How Paul Robeson Found His Political Voice in Wales
Updated: Sep 25
"Robeson is one of the archetypal artists of the twentieth century," wrote Benny Green of The Observer in the liner notes of the album, Robeson (Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images)
Paul Robeson’s bass-baritone cocooned its listeners in the promise of hope. Sixty-four years ago, it barreled from New York to Wales via a newly laid transatlantic cable, which was his only recourse.
Robeson’s bond with South Wales was a deep one. He had raised his voice in song and speech against injustice toward coal miners in the Rhondda Valley, where he had come to better grasp the link among workers in the world. So, the African American became a target of a 25-year investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the MI5 in the paranoid and hysterical time of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts of Communists, according to BBC News, Wales (August 3, 2010). In 1950, the United States State Department revoked the world figure’s passport for eight years.
It was during this period of confinement that the South Wales miners invited the 59-year-old cultural giant to the National Eisteddfod, an ancient Welsh competition and festival of music and poetry that had been revived in the 18th-century. On October 5, 1957, Will Painter, President of the South Wales Miners, introduced the friend of Nelson Mandela, Jawaharlal Nehru and W. E. B. Du Bois, to an audience of 5,000 at the seaside Porthcawl Grand Pavilion, and, then, spoke to Robeson directly on a microphone:
“We are happy that it has been possible for us to arrange that you speak and sing to us today. We would be far happier if you were with us in person. Our people deplore the continued refusal of your government to return your passport and to deny you the right to join with us in our festival of song. We shall continue to extend what influence we can to overcome this position. We look forward to the day when we shall again shake you by the hand and hear you sing with us in these valleys of music and song.”
I can imagine the auditorium of bated breaths, waiting for the response. The transatlantic cable had been inaugurated only in the previous year. Would it work? Would the audience be able to hear the singer? Amazingly, Robeson’s deep voice crackled out of the speakers from a studio in New York:
“Thank you so much for your very kind words. My warmest greetings to the people of my beloved Wales and a special hello to the miners of South Wales at this great festival. It is a great privilege to be participating in this historic festival and all the best to you as we strive toward a world where we all can live abundant, peaceful and dignified lives.
“I’m going to begin with one of my own songs, Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel Bringing Freedom to Our People; another one of my people, This Little Light of Mine; All Through the Night, and a Beethoven melody.”
All Through the Night (Ar Hyd y Nos) is a Welsh folk song, hundreds of years old, which can evoke tears from many a listener. Robeson’s selection revealed his closeness with the Welsh.
“(The Welsh) took him into their homes, fed him and wrapped him around tight and close in the intimacy of warmth and humor, and in the aspirations of a people in whom a national spirit had never died. The Welsh spoke Welsh to show they were themselves, just as Robeson’s relatives in the Carolinas spoke the Gullah dialect because they, too, wanted to be themselves. Paul felt he was at home,” wrote his close friend and journalist, Marie Seaton, in Paul Robeson (1958).
In 1995, when I married a Welshman from Talbot Green in the Rhonda, my then father-in-law acquainted me with the relationship between Robeson, whom he respected and admired, and South Wales. An African American, I was ignorant of this connection. He knew the woman in nearby Pontypridd, whose home Robeson stayed in when he was filming The Proud Valley (1940).
At that time, there was no bed and breakfast or hotel. South Wales was not a tourist destination. Cardiff Docks were working docks, the second-largest exporter of coal. The coal mining industry helped finance the building of Cardiff into the capital city of Wales and helped the Third Marquis of Bute, who owned the docks, become the richest man in the world. The neighborhood, Tiger Bay, and the pubs were rough, unlike what they are today since the redevelopment effort ended in 2000. Outside of Cardiff in the Rhondda, what are now grassy hills and bucolic countryside were coal tips and scarred landscape. Robeson knew a Wales from the past.
I knew of Robeson’s work long before Wales as he was a 20th-century Renaissance man well-known in the Black community. When he died in January 1976, I was dancing with a Black troupe as my Winter Study project in my final year at Williams College in the Berkshires. Black Movements choreographed and dedicated a piece to him, called Here I Stand, which is the title of his autobiography.
Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson, (April 9, 1898 – January 23, 1976), was born in Princeton, New Jersey, to the Reverend William Drew Robeson and Maria Louisa Bustill, according to Paul Robeson House & Museum. His father, who was of Ibo origin had been born into slavery and escaped from South Carolina before he was 20. He graduated from Lincoln University, which was the first black college to award degrees. His mother, who attended Lincoln and taught at a Quaker school for a time, came from an abolitionist Quaker family. He was the youngest of five.
In 1879, the Reverend Robeson was appointed head of the Black congregation of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. Because of his activism on behalf of workers, including migrant workers, and Blacks, and against Jim Crow, the Presbytery of New Brunswick unfairly dismissed him in 1900, according to the Paul Robeson House, which is renovating the family house for use in the struggle for social justice.
Robeson’s father was forced to work menial jobs to support his family.
In 1904, when Robeson was six, his nearly blind mother died in a house fire. The Reverend could not provide a house for the children still living at home. So, he, Paul and his son, Ben, moved into the attic of a store in Westfield, New Jersey.
In 1910, the Reverend found a stable parsonage at the St. Thomas A.M.E. Zion, where Robeson delivered sermons when his father was away. In 1912, Robeson began attending Somerville High School in New Jersey, where he performed in Julius Caesar and Othello, sang in the chorus, and excelled in American football, basketball, baseball and track. His academic and athletic prowess brought him racial taunts, which he ignored, according to a biography. Before graduation, he won a statewide academic contest for a scholarship to Rutgers University. He was named class valedictorian.
Rutgers was the second oldest college in New Jersey and a private liberal arts institution at the time. In 1915, Robeson was the only Black student there and only the third to have ever attended the school. His resolve to make the football team was tested as the “teammates engaged in excessive play, during which his nose was broken and his shoulder dislocated. The coach decided he had overcome the provocation and announced that he had made the team.”
While at Rutgers, Robeson received the Phi Beta Kapa key, belonged to the Cap and Skull honor society, garnered four annual oratorical awards, won 15 varsity letters in baseball, basketball and track, and was named to the All-American Football Team twice. He graduated valedictorian.
In 1923, Robeson graduated from Columbia Law School. He accepted a position at a prominent law firm, where a partner considered opening a satellite office in Harlem, which would be 70 percent Black in 1930, with Robeson as the head. When a stenographer at the firm refused to take dictation from him because he was Black, he shifted his 1.91 meter (6 feet, 3 inches) frame onto the stage.
In 1921, Robeson had married Eslanda Cordoza Goode, whom he had met in summer school at Columbia. She had attended the University of Illinois and later graduated from Columbia with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry. At New York-Presbyterian Hospital, she soon became the head histological chemist of Surgical Pathology, the first African American to hold such a position. She first became politically active at Columbia, where her interest in racial equality was reinforced by young intellectuals in New York. She coaxed her husband into pursuing a career in theater and music. She supported them with her hospital position until 1925 when she devoted herself to the management of his career and abandoned her plan to pursue medicine. In 1927, their only child, Paul Jr., "Pauli", was born in Brooklyn when Robeson was on tour in Europe.
In the entertainment world, Robeson was known for his deep, mellifluous voice and his starring roles in Show Boat and The Emperor Jones in their stage and screen versions, according to My Central Jersey (2017). In 1928, his big break came after he secured a part in the London production of Show Boat, and his rendition of ‘Ol Man River became an international hit, according to Wales Online (April 14, 2019). Then, he met the Welsh miners.
“In the winter of 1929, Paul had been returning from a matinee performance of Show Boat (in London) when he heard male voices wafting from the street,” wrote Jeff Sparrow, in an extract from No Way But This in The Guardian (July 2, 2017). “He stopped, startled by the perfect harmonization and then by the realization that the singers, when they came into view, were working men, carrying protest banners as they sang.
“By accident, he’d encountered a party of Welsh miners from the Rhondda Valley. They were stragglers from the great working-class army routed during what the poet Idris Davies called the 'summer of soups and speeches' – the general strike of 1926. Blacklisted by their employers after the unions’ defeat, they had walked all the way to London (274 kilometers or 170 miles) searching for ways to feed their families (by gaining support from Westminster).
“Some 50 years later, (his son) Pauli Robeson visited the Talygarn Miners’ Rehabilitation Centre and met an elderly man who’d been present on that day in 1929. The old miner talked of how stunned the marchers had been when Robeson attached himself to their procession: a huge African American stranger in formal attire incongruous next to the half-starved Welshmen in their rough-hewn clothes and mining boots.
“But Robeson had a talent for friendship, and the men were grateful for his support. He had remained with the protest until they stopped outside a city building, and then he leaped on to the stone steps to sing ‘Ol Man River and a selection of spirituals chosen to entertain his new comrades but also because sorrow songs, with their blend of pain and hope, expressed emotions that he thought desperate men far from home might be feeling.
“Afterwards, he gave a donation so the miners could ride the train back to Wales, in a carriage crammed with clothing and food.
“That is how it began. Before the year was out, he’d contributed the proceeds of a concert to the Welsh miners’ relief fund; on his subsequent tour, he sang for the men and their families in Cardiff, Neath, and Aberdare, and visited the Talygarn miners’ rest home in Pontyclun.”
In the pre-war period, he worked tirelessly to publicize the living and working conditions of Welsh miners. He gave performances in support of varied causes, including the Welsh casualties of the Spanish Civil War, according to BBC News, Wales.
“Paul’s interactions with Wales were shaped by the violence of mining life: the everyday hardship of long hours and low wages, but also the sudden spectacular catastrophes that decimated communities,” wrote Sparrow.
“In 1934, he’d been performing in Caernarfon when news arrived of a disaster in the Gresford Colliery (two hours away). The mine there had caught fire, creating an inferno so intense that most of the 266 men who died underground, in darkness and smoke, were never brought to the surface for burial. At once, Robeson offered his fees for the Caernarfon concert to the fund established for the orphans and children of the dead – an important donation materially, but far more meaningful as a moral and political gesture.”
In the 1940 film, The Proud Valley, an American with an impressive voice is embraced by a Welsh choir leader with an eye to winning an upcoming competition (Photo by Getty Images)
How did Robeson’s relationship with the miners change him?
It changed his outlook on the world, Sian Williams, curator of the South Wales Miners’ Library at Swansea University, told BBC News, Wales (August 3, 2010).
“After meeting the South Wales miners, he began to realize that the struggle in Wales was just the same as his, back in America,” said Williams. “It wasn’t really about race: the battle facing oppressed people was the same, the world over.”
In the United States, race is class. In Wales and England, Robeson began to recognize class as a social divide as well as the power of solidarity among the oppressed.
“He might have found refuge in London from the impossible dilemmas confronting a black artist in America,” wrote Sparrow. “But he’d learned to see respectable England as disconcertingly similar, albeit with its prejudices expressed through nicely graduated hierarchies of social class. To friends, he spoke of his dismay at how the British upper-class related to those below them. He was ready, both intellectually and emotionally, for the encounter with the Welsh labor movement.”
Sian Williams said: “Wales represents just a small fraction of Paul Robeson’s international work in confronting injustice, but you could make an argument that it was that revelation with the South Wales miners which started it all.”
The Welsh miners believed fervently in trade unionism.
“In an industry such as mining, you relied on your workmates – both to get the job done safely and to stand up for your rights,” wrote Sparrow. “The battle was necessarily collective. A single miner possessed no power at all; the miners as a whole, however, could shut down the entire nation, as they’d demonstrated in 1926.
“The cooperation mandated by modern industry might, at least in theory, break down the prejudices that divided workers – even, perhaps, the stigma attached to race. That was the point Robeson dramatized in The Proud Valley, a film in which the solidarity of the workplace overcomes the miners’ suspicion about a dark-skinned stranger. ‘Aren’t we all black down the pit?’ asks one of the men.
After two years of refusing offers from major studios, Robeson agreed to appear in the independent British production, seeing an opportunity, as he told The Glasgow Sentinel, “to depict the Negro as he really is – not the caricature he is always represented to be on the screen”.
In The Proud Valley, which is based on the true story of a Black miner from West Virginia who drifted to Wales searching for work, Robeson played David Goliath, an unemployed seaman who hopped a freight train to the Rhondda Valley. When he hears a traditional male choir through an opened window, practicing for a competition in the upstairs of a building, he joins in. The choir leader is regaled by his voice and welcomes him into his home, the choir and the pit.
“It’s from the miners in Wales,” Robeson explained, “(that) I first understood the struggle of Negro and white together.
In Daniel G. William’s Aneurin Bevan and Paul Robeson: Socialism, Class and Identity (2010), in a 1958 interview, Robeson said:
“I went down into the mines with the workers, and they explained to me, that ‘Paul, you may be successful here in England, but your people suffer like ours. We are poor people, and you belong to us. You don’t belong to the bigwigs here in this country.’ And so today I feel as much at home in the Welsh valley as I would in my own Negro section in any city in the United States. I just did a broadcast by transatlantic cable to the Welsh valley . . . and here was the first understanding that the struggle of the Negro people, or any people, cannot be by itself – that is, the human struggle. So I was attracted by and met many members of the Labour Party, and my politics embraced also the common struggle of all oppressed people, including especially the working masses – specifically the laboring people of all the world. That defines my philosophy. It’s a joining one. We are a working people, a laboring people – the Negro people.”
In his book, Sparrow wrote: “Robeson had reached out to the Welsh miners when his career was at its height. They came back to him at his lowest ebb, almost two decades later, at a time when all he’d achieved seemed to have been taken from him. In the midst of the cold war, the FBI prevented Robeson from performing at home. (He’d proclaimed his sympathy for the Soviet Union ever since the mid-30s. That leftism now made him a target. He became, in (folk singer and social activist) Pete Seeger’s words, ‘the most blacklisted performer in America’, effectively silenced in his home country). Worst still, the U.S. State Department confiscated his passport, so he could not travel abroad. He was left in a kind of limbo: silenced, isolated, and increasingly despairing.”
Susan Robeson, the performer’s granddaughter, recalled the cabled concert to Porthcawl, reported BBC News, Wales:
“One of my earliest memories is going with my grandfather to a recording studio in New York and hearing him sing for the miners in Wales,” said Ms. Robeson, who is executive director of the Paul Robeson Foundation. “I must only have been four or five, so I didn’t really understand anything about the travel ban, but even at the time I remember thinking there was something amazing about the fact that they could stop his body leaving America, but they couldn’t contain his voice and spirit.”
In 1958, the following year, the State Department lifted the travel ban. Robeson sang at the National Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale, in the flesh, to more than 9,000. He and Aneurin Bevan, Labour Party politician and architect of the National Health Service, shared the stage.
From 1958 to 1960, Robeson, who spoke more than 20 languages, including Chinese, Russian, Arabic and several African languages, returned to stages in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. He had come to regard himself as a folk singer, devoted to what he called ‘the eternal music of common humanity’.
Then, in 1961, he suffered the deterioration of his physical and mental health. In December 1963, he returned to the United States and for the remainder of his life lived mainly in seclusion. Briefly, he assumed a role in the Civil Rights Movement, making a few major public appearances before falling seriously ill during a tour. In 1965, his wife died of breast cancer.
“There was a man named Robeson,” said fellow actor and activist Harry Belafonte, 90, in a discussion at Rutgers University College Avenue Student Center, reported My Central Jersey (2017), ”who not only articulated for us what we felt but also gave us a sense of the greater choices that we had other than just our rage and our anger and our sense of how to deal with the injustice.”
At the cabled concert, the Treorchy Male Choir sang the Welsh national anthem, Land of My Fathers, to which Robeson added his mighty voice:
Wales! Wales! Land of mist and wild
Where’er I roam
Though far from my home
The mother is calling her child
Then the audience of 5,000 serenaded him with We’ll Keep a Welcome:
We’ll keep a welcome in the hillside
We’ll keep a welcome in the Vales
This land you knew will still be singing
When you come home again to Wales.