Exactly 69 years ago, to the day, CBS radio broadcast a recording of a brand new song, “Ballad For Americans.”
In seventy-six the sky was red
thunder rumbling overhead
Bad King George couldn’t sleep in his bed
And on that stormy morn, Ol’ Uncle Sam was born …
“It created an instant sensation,” writes historian Martin Bauml Duberman. “The six hundred people in the studio audience stamped, shouted, and bravoed for two minutes while the show was still on the air, and for fifteen minutes after. The switchboards were jammed for two hours with phone calls, and within the next few days hundreds of letters arrived.”
Ol’ Sam put on a three cornered hat
And in a Richmond church he sat
And Patrick Henry told him that while America drew breath
It was “Liberty or death.”
It was just a month after Hitler invaded Poland, the onset of World War II. The man singing was Paul Robeson, by then an internationally acclaimed black actor and singer, who had been an All-American football player at Rutgers University. And the song, in telling the story of the birth of our country, struck a patriotic chord that resonated with many Americans. When Robeson rears back and bellows, “Nobody who was anybody believed it,” he’s talking about nothing less than the American project, itself:
Ev’rybody who was anybody they doubted it.
Nobody had faith.
Nobody but Washington, Tom Paine, Benjamin Franklin,
Chaim Solomon, Crispus Attucks, Lafayette. Nobodies …
After the second broadcast — again, a huge hit — Robeson and his wife went to lunch with the writer Marie Seton, served in her upstairs hotel room at the Elysee. “Only years later did [Seton] tell the Robesons why,” Duberman writes in his biography of Robeson. “the hotel had informed her in advance that they would not serve Robeson in the public dining room. Nationally acclaimed one day, on the next he could eat in a hotel only if kept out of sight of its other guests.” Duberman notes that Robeson was “all at once a second-class citizen and CBS’s choice as the spokesman for the All-American Ballad.”
A little ragged group believed it.
And some gentlemen and ladies believed it.
And some wise men and some fools, and I believed it too.
And you know who I am.
At which point, the chorus comes in, dumbstruck as to who this might be, singing:
No. Who are you mister? Yeah, how come all this?
Well, Robeson sings I’ll tell you. It’s like this…
No, the chorus interrupts, let us tell you:
Mister Tom Jefferson, a mighty fine man.
He wrote it down in a mighty fine plan.
And the rest all signed it with a mighty fine hand
As they crossed their T’s and dotted their I’s
A bran’ new country did arise.
Robeson, already a strong civil rights activist in the mid-1930s, liked the song — composed by Earl Robinson — because while telling the story of America, as Duberman writes, “It [also] acknowledged the dark side of the American dream”:
Old Abe Lincoln was thin and long,
His heart was high and his faith was strong.
But he hated oppression, he hated wrong,
And he went down to his grave to free the slave.
A man in white skin can never be free
while his black brother is in slavery
“And we here highly resolve that these dead
shall not have died in vain.
And this government of the people, by the people and for the people
Shall not perish from the Earth.”
Abraham Lincoln said that on November 19, 1863 at Gettysburg,
Last night, at Grant Park in Chicago, president-elect Barack Obama summoned the same speech for inspiration, saying of his campaign: “It drew strength from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers, and from the millions of Americans who volunteered and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from the Earth.”
And, sitting in my living room in Akron, Ohio, I started thinking about Ballad for Americans. Its deep and powerful message of inclusion; its focus on what he have in common, instead of what divides us.
Say, sings the chorus, will you please tell us who you are?
What’s your name, Buddy? Where you goin’? Who are you?
Robeson, his voice gathering strength, begins a back-and-forth with his questioners:
Well, I’m the everybody who’s nobody,
I’m the nobody who’s everybody.
What’s your racket? What do you do for a living?
Well, I’m an
Engineer, musician, street cleaner, carpenter, teacher
How about a farmer?
Yes sir! …
You said it. …
Miner, seamstress, ditchdigger, all of them.
I am the “etceteras” and the “and so forths” that do the work.
Now hold on here, a man in the chorus says, what are you trying to give us?
Are you an American?
Am I an American? Robeson replies:
I’m just an Irish, Negro, Jewish, Italian,
French and English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Polish,
Scotch, Hungarian, Swedish, Finnish, Canadian, Greek and Turk and Czech and double-check American
And that ain’t all.
I was baptized Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist, Lutheran,
Atheist, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian, Seventh Day Adventist,
Mormon, Quaker, Christian Scientist and lots more.
You sure are, something!
It’s those lines, perhaps more than any others, that captured my imagination as a child, listening to the song in the back seat of our station wagon, on the way up to the Adirondack mountains for family vacations, pop–up camper in tow. Those lines said to me: We’re all in this together.
“It’s the answer spoken by young and old,” Obama said last night, “rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled — Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states; we are and always will be the United States of America.”
Sixty-nine years ago to the day, as Duberman writes, “Americans … thrilled to the rapturous patriotism” of the Ballad’s stirring crescendo:
Our country’s strong, our country’s young,
And our greatest songs are still unsung.
From her plains and mountains we have sprung,
To keep the faith with those who went before.
Many commentators have noted that Martin Luther King was one of those who went before Obama. Robeson was another. Though he was eventually hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee and accused of being a Communist; though he eventually had his passport revoked; though his image was ruthlessly distorted and tarnished by the press — Robeson never stopped crusading for peace, civil rights, and the rights of workers around the world.
“It’s been a long struggle that I’ve waged, sometimes not very well understood,” Robeson told supporters, after rioters halted a concert for civil rights in Peekskill, NY, in 1949. He spoke of how he was struggling not just on behalf of blacks, but for oppressed people everywhere. “I will be loyal to the America of the true traditions; to the America of the abolitionists, of Harriet Tubman, of Thaddeus Stevens, of those who fought for my people’s freedom, not of those who tried to enslave them. And I will have no loyalty to the Forrestals, to the Harrimans, to the Wall-Streeters…”
Said Obama last night: “Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it’s that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers. In this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.”
My grandfather was at Peekskill. He died earlier this year, after a long lifetime of fighting for these same causes. And one of my only regrets last night was that Gramps was not here to see it.
He would have positively beamed.
But I digress. It was after the successful CBS radio broadcasts that Robeson launched a cross-country concert tour. One of those stops was Grant Park, in Chicago, where 160,000 turned out to see him. It was, Duberman writes, quoting a music critic, a “‘deeply satisfying’ performance”; the crowd “‘roared’ for more and refused to go home until Robeson sang an ‘indescribably moving’ Ballad for Americans, without orchestra or chorus.”
Ballad for Americans ends like no other song I’ve ever heard. After the lengthy build-up, we wonder, will we at last discover the identity of this mysterious singer?
Deep as our valleys,
High as our mountains,
Strong as the people who made it.
For I have always believed it, and I believe it now,
And now you know who I am.
At that, the exasperated chorus shouts out in unison: Who are you!
And then Robeson, his voice brimming with power and emotion, answers with one word, repeated twice:
Paul Robeson lived his life in one America. Barack Obama walked on stage last night — in that very same park — in another, a country that Robeson helped sing into existence.
“The road ahead will be long,” Obama said. “Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you: We as a people will get there.”
Our greatest songs are still unsung, Robeson had assured a frightened, uncertain America.
It’s as if Obama could still hear his voice — an echo, lingering tenaciously on the cool night air.