By Jeff SparrowNon-fiction Scribe Publications
No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson
Film star. Icon. Agitator. Martyr.
Paul Robeson was a prize-winning scholar and the greatest footballer of his era, even before he ascended to global superstardom as a singer, Hollywood actor, and activist. The son of an escaped slave, Robeson stunned audiences with ‘Ol’ Man River’ and Othello, as his passion for social justice led him from Jazz Age Harlem to the mining towns of Wales, from the frontiers of the Spanish Civil War to Stalin’s Russia.
Charismatic, eloquent, and handsome, he had everything – and then lost it all for the sake of his principles.
Jeff Sparrow traces Robeson’s troubled life and stellar career, in a story that traverses the arc of the twentieth century and illuminates the fissures of today’s fractured world. From Black Lives Matter to Putin’s United Russia, Sparrow visits the places Robeson lived and worked, exploring race in America, freedom in Moscow, and the legacies of communism and fascism in Europe.
Part travelogue, part biography, this is a tale of political ardour, heritage, and trauma – a luminous portrait of a remarkable man, and an urgent reflection on the crises that define us now.
There are many commendable aspects to this biography of Paul Robeson, but most striking is its capacity to build the portrait of a man who could seem remote to the contemporary Australian reader – and yet who, thanks to Jeff Sparrow’s fine handling of the material, does not seem remote at all.
Robeson was the son of a slave, a footballer, singer, actor, communist and activist. His life, as the book itself notes, follows the arc of the 20th Century; a time of depression, lynchings, Harlem’s heyday, Spanish civil war, the rise of fascism, Stalinism, the McCarthy trials into Un-American Activity and the rise of the Black Power movement. Yet Robeson’s struggles feel entirely relevant to today’s world.
The capacity of history to energise and motivate the present is Sparrow’s great achievement here – his passion to ensure that Robeson’s hard work and lessons are not forgotten, nor his talent. Also skilful is the lightness of touch with which Sparrow weaves personal travelogue into his research, and makes us understand the political complexities of Robeson’s time – and of ours.
I’ve watched the clip of Paul Robeson singing on Bennelong Point a dozen times or more.
There are many things that make the grainy footage so memorable, not least the glaring gap when the camera pans and you see, just for an instant, Government House and the Harbour Bridge. But where are the white sails of the Opera House?
The film dates from 1960 and, of course, the Sydney Opera House did not yet exist. This was Robeson’s first and only trip to Australia. A news crew had accompanied him to Bennelong Point to visit the Opera House site. He came to sing for the workers, the men labouring on what would become a universally recognisable music venue.
In the clip, Robeson wears his beret and his big winter coat. We watch him move through a forest of scaffolding to a jury-rigged microphone and then launch, without accompaniment, into ‘Ol’ Man River’.
The song was composed by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern for their musical Show Boat. Robeson first played the role of the stevedore Joe in the London stage show of 1928 and then reprised it for the movie of 1936. After that, ‘Ol’ Man River’ became Paul’s signature tune, a reminder of his stature as, in one reporter’s words, ‘the best known American in the world’.
Certainly, in the clip he looks every inch the star, even in blurry black and white. At 62, he’s still striking: huge and solid, with his beret – so different from the hardhats around him – providing a certain raffish glamour. He should, I think every time I watch the scene, be completely out of place: a celebrity black artiste performing on a rough building site to white men puffing on cigarettes and brushing away flies.
Yet see their rapt attention! They stare, fascinated, at Robeson’s giant frame and let his voice, so rich and so warm, envelop them.
‘Tote that barge!’ Robeson sings. ‘Lift that bale! Show a little grit, an’ you land in jail.’
Hammerstein wrote the words as ‘git a little drunk, an’ you land in jail’, a sentiment more befitting the shuffling Negro of the white theatrical imagination. But Robeson did not shuffle, not for anyone. By 1960, he’d been a key FBI target for decades; agents from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation had filed a report as soon as he landed in the country. But he’d neither apologised nor repented, and, by changing the Hammerstein lines, he transformed a slight lyric of phlegmatic – almost comic – resignation into a song of defiance.
In its original form, ‘Ol’ Man River’ had continued:
Ah gits weary An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’ An’ skeered of dyin’, But ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rolling’ along.
That version offered Joe’s suffering as something to be endured meekly, a natural phenomenon as inevitable as the Mississippi’s ebb and flow. In the Bennelong Point footage, Robeson sings instead:
But I keeps laffin’ Instead of cryin’
I must keep fightin’ Until I’m dyin’
When he mouths the word ‘laffin’’, his lip curls in scorn; at ‘fightin’’, he punches his fist in the air, a gesture that makes clear to the listeners he has in mind their shared enemies: the employers and politicians who consider an uneducated labourer no better than a Tennessee ‘nigger’. Suddenly, viewers feel that what’s inescapable is not resignation or oppression but human dignity – the yearning for freedom that persists, and will prevail, just like the mighty river itself.
In 1960, construction workers were not respectable. Concert halls did not cater to labourers, whom few considered deserving of fine music or sophisticated entertainments.
So, with this gesture at Bennelong Point, by transforming – if only for a lunch hour – their worksite into the musical venue it would eventually become, Robeson makes a statement characteristic of his life and career. You aren’t, he says to them, simply tools for others; you’re not beasts, suitable only for hoisting and carrying, even if that’s the role you’ve been allotted. You’re entitled to culture, to music and art and all of life’s good things – and one day you shall have them.
By the time the last resonant notes have died away, some of those on the scaffolding are weeping.
‘Paul Robeson!’ exclaimed the Canadian union leader Harvey Murphy in 1952. ‘That name! What that stands for is what every decent man or woman in the world stands for.’
But that was long ago.
During my childhood, the name ‘Paul Robeson’ had signified little to me. If I knew of him at all, it was as the voice in the crackly song I tuned past on the radio, the star of a movie on afternoon television when I stayed home from school with a cold.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist