Thursday, October 22, 2009

Songs My Mother Taught Me . . . Old Man River

{This is the eighth in an undetermined number of songs my mother taught me I'm posting this month in her memory. For background, please visit the post containing the first song, Ivory Tower.}

I wish I'd paid better attention to my mother when she told me that her mother had taken the family to hear Paul Robeson in person. Since they lived on both coasts during times he appeared on stage (related production schedule and related clipping) I don't know any more than she saw him and she loved him. Old Man River stirred something deep in my mother that went beyond admiration for the powerful voice, the iconic song, the memorable play/movie. She told me his remarkable story and did so without the addition of pro-American or anti-Communist comments. We had many discussions about his life story and Robeson's life awakened something deep in me the way Old Man River did in her. In preparation for this post I find I have new stirrings of appreciation for this wondrous and complex human being. Here are highlights of his bio found at Rutger's University's Paul Robeson Cultural Center:
  • He was the grandson of slaves and the son of a minister who escaped slavery, and became one of Rutgers University's most famous and accomplished alumni.
  • In 1915, Robeson was awarded a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers University. He was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society and Rutgers' Cap & Skull Honor Society. He was valedictorian of his graduating class in 1919.
  • He was named to the All American Football Team twice in spite of open racism and violence expressed by his teammates. In 1995, he was inducted posthumously into the College Football Hall of Fame.
  • In 1923, Robeson earned a law degree from the Columbia Law School. There, he met his wife Eslanda Cordoza Goode, the first black woman to head a pathology laboratory
  • He went on to such stage successes in Show Boat, Porgy and Bess and Othello, which was hailed by some critics as the play's greatest interpretation. He starred in 13 films between the 1920s and the early 1940s. . .
  • He sang for peace and justice in 25 languages throughout the United States, Africa, Asia Europe, and the Soviet Union. 
  • During the McCarthy Era of the 1950s, every attempt was made to silence and discredit Paul Robeson because of his political views and dedication to civil rights.
  • For a generation, his memory was obscured and his achievements forgotten, but the centennial of his 1898 birth has sparked new debate about his place in our history.

I am grateful to my mother for giving emphasis to Paul Robeson's story during nights of serious discussion around the kitchen table. I grew to also admire the man and to love this special song my mother taught me. Old Man River. 


This video has a bit of narrative by Harry Belafonte describing how words in the song changed through the years. To hear a 1930 recording of Paul Robeson singing the original lyrics (and to see some excellent still shots of him), click here. The portions that were substituted for other lyrics soon after that earlier recording are shocking and a reminder of positive changes in civil rights in the U.S. since then.....and are a reminder that what has been won can be lost if not treasured and protected. 

Paul Robeson: A Poem
-by Andrew Vinstra 2007

Paul Robeson - African American Actor, Political Pioneer,
Cultural Activist & Basso Profundo Concert Singer

The box springs beneath me squeak as I try to drift off.
Every shallow breath I inhale catches in the frame of the rigging
droops there in tatters rags red as blood, red with blood, turned to blood
the breath runs in rivulets scattering skeletal.

The whole structure creaks beneath the weight of centuries
of waiting to wake from the nightmare.
Sleep is the ocean I never quite cross.

My breath comes in waves
that break against the hull of my ribs.
I inhale, the sail unfurls.
I am become the bone ship of my people.

My ribs are the hull holding the breath
whispering up out of history.

My skin is the sail that catches wind, holds breath, swallows whole
the hollow ocean, the empty bowl my voice is become.

My nose is the prow that points over the precipice I pitch into,
heedless. My mouth, the chasm I scream over.

My eyes are the crow's nest at the top of the mast
from whence I spied the teeth of darkness
yet somehow I'm still alive.

The bellows of my lungs expand.
My skin stretches thin and brittle,
a leaf ripe with fall, translucent as parchment
the wind catches and slowly unfurls. My ancient skin
becomes molten. It flakes off as feathers
and slowly descends.The detritus of all we have left
sifts slowly through the depths caress and waits
unbidden. The scales fall from my eyes, two bright
pennies, revealing the iris starting once more
to open. Cumulus storm clouds gather. Molten skin
like lava builds from beneath.
Below the surface bones gather as feathers.
The sea in my voice begins to rise
and the whole ocean opens.

I know now as I wake from slumber
that heaven and hell shall hear my voice
and the earth shall tremble.



mark said...

Your post sums up the 'Too soon old, too late smart' notion. There are things I wish I'd bothered to learn about my mother. She passed when I was in my 30's.

As I have grown older, I have realized that I am now at a place where I could have asked my grandfather meaningful questions about certain subjects. I miss that chance yet...

An engaging post. Thank you for sharing.

Friko said...

I am so glad I came over today, your post means a lot to me. I love Paul Robeson but the poetry and music and your words combined go beautifully together.

Kim said...

Such a powerful song...a powerful voice and a powerful story.

Darlene said...

You are really taking me down memory lane with your series of the songs your mother taught you. I remember the movie, Porgy and Bess and it was one of the best ever filmed.

Unfortunately, I also remember the racism of that era and the injustice done to black performers. While we still have a long way to go, it is comforting to be reminded of how far we have come. Could the country have envisioned a time when we would have a black man for a president?

Nancy said...

What a wonderful mother you had to teach you such things. She sounds amazing.

Thanks for the education on Paul Robeson.

Lydia said...

@mark- Losing your mom in your 30s was so early. I'm sad for you that you didn't have more time. And I sure understand the regret about not asking your grandfather more questions. The quote at the beginning of your comments sums it up perfectly.

@Friko- I'm glad you were here too, especially since you love Paul Robeson.

@Kim- Yes, yes, and glad you're here!

@Darlene- I do feel a connection with you as I post these...really appreciate your enjoyment of this series!
When I read all of Robeson's credentials and accomplishments I thought how wonderful that he is becoming known again. Would love to visit the Paul Robeson Cultural Center at Rutger's.

@Nancy- My pleasure.
She was wonderful. She was a seeker, and not just in the spiritual sense but in terms of information, new horizons, rule-breaking and trend-setting.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Robeson isn't that well known over here - but i remember seeing at least part of Showboat as a kid and hearing Old Man River. Listened to both versions and couldn't believe how much the lyric had been changed from its protest roots.

Thought you might be interested in the below - which is a link to the lyrics of the Manic Street Preachers song "Let Robeson Sing". I tried to find some information about the background of the song, but the Wikipedia entry was useless.

Looking to the Stars said...

Lydia, I have never heard of Paul Robeson. Thank you so much for sharing about him. We have to keep our true history alive and this is one of the ways to do it.

Thanks again for sharing :)

Lydia said...

@Pixies- Wow, thanks for the link to those amazing lyrics. I would love to hear the song. You are such a fountain of topical information!

@Looking to the Stars- You are so very right that blogging is a way "to keep our true history alive." Of course we never heard of Paul Robeson in history classes. I wonder if music/vocal students in the 50s-90s even heard of him. Some, probably, from truly good teachers.

Jennifer said...

I clicked on the link to listen to the original version. Wow -- not only were the original lyrics, as you write, shocking, but I'm also not sure I've really listened to the song before. It's sad and powerful.

Lydia said...

@Jennifer- Just found your comment and sorry to respond so late. Thanks for listening to the song along with me. I got more out of it now than in the past.



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