A reader posted a very interesing comment on my recent article Music can change the world - Indeed, Harry Belafonte, and other pop music icons, have made a difference, and continue to, but what comparable influence have classical musicians had in the last 50 years? ... the last 100 years? - Bodie Pfost.
Now that is a good point. There have been many examples of classical musicians (and composers are excluded from this discussion) making media friendly gestures in support of human rights, but very few examples of musicians actually prepared to lose their freedom, and audience, in pursuit of what they believe in. But among the exceptions is Paul Robeson (pictured here), and his activism is particularly relevant with the controversy over the execution of Saddam Hussein still reverberating around the world, as Robeson founded the American Crusade Against Lynching.
Robeson is best known as an actor and singer, and for his powerful bass-baritone voice which reached down to C below the bass clef. He was acclaimed for his playing of Othello in Shakespeare's play, and his celebrated concert performances helped achieve a wide audience for Negro spirituals.
He was also a political activist. He campaigned for the rights of Asian and Black Americans, and as part of this founded the American Crusade Against Lynching. In 1948, Robeson was active in the presidential campaign to elect Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, and went on the campaign trail among ethnic minorities in the southern states. His political vews resulted in NBC cancelling his scheduled appearance on former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s television program, Today with Mrs. Roosevelt, in 1950.
In 1950, after he refused to sign an affidavit that he was not a Communist, the U.S. government took away Robeson's passport. When Robeson and his lawyers asked officials at the U.S. State Department why it was "detrimental to the interests of the United States Government" for him to travel abroad, they were told that "his frequent criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States should not be aired in foreign countries". The travel ban ended in 1958 when a U.S. Supreme Court test case ruled that the Secretary of State had no right to deny a passport, or require any citizen to sign an affidavit, because of his or her political beliefs
As I described in a recent article Robeson was president of the English Pete Seeger Committee, of which Benjamin Britten was also a member. This committee sponsored Seeger's visit to the UK in 1961 while the singer was awaiting sentencing for contempt of Congress. The photograph here shows Seeger testifying to the House on Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. Robeson's support for the Soviet Union was controversial. He took part in pro-Soviet rallies to combat fascism and anti-semitism in the early 1940s, sung in the USSR in 1949, and was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952, and continued his support for the USSR after clear evidence of the Soviet regimes anti-semitism emerged.
Robeson, who died in 1976, was a fearless and committed campaigner for human rights. Even if some of his later activism was naive and misguided, he can truly be said to be a classical musican who showed that music can help change the world.
Now for more on classical music and ethnic diversity read BBC Proms - a multicultural society?
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