Paul Robeson in Czechoslovakia: all culture comes from the people

Paul Robeson, photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, public domain

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States sent ripples around the world, not least in the Soviet Union and its satellites. In Czechoslovakia, events were followed closely, as the struggle for the rights of African Americans became a weapon in the ideological battles between East and West. Czech Radio’s archives house several recordings of Civil Rights activists, who visited Czechoslovakia between 1948 and 1989 or were interviewed at home in the United States. One was the singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson, who came to this country several times. Working with journalism students from the Anglo-American University in Prague, David Vaughan looks back to Robeson’s celebrated but controversial visit to Prague at the end of the 1950s.

Paul Robeson in Prague in 1949,  photo: YouTube
Paul Robeson had already visited the city ten years earlier. In 1949, a year after the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia, he sang at the Prague Spring classical music festival. Robeson had become famous around the world thanks his powerful bass voice, immortalised in his rendering of Ol’ Man River, from the musical Show Boat; he was also one of the great Shakespearean actors of his generation, and an articulate and influential political activist. Here is his wife Eslanda, interviewed by Czechoslovak Radio in London in 1964, remembering that visit to Prague fifteen years earlier.

“One of the things Paul has always been very grateful for was the fact that your government asked our government for Paul to come to sing at the Czechoslovak musical festival. This was a very marvellous thing, because it was an official governmental request at a time when our government was keeping Paul from travelling anywhere for any reason.”

Journalism student, Benjamin Goings, points out that Robeson was openly sympathetic to communism and the Soviet Union.

“Robeson was a communist, but also a peace activist, insisting that Americans did not want war with the Soviet Union and should support friendship with the socialist nations. These remarks led to the revocation of Robeson’s passport and destroyed his credibility in the United States. Some in the press even called for his execution. In the 1950s he was blacklisted from Hollywood because of his radical political beliefs, and his connections with and praise for the Soviet Union, preventing him from performing at concert halls and on the radio. He was also forced to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he vehemently criticised the committee for denying Americans their constitutional rights, regardless of political ideology.”

When he refused to condemn Soviet communism, Robeson’s passport was confiscated, only to be restored in 1958 following the landmark Kent vs. Dulles case. A year later he was back in Czechoslovakia, again on the invitation of the Czechoslovak government, this time for the International Congress of Socialist Culture held at Prague’s Industrial Exhibition Ground in June 1959. Although he stayed for less than two days, he was a star guest, along with the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and was given a rapturous welcome by the two thousand delegates at Prague’s Trade Fair Palace.

He began his address with the words “Jak se mate” – How are you? – in Czech.

David Vaughan,  Lam Nguyen and Benjamin Goings,  photo: Archives of David Vaughan
“It is a great privilege and pleasure to be again with you here in Prague, to greet my dear friends, th5e people of Czechoslovakia, and to greet you, many friends from many lands. My deepest thanks for your concern over many years, for your help and for your encouragement. And this is true not only of myself, but of many of us in America, who have consistently struggled for peace and friendship with you and with all the peoples of the lands of socialism.”

The speech went on to heap praise on the Soviet Union.

“On recent visits to the Soviet Union, it was wonderful to see the development, the new cultural growth of many peoples in the eastern sections, like Uzbekistan, who have leapt across the centuries into the present and into the future. How inspiring to see the wealth of talent among the youth and in the factories. How wonderful to hear today of the rich potential of the people of your great land, of the deep interest of the workers, in all phases of their complex life, of their demands for a rounded reflexion of this life in our creative, cultural activities.”

But the speech was not just about the achievements of the Soviet Union. The theme of the international congress was culture, and Robeson put forward his ideas of the role of culture in socialism.

“Throughout the ages, the great roots of culture have come from the people, the great genius has come from them. I don’t need to apologise for my beard – I’m playing Othello over in Stratford in England, and thinking of the great Shakespeare. There, where he walked and lived, I hear the speech of the people of Warwickshire today. The great Shakespeare spoke their language. And the language that he used and uses in his great tragedies and comedies is the result of centuries of creative activity. The very language itself has come from and was created by the people, wherever they may be. Any language comes from them.”

Robeson also flattered his hosts, with references to Czech culture, above all, the music of Leoš Janáček:

“… a great musician, who understood so much of the richness of his people’s language that the very melody of his music is the melody of the speech of the peoples of Czechoslovakia.”

The choice of Janáček as an example was apt, as the composer had been fascinated by the rhythms of ordinary speech, collecting different dialects from his native Moravia and trying to echo them in his music. Ironically, for much the same reason, Janáček had been one of the few Czech composers approved of by the Nazis during the wartime occupation – his work was seen as springing from the people – the “Volk”.

Robeson extended his praise to another Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák.

Paul Robeson,  in 1942,  leading California shipyward workers in singing The Star Spangled Banner  | Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration,  public domain
“And your great Dvořák came to our land and heard the beautiful songs of my folk. And he pointed out to us in America that here was the basis of a great musical art, springing from a people who had been torn from Africa and brought in slavery to the lands of America.”

Here he was referring to the celebrated visit by Dvořák to the United States in the 1890s, when the composer took inspiration from the music of African Americans, seeing parallels with the struggles of the Czechs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

“Your great composer came there and pointed out that this was the base and could be the base of great music, and proved it by a great symphony and by string quartets. His influence still has great importance in America today.”

With his charisma and his resounding bass voice, Robeson must have made a huge impression on his audience, including the big delegation from the Soviet Union. Journalism student, Lam Nguyen:

“In his speech, most of the time he speaks English, but then he also speaks Russian, because he expects the others probably to understand him and he also wanted to show his personal attachment to the socialist cause. And it was interesting that he also sang – Russian songs. It definitely brightened up the speech, to make it less boring during that conference! His voice captures the whole hall.”

Robeson ends on a rousing tone.

Josef Škvorecký | Photo: public domain
“We want you to know that, in our part of the world, there are millions who want peace with the lands of socialism. And we will find peace. As one of the songs goes: Peace will conquer war – ‘Mir pobedit voynu’. Thank you – Děkuju!”

The speech came as the culmination of two days of speeches in praise of Soviet-style socialism, delivered in the sweltering heat of the great hall of Prague’s Industrial Palace. It was something of a propaganda coup for Czechoslovakia’s communist rulers.

But was Paul Robeson just being misused by the ideologues of the Cold War? His socialism stemmed from the struggle of African Americans for emancipation and from his own very real experiences of discrimination, which he felt could only be ended by political means. This is a very different context from 1950s Czechoslovakia. Some of his eulogies of Stalin make for uncomfortable reading and his uncritical defence of real socialism at the Prague congress came at a time when political dissent could still mean imprisonment or worse. In the preface to his 1979 novella The Bass Saxophone, the novelist and great Czech jazz aficionado Josef Skvorecky, writing from exile in Canada, remembered Paul Robeson’s visits to Czechoslovakia with bitterness.

… they pushed Paul Robeson at us. And how we hated that black apostle who sang of his own free will at open-air concerts in Prague at a time when they were raising the socialist leader, Milada Horáková, to the gallows, the only woman ever to be executed for political reasons in Czechoslovakia by Czechs, and at a time when the great Czech poets, some 10 years later to be rehabilitated without exception, were pining away in jails. Well, maybe it was wrong to hold it against Paul Robeson. No doubt he was acting in good faith, convinced that he was fighting for a good cause. But they kept holding him up to us as an exemplary “progressive jazz man,” and we hated him. May God rest his - one hopes - innocent soul.

Perhaps Skvorecky is being unfair. In 1959 there were still plenty of people, even in Czechoslovakia, who believed that Soviet-style communism could be made to work. And this was still nearly a decade before the occupation of 1968, which brought an end to any remaining illusions about the Soviet Union’s intentions for Czechoslovakia. With over half a century’s hindsight, we should be cautious before passing judgment. History is rarely as clear-cut as it might seem at first sight, and that includes the Cold War. What remains undisputed is Paul Robeson’s huge contribution to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, together with his inimitable bass voice.

[Many thanks to my students Lam Nguyen and Benjamin Goings from the Anglo-American University in Prague for their contributions to this programme.]