By Joe Nalven
I remember my dad’s excitement. He just bought a long play vinyl record called “Ballad for Americans.” I knew nothing of the song’s history.
But the words and Paul Robeson’s voice were magnetic.
This was an American patriotic cantata, as it was called. And it is just what we need today.
We might think that inclusivity started just a few years ago, but listen to a few verses. It was even sung for 1939’s New Year’s Eve on CBS. MGM included Ballad for Americans in Born to Sing as the 1942 movie’s ending. Imagine the power of this ballad to be sung at both the Republican and Communist Party conventions.
The ballad is about who does the work.
A voice from the chorus yells out:
What’s your racket? What do you do for a living?
Paul Robeson answers:
Well, I’m an engineer, musician, street cleaner, carpenter, teacher
How about a farmer?
You said it.
Miner, seamstress, ditch digger,
All of them. I am the “etceteras” and the “and so forths” that do the work.
The ballad is also about our ethnicities and beliefs.
Again, a curious voice out of the chorus:
Now hold on here, what are you trying to give us?
Are you an American?
And, again, the certainty of Robeson responds:
Am I an American?
I’m just an Irish, Negro, Jewish, Italian,
French and English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Polish,
Scotch, Hungarian, Swedish, Finnish, Greek and Turk and Czech.
And that ain’t all.
I was baptized Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist, Lutheran, Atheist,
Roman Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian, Seventh Day Adventist,
Mormon, Quaker, Christian Scientist and lots more.
You sure are something.
This American ballad was written in 1939 by Earl Robinson with lyrics by John La Touche for the Federal Theatre Project. It was recorded by Bing Crosby on Decca Records and sung by Odetta at Carnegie Hall It was finally being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1980.
I didn’t know about the song’s fame and that it had first been called Ballad for Uncle Sam. There are a variety of versions, adding nuances to who we are as Americans.
No, I didn’t know about the song’s popularity. What I knew was what I heard.
Our country’s strong, our country’s young,
And her greatest songs are still unsung . . .
And there was no denial of the evils which also marked our history.
Out of the cheating, out of the shouting, out of the murders and lynching.
But the words took us into what we could become, in many ways that we did become, and with dreams still unfulfilled:
Strong as the people who made it.
For I have always believed it, and I believe it now,
And now you know who I am.
And the magical refrain of question and answer:
Who are you?
If only the news began every day with this American ballad.
If only all our pundits, politicians and social media platforms and players could remember who we are.
I anticipate comments that would ask, “what about this?” and “what about that?” As a tit-for-tat those “whatabouts” distract us from the core message of what is America. However, when asked as a way to arrive a broader perspective, particularly In light of the history since 1939, such “whatabouts” are instructive guides.
The evolution of Paul Robeson is a good starting point for “what about?”
His Igbo father was born into slavery and his mother was a Quaker. He went to Rutgers College and graduated Columbia Law School. But he left the practice of law because of the discrimination he encountered from a white secretary refusing to take dictation from him. But then he prospered as an actor and singer.
He was also a committed civil rights activist. Ten years after his first performance of Ballad for Americans in 1939, he was front and center of a challenge to white supremacy in his concert performances in Peekskill, New York. Those were turbulent times. Robeson found support from pro-communist unions. Democrat Congressman John Rankin condemned the concerts while Republican Senator Jacob Javits defended them.
Yes, Robeson idealized the Soviet Union. But that was at a time when many Americans supported, or leaned into, communism as a progressive ideal — as did my parents. However, we later learned that the evils of the Soviet Union and Communist China in the mass killing of their own people equaled and perhaps surpassed the evils of the national socialism of the Third Reich.
Even the New York Times was blind to this evil. Somewhat perversely, its reporter, Walter Duranty, received a Pultizer Prize in 1932. The Times later admitted that Duranty’s reports on the Soviet-imposed Ukrainian famine was “some of the worst reporting to appear in the newspaper.”
The context that Robeson found himself in makes it difficult to separate his idealization of communism from his civil rights activism. Even the NAACP and Jackie Robinson testified that Robeson’s views on communism did not reflect the wider views of the black community.
Still, racism in America is a reality, not an illusion. If we could shear away that illusion and shared cultural blind spot about communism, including from Robeson, we would encounter the core of civil rights activism much like we find in the work of Martin Luther King.
Note that when Robeson was pressed by the House Un-American Activities Committee about why he didn’t move to the Soviet Union, Robeson gave a core civil rights message, an American message: “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I’m going to stay here and have a part of it just like you.”
Trying to reconstruct a historical figure’s true nature is, of course, a challenge. Best we look to the words said in public. Robeson continued that vision from the Ballad for Americans saying, “I will be loyal to America of true traditions; to the America of the abolitionists, of Harriet Tubman, of Thaddeus Stevens, of those who fought for my people’s freedom, not of those who tried to enslave them.”
Robeson’s attitude remained one of reform, not rejection of America.
Since then, civil rights laws have been passed. Miscegenation laws were abolished as were laws against housing discrimination. Separate but equal was found to be not equal. In addition, technology has improved our lives. Immigrants find America a land of opportunity. And America accepts more immigrants than nearly any other country.
We should not forget the progress since 1939. That was over eighty years ago!
Work needs to be done, but we need to avoid the opposite extreme we find in cancel culture and training programs that condemn all whites as oppressors.
Chief Justice John Roberts provides the touchstone that comfortably fits into the mindset of the Ballad for Americans: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
Please remember the concluding refrain from Ballad for Americans:
Who are you?
Joe Nalven is a former associate director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University.