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Posts Tagged ‘Paul Robeson’

800px-Paul_Robeson_1942_crop

Photo: Gordon Parks
Paul Robeson — American actor, athlete, bass-baritone concert singer, writer, and civil rights activist — is the voice behind a forgotten international brotherhood song called “The Four Rivers.”

For a big chunk of last summer, I was reading War and Peace and trying to understand where various battles were fought by studying a couple maps my husband dug up. He is a good source not only of maps but of random historical trivia, including a tidbit about one of the rivers Tolstoy mentions, the Don.

It seems that during World War II, the Popular Front put out a song about four rivers representing the biggest countries fighting fascism — Great Britain (the Thames), China (the Yangtze), the United States (the Mississippi), and the Soviet Union (the Don).

Singers, if you ever do a set on international peace, you might want to include “the Thames, the Yangtze, the Mississippi, and the Don” theme.

I was disappointed that the internet has so little information about “The Four Rivers,” even in the biographies of its most famous singer, Paul Robeson. So in the end I decided to post a recording of the music and part of the Robeson Wikipedia entry.

You may know Robeson for “Old Man River” and standing up to McCarthy’s House UnAmerican Activities Committee. This Wikipedia excerpt shows that his exceptional mind was obvious from a young age.

“In late 1915, Robeson became the third African-American student ever enrolled at Rutgers, and the only one at the time. He tried out for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team, and his resolve to make the squad was tested as his teammates engaged in excessive play, during which his nose was broken and his shoulder dislocated. The coach, Foster Sanford, decided he had overcome the provocation and announced that he had made the team.

“Robeson joined the debating team and sang off-campus for spending money, and on-campus with the Glee Club informally, as membership required attending all-white mixers. …

“He was recognized in The Crisis [the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)] for his athletic, academic, and singing talents. At this time, his father fell grievously ill. Robeson took the sole responsibility in caring for him, shuttling between Rutgers and Somerville, [NJ]….

“At Rutgers, Robeson expounded on the incongruity of African Americans fighting to protect America in World War I but, contemporaneously, being without the same opportunities in the United States as whites.

“He finished university with four annual oratorical triumphs and varsity letters in multiple sports. … Walter Camp [“Father of American Football”] considered him the greatest end ever. Academically, he was accepted into Phi Beta Kappa and Cap and Skull. His classmates recognized him by electing him class valedictorian. … In his valedictory speech, he exhorted his classmates to work for equality for all Americans.”

More at Wikipedia, here, where you also can investigate all the footnotes I removed for simplicity’s sake.

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