“Robeson was like an electro-magnet going through a pile of iron filings. It wasn’t just admiring fans, it was deep admiration… he radiated personality, a man of great commitment and strength… totally immune to the persecution he suffered.”
Prompted by Benn’s elderly aunt, Robeson sang Old Man River. “The whole tea room went silent, it was the most extraordinary experience.”
And to those in India, Paul Robeson’s song Ol’ Man River, came to us much before one came to learn about Paul Robeson himself, for me, the introduction was via Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist. The song itself had come to us in Bhupen Hazarika’s invocation to the river Ganga (in Hindi) and to the mighty Brahmaputra (in Asomiya).
An mp3 version of the song sung by Robeson, though it is a very short clip.
Hazarika had met Paul Robeson and was so influenced that he rendered the famous song into Asomiya and Hindi.
Few know that, during his time at Columbia University, Hazarika was a friend of Paul Robeson, the great black American singer, actor and civil rights activist. Robeson’s passionate crusade for social justice and black pride has permeated Bhupenda’s own worldview. Inspired greatly by Robeson’s powerful rendition of the song “Ole Man River”, Hazarika created his own moving ode to the Brahmaputra.
(Bard of the Brahmaputra by Sanjoy Hazarika)
For this song alone, he is forgiven the sin of joining the BJP in his later years.
An excerpt from the song (full text), with its powerful message in the language as spoken by the Afro Americans:
Dat ol’ man river,
He mus’know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jes’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along.
Long ol’ river forever keeps rollin’ on…
He don’ plant tater,
He don’ plant cotton,
An’ dem dat plants ‘em
Is soon forgotten,
but ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.
Long ol’ river keeps hearing dat song.
You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin an’ racked wid pain.
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail.
Ah, gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’,
But ol’ man river,
He jes’keeps rollin’ along!
Link to BBC report via the Histomat.