American composer

Composer Earl Robinson and working-class culture – People’s World

Earl Robinson, left, and Paul Robeson during rehearsal for the first ‘Ballad for Americans’ show in 1939. | Public domain

Earl Robinson’s music became a staple of American working-class culture in the 20th century. Best known for composing the music for songs like “The House I Live In,” “Joe Hill,” and “Black and White,” Robinson wrote many other songs for stage and film that will likely be familiar to some readers.

Ballad of an American: The Autobiography of Earl Robinson describes the highs and lows of his collaborations with Abe Meeropol (known by his pseudonym Lewis Allan and best known for his lyrics to “Strange Fruit”), Yip Harburg (known for his Oscar-winning lyrics for “Over the Rainbow”), Paul Robeson and Frank Sinatra (who each made “The House I Live In” famous in different ways), Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Woody Guthrie, Lee Hayes, Pete Seeger, plus a host of other artists on behalf of unions and left-wing causes. The collaborations were fundamental to mid-20th century “popular front” culture and the later folk roots of popular music.

The close identification of his songs with the struggle for black freedom caused his enemies in the FBI and HUAC to sometimes mistakenly identify him as Paul Robeson or as an African-American person. He made this discovery late in life after FOIA access to his FBI file yielded over 1,000 pages of documents.

Robinson died in his hometown of Seattle in 1991, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, with which, despite his critical views, he maintained ties through his music and collaborative spirit. Before his death, he worked with Eric Gordon, now culture editor at people’s world, to compile and write this memoir. Reprinted today by International Publishers, this accessible and compelling personal account provides insight into radical labor circles during the anti-fascist struggle and the end of the Cold War from the 1930s to the 1950s and beyond.

Moreover, it personalizes the political struggle, reveals the professional life of a talented but sometimes struggling composer, and offers a unique perspective on the transitions many people have made from the so-called Old Left to the New Left. Robinson says he left the Communist Party around 1957, but maintained friendships and working partnerships with Party-affiliated cultural workers, labor leaders and socialist countries in Eastern Europe.

In the 1960s, Robinson’s story changed. Like many who entered the “new left” culture at the time, Robinson moved from radical and revolutionary systemic critiques of capitalism, white supremacy and imperialism to self-help gurus, hallucinogenic drugs, psychological therapies, psychic interests and meditation. In other words, his later life reflects a general withdrawal into himself. Yet his continued and determined commitment to peace, anti-racism, and working-class liberation suggests he tied his self-improvement therapies closely to systemic causes he once set in motion. before.

Perhaps for these reasons, the second half of the book, beginning with the chapter devoted to Paul Robeson in the center of the book, is quite different from the first half. Perhaps the difference in story content and flow was caused by Robinson’s decision to distance himself from the Communist Party, or could be attributed to the tightening of space for his type of vision in a more restrictive political climate. I am not sure. The writing focuses on many musical compositions and tries to regain a foothold professionally in the profession that had chased him away.

A telling anecdote is his meeting with Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas for the purpose of having him hear his music and allowing him to write songs about the judge for a planned cantata titled Washington Love Story. Robinson sought to remake his artistic success by writing songs about the life of a major progressive historical figure, as he had done before with major compositions on Lincoln and Roosevelt. Douglas and Robinson were from the Evergreen State, which the composer thought he could use to gain access. Douglas appears to have been patient when Robinson showed up uninvited at his Washington home while recovering from a serious illness. But Robinson seems oblivious to the weirdness of the whole episode.

The book is written simply and legibly. It’s full of great stories. His friendly relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt captured in letters and anecdotes about dinners and meetings shed light on his hesitant politics and activities. His exchange with the HUAC inquisitors reveals a singer-songwriter who fights for the dignity of workers, the right to criticize a corrupt and exploitative system, and still expresses the ordinary fear of power and imprisonment that threatened his livelihood and freedom. His refusal to cooperate has earned him years of harassment from FBI goons and right-wing commentators. Under the blacklist, he ended up giving guitar lessons (to Arlo Guthrie among others).

I had a lot of fun with this book because I spent time looking up songs and movies on YouTube. For example, the 10-minute short film, “The House I Live In”, featuring Franck Sinatra is here. The story is that Sinatra donated his salary for the film to the California Labor School, which was a Communist-run labor school. It was shut down, according to Robinson, because federal tax authorities revoked its tax-exempt status and charged it back taxes.

Paul Robeson’s version of this song, which in my opinion is better than Sinatra’s, can also be found on YouTube here. The producers and editors of the original short with Sinatra excluded lines from the song that call for racial desegregation in housing (“my neighbours, black and white”), while Robeson never did. The film’s director, Albert Maltz, who was eventually blacklisted, was angry at the decision. Indeed, some critics of the film argue that the exclusion of this part of the song’s explicit anti-racist message helps focus the story on Euro-American racial solidarity (all of the boys in the film appeared to be Euro-Americans).

I also came across a fun short titled muscle range, which was released in 1948. Robinson wrote the music (with lyrics by leftist poet Edwin Rolfe) and sang the songs. In his brief aside about his work for this short, Robinson remarks on the intentional irony they built into the film, though he suggests muscle range had little or no political message. The imagery, the irony of the song’s main message and its use of the “talking blues” form suggest a subtle but remarkable critique of racism and homophobia. A discussion of the original Muscle Beach (on the Pacific coast in Los Angeles), racial segregation, working-class culture, and homophobia that targeted beachgoers in the 1950s is beyond the scope of this review, as it was beyond Robinson’s recollection of his working on this film.

This book is a valuable contribution to the history of American labor culture at one of the heights of its revolutionary potential.

Ballad of an American: The Autobiography of Earl Robinson
By Earl Robinson with Eric A. Gordon
New York: International Publishers, 2021, 505 pp.
$25.99
ISBN: 9780717808700

Order a copy here international publishers.


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Joel Wendland-Liu