Memories of a Bolshevik Baritone

robesonPaul Robeson’s Australasian concert tour in late 1960 was not a high point of his career. He didn’t want to come – he preferred Ghana. He came only because concert promoters promised him $US100,000-plus for about 15 concerts over two months, equivalent to about $A1.3 million  today. His wife, Essie, wrote that they could “clean up some fast money, and then he can retire, and do only what he wants to do.”

For youngsters under 60 and unfamiliar with Robeson, he was the son of a one-time slave, an All-American football player, actor, singer, orator and activist for Negro emancipation. He was also a Communist love-struck for the Soviet Union. For many people, his  adulation of Russia and Stalin took the gloss off his prodigious voice (“carpeted magnificence”) and talent.

Robeson’s finances had been wrecked when the US government withdrew his passport from 1950-58, confining him to the US and blacklisting him as a performer. Before the ban he’d been earning a princely $US100,000 a year; after the ban he was lucky to make $US5000.

I heard Robeson sing on the last leg of his tour, on December 2, 1960 at the Midland Railway Workshops, 18 km north-east  of  Perth. I think this was the second-last concert of his long career, the last being his formal concert at the Capitol, Perth next evening.

My only other Robeson involvement was a month ago, when I found in Perth’s Battye Library a tape of Robeson giving a long private talk to the Perth branch of the Australian Peace Council.   I spent a few hours transcribing it for other researchers.

Listening, I got a real feel for his personality and philosophies, especially as he wasn’t self-censoring. Even in prose, his voice was full of music and he had an actor’s ability to make his anecdotes about his punch-ups on the football field come alive.  Sometimes, to illustrate a point, he’d break into snatches of song. These qualities disappeared as I reduced his performance to mere text on a page.

He told the Peace Council, “I was asked to go out at lunchtime to see the railway workers, sing to them, I said I would, it would be pretty rough to be in WA  and not go to the workers. I came from toiling laboring people. On the backs of my forebears was built the primary wealth of America, from which everything else had to flow.”

The chair of the Peace Council reception seemed to be a  church minister, judging by his Biblical allusions .[1] At least three ASIO agents were present to file reports. One table comprised Communist stalwarts, such as author Katharine Susannah Prichard, CPA (WA) secretary Sam Aarons and wharf leader Paddy Troy. Robeson joined their table briefly to chat with Aarons, whom he first met in pre-war Spain during the civil war.

Former Tasmanian Labor Senator Bill Morrow (1888-1980) had invited Robeson to Australia when they met at top-level soiree in Moscow of the World Peace Council in 1959. At least one of the two — Robeson — was a secret Communist Party member. Morrow, originally a railways worker,  faithfully followed the Communist line, but membership was never proved.  A 1951 speech of Senator Morrow against Western intervention in the Korean war was re-broadcast by Radio Moscow. As with Robeson, the government withdrew his passport. A bio-essay for the Senate by Audrey Johnson says Morrow met “outstanding figures in the peace movement” including  Zhou Enlai (peace-loving Mao’s offsider) and in 1961 Morrow won the   Lenin Peace Prize. Morrow also helped organize Robeson’s concert for construction workers at the embryo Sydney Opera House, where “huge, burly men on the working site were reduced to tears by his presence and his inspiration”. A high-quality film of the event is available on youtube.

Robeson came to Australia fresh from being lionized in East Berlin. He told the press there,  “The very basic thing to consider is what forces want peace and who the people are that say, ‘Get your bases out of here, you folks from the Pentagon…Let’s sit down with Khrushchev, we know that he is honest when he says, ‘We want disarmament in the world.’ Two years later, Khrushchev was deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba.

robeson germanThe  GDR gave him the German Peace Medal , an honorary doctorate,   honorary membership of the Academy of Arts, and the Robeson-only Order of the Star of International Friendship.  When the GDR’s top man, Walter Ulbricht, pinned it on his chest (left), “a mighty storm of applause broke out” and the  5000 in the hall joined in singing, “One great vision unites us.”[2]

Robeson’s Australian tour, in contrast, started badly when he got into verbal stoushes with eastern states reporters who queried his support for the Soviet crushing of the 1956 Hungarian revolt. He replied that the revolt was by ‘fascists’:

The Russians would ‘hammer out the brains’ of any country, including America, which took arms against them,  he said. In such a conflict, he would side with Russia. Wife Essie lamented that Paul ‘is angrier than ever  and it makes me shudder, because he is so often angry at the wrong people, and so often unnecessarily angry.’ He told an Australian friend that he was afraid to walk the streets in Australia – “He didn’t believe that the people here loved him”.  Essie gave her own interviews, taking pains to be gracious and friendly. But she wrote, “He resents everything I do, no matter what. So, I’m up to here. Period.”

A concert in Hobart was cancelled by sponsors. His promoters were in a panic that his interviews could alienate  wealthy concert goers and jeopardise returns. However, the NZ leg of the tour went smoothly after promoters asked the NZ press to avoid politics. The rest of the Australian tour, especially Adelaide and Perth, also went well.

By the tour’s end in Perth he was exhausted, though he pledged to return to Australia to take up the cause of his black brothers, the Aborigines, subjected to discrimination “in its most loathsome form” and even “extermination”. Arriving back in London from Perth he was so depressed that he took to lying on the bed in a darkened room with the curtains drawn. At one point the phone rang, with Fidel Castro on the line, and Robeson said he couldn’t come to the phone. A few weeks later Kennedy launched the Bay of Pigs invasion.

In March, 1961, Robeson abruptly departed London for Moscow — and slashed his wrists about 3am after a rowdy party in his hotel room. There were indications that some young people at the party had begged him to intercede for loved ones in the Lubyanka Prison, requests which could have put him into insoluble conflict. Other accounts reject that he was disillusioned with the Soviets. His son, Paul Jr (1927-2014), rushed to his bedside, but after 12 days  in Moscow, Paul Jr had a nervous breakdown of his own, hurling a big chair through the hotel window and nearly throwing himself after it. Paul Jr blamed CIA poisoners for the father-and-son breakdowns.

Robeson returned to London, where psychiatrists subjected him —  inexplicably —  to no less than 54 electric-shock treatments. Alarmed friends moved him to East Berlin, where he improved under a more humane treatment regime —  rather the reverse of  UK/East German stereotypes. He died of a stroke in his US home in 1976.

The above account provides some context for his Midland, Perth, concert. (The non-public-record intimacies are drawn from Martin Duberman’s  excellent but somewhat uncritical 1995 biography[3]).

The Midland workshops floor conditions were Dickensian, such as absence of safety gear amid the noise, smoke and dirt.  Key union reps were Communists, elected for their professionalism rather than their politics. Despite the odd fracas, management-union relations were not too bad, both sides doing a bit of play-acting.

My schoolmate from Perth Modern School, Mick Thornber, was a cadet there in the chemistry labs.  He says there was an attractive culture of good fun mingled with a can-do approach to difficult tasks — the tradies could do jobs, from making a split pin to reconditioning of a Crossley diesel loco’s 10-metre crankshaft.

“When the engine drivers marched through 100-strong to stop-work meeting, we in the lab would go outside and cheer,” he says.

A senior design clerk roasted his troops for unauthorized use of the photocopier to print sheet music. He blamed an accordion player because the paper that had jammed the machine emerged in concertina pleats. Similarly, a turner called Ron filled out a form to borrow a two-wheel trolley, reason “Moving house on weekend”. He got a rejection back: “A two-wheeled trolley would not be large enough for such a task.”

When Robeson came, Mick was working with fellow chemistry cadet Bruce Laffer, also from my school year. I was a third-year cadet at The West Australian (and CPA member 1958-62).  We were all 20.

Mick says, “Bruce was looking out the window of the lab which overlooked the entrance where Robeson arrived. He recognized Robeson there at the gate and said ‘Wow’ and was jumping around  stirring up everyone in the lab. We hurried out to see what was going on, and my first surprise was to see my friend  Tony Thomas in the crowd, probably with his notebook out [actually, I was off-duty that day]. There were only about 20 present initially, mostly management types who’d been forewarned about Robeson’s arrival.

“Then he cupped his hand to his right ear to get his pitch right and started to sing. That’s what I won’t forget, his voice was so powerful and it carried over the fence right into the workshops. The guys inside heard this singing and downed robeson midlandtools and poured out of the workshops.   Some of the Dockers’ barrackers can let go with the decibels but nothing like the power of Robeson’s voice.

“I do seem to remember he started by standing on a wooden box . The move to a truck tray must have followed that. (right)

“We thought it was funny as hell, Robeson mocking the management, who were actually reasonable fellows.”

Bruce Laffer adds, “We were too young and immature to get any sense of the workplace politics.”

So why wasn’t Robeson allowed inside?  The order came from the chief mechanical engineer, Bill Britter. He was within his rights, as the government had laid down that visitors could only speak inside if they were candidates for an imminent election. The unions had recently been taking liberties by inviting ad hoc Communist speakers, and Britter seems to have banned Robeson to re-assert his authority.[4]

We three all got some key memories wrong. Robeson did have a loudspeaker set up on the truck and he did have a pianist – although his contract specifically forbade accompaniment to ensure concert ticket sales weren’t undermined. Robeson told the crowd that they would get for free what wealthier Perth people would be paying high prices for at the concert at the Capitol Theatre on Saturday night. He may have reasoned that the tour was virtually over and the contract restrictions didn’t matter.

The key organizer of the meeting was unions rep Colin Hollett. I don’t  know what his politics were, but he was a long-time Robeson fan. He knew of Robeson’s penchant for worksite concerts and was angling for management approval for a fortnight before Robeson’s arrival. Hollett went to the Robeson’s hotel the day they arrived, but Paul was out and he asked his wife Essie, whose formal name was Eslanda, if Paul could sing for the Midland workers. She said, “He’s busy now, but I’ll mention it to him later.” Colin went home, and at 2 am he rang Colin and said he’d love to sing that day.”

In a splendid feat of organization, Hollett immediately got a telephone ring-around under way. But Britter maintained his ban, so Hollett had to launch a second ring-around  at 9am for the noon event.

They lined up a truck, public address system and facilities for the massive turnout, and the Mayor of Midland, Wal Doney, agreed to join Robeson on the truck and take him to a civic reception afterwards, a rare example on the tour of official endorsement. Robeson, in turn, must have organized his illicit piano and pianist, Larry Brown. “Half of Midland came and there were thousands there,” Hollett said.

Perth was still a sleepy city – the Pilbara boom was still five years from inception. Visitors of Robeson’s global stature were not frequent, and it seemed to me newsworthy that he gave his Midland concert from the back of a truck to an audience of about 2000. Maybe half were the workshop workers.  (The whole population of Midland was then 9000, now 4000 – the Workshops shut in 1994). However, my employer The West Australian, chose to give red-ragger Robeson only a pic and five bland paragraphs on page 14 next day. Sixteen years later, The West ran a respectful US-sourced, 25-paragraph Robeson obituary across three columns, saying his career “was virtually destroyed in anti-communist witchhunts of the 1940s and 1950s.” Today he is an icon for the liberal media, which airbrushes out his Stalinist pieties.[5]

As I write this, I have a Robeson CD playing, to remind me of what really counts about Robeson – his glorious voice celebrating the sufferings of his people.

Tony Thomas’s new book of Quadrant essays, That’s Debatable – 60 Years in Print, is available here. 


[1] The Australian Peace Council had invited Robeson to Australia in 1950 but the passport ban made it impossible. The parent World Peace Council, of which Robeson was a member, was outed in the Mitrokhin archives in 1999 as an anti-Western disinformation vehicle  90% financed by the Soviet Union

[2] “Days with Paul Robeson” – GDR booklet, 1960, in  Battye Library’s Robeson box.

[3] Duberman, Martin, Paul Robeson. The New Press, 1995

[4] The visit is outlined in a 2006 history of the workshops. The history drew in turn on Fremantle Labor MLA Simone McGurk’s radio interviews of the key participants when she was a media student at Murdoch University in 2002.

[5] On Stalin’s death in 1953, Robeson obituarised, in To You Beloved Comrade: “Forever will his name be honored and beloved in all lands. One reverently speaks of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin — the shapers of humanity’s richest present and future.  Yes, through his   deep humanity, by his wise understanding, he leaves us a rich and monumental heritage. … How consistently, how patiently, he labored for peace and ever increasing abundance, with what deep kindliness and wisdom.”

8 thoughts on “Memories of a Bolshevik Baritone

  • Geoffrey Luck says:

    Tony continues to surprise us with his important contributions to the historical record. Journalists of today: Note the detail, the lack of “unnamed sources.”

  • rh@rharrison.com says:

    Perhaps it is because I am from a younger generation (born after the events described in this article), but I find there is something quite distasteful about this kind of misty-eyed reminiscence of a celebrity apologist for a mass-killer.

    As the article mentions, Robeson was the son of a one-time slave. This makes all the more repellent Robeson’s praise for Stalin and a system dedicated to the enslavement of all humanity.

    • Jody says:

      The singing of Robeson seemed to become a clarion call for the oppressed. Not for him the sonorous choirs of the Welch mining valleys or the plaintive chants of country and western; he blended music with politics but, in so doing, revealed his profoundly reckless naivete.

  • johnhenry says:

    “I said I would, it would be pretty rough to be in WA and not go to the workers”

    Just wondering: Might that tape of Robeson speaking with the Australian Peace Council have been a bit scratchy? Could he have been referring to the WPA, the Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Work Projects Administration) established by the Roosevelt government c.1935?

  • mvgalak@bigpond.com says:

    Paul Robeson’s rendition of the”ol’ man river” from the “Showboat” was sublime.His political naïveté was something else entirely. Just to illustrate – here’s an anecdote from one of his visits to the then USSR, where he agreed to perform. He presented a program , including Negro spirituals as well as some Hebrew songs. The latter were declined with some alacrity by the organisers, people with “clean hands and warm hearts” as KGB was described at the time. Robeson was suprised at the ban and, after asking for the reason, was explained, in the best traditions of the Soviet obfuscation that there are no Jews in The USSR. “How many negroes do you have?” – Robeson wanted to know. THe answer is unknown.

  • en passant says:

    Excellent article that balances Robeson’s talents with his failings.
    By all means condemn the bad, but celebrate the good.
    After all, Heydrich had a very dark side but was quite a virtuoso on the violin …

  • tblack says:

    John Dover Wilson, the great Shakespeare scholar, was convinced that Othello was intended as a black African, rather than an Arab, after seeing Robeson in the role in the 1930s: “The performance convinced me, in short, that a negro Othello is essential to the full understanding of the play.”

    In several respects Robeson was like Jessica Mitford – highly intelligent, lucid, perceptive, but with an inexplicable attraction to a ludicrously flawed ideology.

  • denandsel@optusnet.com.au says:

    Without wanting to be too pedantic, Bolshevik bass would be more accurate than Bolshevik baritone because Paul Robeson had a bass voice rather than a baritone voice. He voice was magnificent, but his politics were as base as his voice was bass.

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