The moderate man is contemptible

It will surprise many to learn that my headline is supplied by Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was one of a group of composers, which included Gustav Holst, John Ireland and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who met in the late 1890s to discuss William Morris' brand of socialism, and Vaughan-Williams' proposition that 'the moderate man is contemptible' was the subject of one of their debates. Vaughan Williams was a leading figure in the English folk music revival and the pentatonic scale, which is the common foundation of folk music around the world, links the English rural tradition to African American spirituals. The presence of the Afro-English Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in Vaughan Williams' circle indicates that at the time racial prejudice was less virulent in Britain than in America, which is why that peerless exponent of the African-American spiritual Paul Robeson chose to live in England from 1928 to 1939 where he was able both to perform and pursue his radical politics.

Paul Robeson returned to America in 1939 and took on the role of political artist. His passport was revoked in 1950 because of what the US State Department called his "frequent criticism while abroad of the treatment of blacks in the US". He was under constant surveillance by both the FBI and the CIA, was condemned for his beliefs by prominent figures and was prevented from broadcasting and performing publicly. His passport was restored in 1958 but both his health and career had been terminally damaged and he died in 1976 unapologetic about his political stance.

Call Mr. Robeson , which premiered to considerable acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007, presents the life of Paul Robeson as a powerful piece of political music theatre. It is written and performed by Nigerian born and British domiciled Tayo Aluko accompanied by pianist Michael Conliffe. Tayo Aluko shares with Paul Robeson a commitment to political activism; his recent Norwich performance was presented by Norwich Stop the War Coalition and his programme note for it included a message of support for the Occupy London movement.

Paul Robeson's credo of "Through my singing and acting and speaking, I want to make freedom ring" has inspired a breathtaking act of faith by Tayo Aluo. He has booked the 599 seat Zankel Hall auditorium at Carnegie Hall on February 12th 2012 for a performance of Call Mr Robeson to celebrate his own 50th birthday. There are no corporate sponsors and Tayo is appealing online for financial support for the Carnegie Hall performance. On An Overgrown Path reaches a surprisingly wide readership and if any of them can help Tayo either through sponsorship or by encouraging New Yorkers to occupy Carnegie Hall on February 12th 2012 I will be eternally grateful. If you need any more persuading please watch the YouTube clip below.

* In 1950 pianist Ray Lev was similarly blacklisted for her political views while the transcript of Aaron Copland's 1953 Senate Permanent Subcommittee hearing chaired by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy makes compelling reading.

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Elaine Fine said…
Thanks for this post, the Vaughan Williams quote, and the link to Morris.

Actually all those composers were students of Charles Villiers Stanford, who got the whole musical idea of incorporating folk material from the British Isles together. And Coleridge-Taylor was, at least during the first decade of the 20th century, Stanford's most successful student.

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