Freedom song

Music - Howard Fast remembers a legendary performer who lent voice to the oppressed

How do I begin to remember Paul Robeson? This huge man, so strong and beautiful and tall, yet so gentle and so free of hubris, was unlike anyone else I have ever known.

He was one of the first black students at Rutgers University, an all-American football hero, class president and Phi Beta Kappa (member of the scholastic honours society). He sailed through his law school degree, but gave up legal practice to dedicate himself and his voice to man's struggle for justice, equality and decency. He gave up wealth, fame and fortune.

And the voice! There was, and is, no other voice like it, a great pipe organ in the heart of a man. I had the good fortune to know Robeson well. The first time he came to my home, my six-year-old daughter looked at this giant warily, then approached him very tentatively. He was sitting, and he smiled and motioned to her. Her hesitation vanished. He picked her up, holding her in both hands, and sang "Water Boy", his voice soft, melodious and encompassing. She fell in love with him - she still loves him, and today, half a century later, tears come to her eyes when I mention him.

I write this for an English readership. Do you know how he felt about England? "Go there," he told me. "It's a holy place. Go there and it will nourish your soul."

He was right. To him, England was the holy place, the civilised place; yet I must add that all the world was a holy place to Robeson. Did he love England more than his native land? I think he did. Wherever men and women struggled for freedom, Robeson was there - with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, with the South Africans fighting apartheid, with the Afro-Americans, still treated like slaves in those days before the great civil rights struggles.

And this man, this brilliant, eloquent and generous person, was treated in America, his homeland, more basely than the meanest criminal. He was prohibited from singing (or speaking) at any university: the institutions were threatened with the loss of all government funding - as well as private funding. Every concert hall was closed to Robeson. The cowed and servile press attacked him relentlessly. When we arranged for him to sing at a huge outdoor concert in Peekskill NY, in 1949, we discovered four men on a hill with high-powered rifles, waiting to assassinate him; yet he sang behind a wall of Lincoln Brigade veterans. There have been all too many low moments in the history of the United States: this was one of the lowest.

J Edgar Hoover, that half-crazed cross-dresser, focused on Robeson as public enemy number one, assigning hundreds of FBI agents to follow him and hound him. Robeson was accused of being a communist at a time when communists were thrown in jail by the dozen for no reason other than being communists. Is it any wonder that he looked upon England as a hallowed land of freedom?

I remember a dinner at my home, the evening before he was called to testify before a US Senate Committee on subversive activities. That evening, he asked: "What am I to answer when they ask me whether I am a member of the Communist Party?"

I knew he was not a member. "Tell them the truth. Tell them you are not and never have been a member."

"And if I do," he said, "how will I explain my position to the communists who fought Franco in Spain, to the communists in the Paris underground, to the black brothers who always believed that I was a communist and honoured me for it?"

It is difficult for me to write about Paul Robeson without emotion, or even with objectivity. There was nothing objective in our relationship. Among other things, he was a fine actor. His Othello was the best I had ever seen. I watched it twice, with increasing awe.

A great concert had been organised in Canada. Thousands of tickets were sold for this concert to honour Robeson and to hear him speak and sing. But J Edgar Hoover, the wretched Little Hitler of the United States, ordered that Robeson was not to leave the country and stationed his agents at every airport and railroad station. In a New York recording studio, Robeson spoke of what had happened in our country, and then he sang a full repertoire of his songs.

We recorded it on tape, and I set off to take the tape to Toronto. At the crossing into Canada, the train stopped and, looking out of my compartment window, I saw four FBI agents boarding the train. At least, such was my guess, and it proved right. Desperate as to what I should do, I dropped the tape recording into the sleeve of my overcoat. The FBI agents came into my compartment, searched it, went through my luggage, searched me, went through the pockets of my coat - but did not find the tape; and it was heard that night in Canada.

I offer this rather childish episode only to spell out the importance that the FBI and the US government attached to silencing Paul Robeson. They feared his voice, his presence - indeed, the very sight of this splendid man.

Yet he went on speaking and singing in black churches all over America. They had taken away his passport, but eventually he won the struggle for a new one; and then he returned to his beloved England.

It is an old American habit to destroy our best and brightest, and then, when they are safely dead, to honour them. So it was with Robeson. In 1998, we celebrated the l00th anniversary of his birth. All over the country, meetings were held, concerts at which he sang (in the recorded version). We met again at Peekskill, where they had tried to kill him. The newspapers wrote editorials about him and there were glowing memoirs. So it goes.

I will never see his like again, yet he lives on and his voice lives on. One of his favourite songs was "Joe Hill". I think of Paul when I hear the refrain:

The copper bosses got you, Joe,
They killed you, Joe, sez I,
Sez Joe, what they forgot to kill
Went on to organise.

The Undiscovered Paul Robeson by Paul Robeson was published by John Wiley in March (£21.50)

"Let Paul Robeson Sing!", an exhibition celebrating the life of Paul Robeson and his relationship with Wales, is at the National Museum & Gallery, Cardiff (029 2039 7951), until 3 June

Howard Fast is the author of more than 50 books, including Spartacus, first published in 1951