar, athlete, actor and musician. In between stage, film, record and radio work, Robeson toured as a concert artist, performing in the world’s biggest concert halls.
An accomplished citizen of the world, Robeson never stopped loving his home country. But he was also a critic of its failures, especially in protecting the rights of African-Americans. He attracted an enormous FBI file, and in the 1950s his passport was taken away on the grounds that it was “not in the interests of the United States” for him to travel abroad.
In 1945, Robeson was at the peak of his fame. He had finished a long run as Othello, the first black actor in more than a century to play Shakespeare’s tragic hero. In September Robeson returned to New York City after performing for troops in Europe. Then he started a seven-month North American tour. One of his first stops was Saint John. The visit was organized by the Saint John Community Concert Association. Their shows at Saint John High School that year featured several prominent performers, including the Trapp Family Singers, whose story was later fictionalized in The Sound of Music. But nobody that year was bigger than Robeson.
Not many details of the visit are known, but the late Lena O’Ree, a leader in the fight against racial discrimination in New Brunswick, has recalled that Robeson was refused accommodation at the Admiral Beatty Hotel when he tried to register there.
Robeson was more than familiar with the colour bar. When he was booked to perform at the Hollywood Bowl a few years earlier, every hotel in Los Angeles turned him down. Eventually he agreed to take a room under an assumed name. But he insisted on sitting in the lobby for several hours every day, where he would be easily recognized. He reasoned this would make it more difficult to refuse people of colour in the future.
In Saint John, any number of families, black or white, would happily have taken Robeson into their homes. But, O’Ree recalled, another large establishment, the Royal Hotel, “made an exception”. It is tempting to imagine Robeson sitting in the lobby of the Royal Hotel on the day of the concert, all six foot four inches, again deliberately making himself impossible to overlook.
And if Robeson picked up a copy of the Telegraph-Journal on the day of his visit, he would see an editorial on “Negro Exclusion”. It was reprinted from a newspaper in Kentucky. It might have given Robeson a chuckle to see that Saint John was taking notice of the problem of segregation.
News of Robeson’s concert aroused great interest. An audience of 1,000 was considered a full house at Saint John High. On the night of the performance on Wednesday 3 October, extra seats were placed on stage and in all available spaces, but hundreds of people had to be turned away.
Robeson did not disappoint. Accompanied by his friend Lawrence Brown on piano, Robeson’s huge voice commanded total attention. Later comments were filled with superlatives: “majestic”, “noble” and “dramatic”, “tuneful”, “lively” and “hauntingly lovely”. It was a “magnificent” event, said one observer.
The performance featured a mix of traditions, drawing from great classics as well as folk traditions and contemporary song. Thanks to newspaper accounts and a copy of the concert programme, it is possible to reconstruct most of the repertoire.
He started with a celebration from Beethoven’s Creation’s Hymn and the Invocation of the High Priest from Mozart’s Magic Flute. Then Robeson continued with an eighteenth century French song, an old English song, and one of his favourite spirituals, “Scandalize My Name”.
A second group of songs also featured a sequence of old and new, starting with operatic work from Moussorgsky and songs from Shakespeare. Although these were not listed in the printed programme, he followed with several traditional spirituals. He also introduced songs that he had performed for the Loyalist forces in the Spanish Civil War in 1938. There may have been some rumblings in the audience over this. As one listener wrote: “With few exceptions, everyone stayed and loved it”.
A third set delved into the African-American tradition: “Deep River”, “I Got a Robe”, “I’m Going to Tell God all my Troubles” and “Great Gittin’ Up Mornin’”. Spirituals such as these were intended to uplift audiences, to instill optimism and confidence, always one of Robeson’s purposes.
At the end, there were encores. The best-known was “Old Man River”, a signature song made famous by Robeson in stage and film versions of the musical Show Boat. Since first performing it in 1928, Robeson had taken to changing the words to show his character’s resolution instead of resignation: “But I keeps laffin’/ Instead of cryin’ / I must keep fightin’; / Until I’m dyin’, / And Ol’ Man River, / He’ll just keep rollin’ along!”
At one stage in the performance, Robeson paused to tell the audience that he often travelled in Canada but that this was his first time in this part of the country. He added that he and his accompanist had heard much about the Maritimes from their friend Earl Spicer, a fellow concert and radio artist with roots in the Annapolis Valley. They would, he said, always be happy to come back to New Brunswick.
Any other remarks Robeson made from the stage were not reported in detail, but he was not one to hide his political views. One member of the audience wrote that the concert “would have warmed the heart of any Socialist” and added a comment that captured much of Robeson’s appeal: “The simplicity and natural dignity of Robeson is a living reproach to spreaders of race prejudice, all of whom are not to be favoured in fascist countries alone”.
That was probably the message Robeson most wanted to deliver at this time. From his point of view, at the end of the war there was much to do to ensure that the allies fulfilled their democratic obligations at home. He was encouraged by the achievements of the New Deal in making progress towards social justice in America.
But after 1945 Robeson became an increasingly fierce critic of racism and militarism as practised by his own country. He was a leading spokesman for the Council on African Affairs and repeatedly demanded that the American government introduce anti-lynching legislation. With the arrival of the Cold War, he was accused of being too friendly to Communist causes, possibly even a member of the Communist Party. Robeson denied it, and the FBI was never able to prove otherwise.
As far as is known, Robeson never returned to the Maritimes. When his passport was confiscated, he sang for several years sang at an annual open-air picnic at the Peace Arch Park on the Washington-British Columbia border. He was allowed to visit Canada briefly in 1956, but later that year the Canadian government refused permission for a planned seventeen-city tour across Canada.
Eventually, the courts forced the government to return his passport, and Robeson was again able to travel and perform around the world. But his influence in the United States had been greatly diminished by the blacklist and persecution, and by the 1960s his health was in serious decline. At the time of his death in 1976, around the time we were playing his old record in a history class, interest in Robeson was starting to revive.
Did he have an influence in Saint John? Possibly. His artistic message was straightforward. It was the invitation of all great culture to overcome divisions and strengthen the universal bonds of humanity. But Robeson also knew that if ideals are to be more than sentiments, they needed to be translated into practical causes.
The ideals of the war were already stirring things up in New Brunswick. Only a few weeks before Robeson’s visit in 1945, a young woman in Fredericton, Thelma O’Ree, published a protest against the conditions facing black men returning from the war. Coming home, she wrote, they found an unchanged segregated world: “I am referring to the humiliating and degrading treatment we have had to contend with in our theatres, hotels, restaurants and places of amusement. What does Democracy mean? When does it begin at home?” A few years later, in 1958, Thelma’s younger brother, Willie O’Ree, would become the first black player in the National Hockey League.
When Robeson came to Saint John in 1945, Lena O’Ree too was already earning her reputation as an activist in the black community, as she had helped to integrate the city’s YWCA. Some years later, when she was working as an elevator attendant at the Admiral Beatty in the 1950s, O’Ree insisted on her right to enter the building through the front door. It was a famous gesture that helped lead to the desegregation of the hotel and other city institutions.
O’Ree herself, one of the founders of Saint John’s black cultural association, PRUDE, received the New Brunswick Human Rights Award in 1998, one hundred years after the birth of Paul Robeson. She had not forgotten his visit. On several occasions in the years before her death in 2003, O’Ree shared recollections of the time Robeson came to Saint John.
It was a concert that was always more than just a concert.
David Frank is a professor emeritus in Canadian history at the University of New Brunswick.