Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Robeson Collectables
The packed 1996 Darwin funeral service  for journalist James Frederick Bowditch,  former  fearless  editor of  the  Centralian  Advocate and the Northern Territory News, began  and  ended with the  recorded    songs of  the famous  American Negro human  rights  campaigner ,  Paul Robeson, regarded by the Bowditch family as   containing  themes that symbolised  Jim's  lifelong struggle for  the  underdog ,  including  Aborigines . 
 Robeson  passed through Darwin in 1960 on  his way to Sydney, spent several hours in the city at the airport and it is not known if  Bowditch  met him . However  Robeson spoke to union activists  Mr and Mrs  Des  Robinson .
The NT News  announced a committee  had been  formed  to try and get Robeson to perform in Darwin on his way back to America. In Sydney,  Robeson  was met at the airport by Faith Bandler , a longtime  campaigner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, who died this month at the age of  96 . She showed him a  film of life on a mission  station and Robeson was  shocked and angered . He promised to come back to Australia and  help in the struggle  for racial equality, but  failed to do so, dieing in 1976. 
 While in Sydney he  sang to  workers on  the Opera House building site and is shown above, a towering figure,  back  to camera  .  Comments he made about the  plight of  Australian  Aborigines  were  run  in  the  NT News.

In  the  past week  this blog  secured a number  of  Paul Robeson  items ranging from the  1937  sheet music  for   the  film King Solomon's Mines  in which he starred ; an  LP containing  his  famous  rendition  of  Ol'  Man River and other greats such  as  Ma Curly Headed Baby, Shenandoah, My Old Kentucky Home ; two collections  of spirituals on  45s.  

The  information on the back of the records , sold in Australia , indicate  differing   attitudes  to  Robeson .  After  stating  that Robeson had received   a good education , entered university,  studied  law ,  one  states he  became keenly aware of the  "colour situation" in the United States..."He became a fervent champion of Negro rights , but misguidedly went  too  far in his political associations." (This , in part , may be a reference to his  visit to  Russia  seeking  a  united  humanity, resulted in  him  being  branded a Communist . Speaking out about racism and fascism, he was targeted by the FBI  and his passport to travel was  revoked  by  the US  government in 1950 ; his  records were also taken from shop shelves there .)

Continuing, it said Robeson's politics" do not concern us here" -the fact remains he had  become one of the most remarkable  basses  of  his time  .  After giving up law in his early twenties , he became an actor and  Eugene  O'Neill , the  foremost American playwright, gave him  the leading  role in  All God's Chillun  Got Wings (1924).

A prominent singer of Negro spirituals, he appeared in Porgy and Bess  and Show Boat.  He wowed  audiences  in London and  New York as Othello and became a  film star , King Solomon's Mines one  of a  number .

On the sleeve of another record, Alexis Korner , British musician and broadcaster,  describes  Robeson  as  one of our  greatest  and most courageous humanists.  "He has , without  respite , fought for the rights of his  people ; often at considerable cost. Most people  will feel  that he  has been right to do so, to fight for the  proper acceptance  of  the Negro in society. But Robeson does not restrict  his fight  to the acceptance of his own race alone, he fights  for the complete integration of all races in one world-wide community." 
During WWll  , author  Jean  Devanny  spent   time in Cairns and associated with American  troops, including Negroes. According to a document in the Devanny papers  held  in the Special Collections  section of the Eddie  Koiki Mabo Library , James Cook University , Townsville  , when  Mrs  Eleanor Roosevelt , wife of the American president ,  visited   Cairns ,  Devanny  openly  heard  white Americans  "express positive  hatred "  for Mrs  Roosevelt   for  her insistence   that  Negroes  were   fellow  humans ;  now known as Afro-Americans . 
Australia has just marked the  50th anniversary of the Sydney University Student Action for  Aborigines  freedom  drive   against  racism  in a bus  through NSW,  led  by Charles Perkins  and  Gary Williams, inspired by the American freedom  rides  against  segregation  in  the early  1960s .


Her  coffin was carried from  the  church  to Paul Robeson singing Going Home .