Paul Robeson and the International Brigades

Post date: 14/04/2021

IBMT Ireland Secretary Manus O’Riordan has written about the pioneering black singer, actor and lifelong radical Paul Robeson for Tribune magazine online here. Reproduced below are passages detailing Robeson’s support for the Spanish Republic and solidarity with the International Brigades.

Paul Robeson in Republican Madrid, 1938. (Photo: Tribune)

Paul Robeson was born on 9 April, 1898. 13 years ago, while visiting the city of San Francisco, I learned that throughout the month of April 2008, there was a Paul Robeson exhibition running in the nearby city of Oakland to mark the 110th anniversary of his birth. The persistent campaigning by the Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee had finally borne fruit.

That 1 April I entered through the doors of Oakland City Hall not quite knowing what to expect. At the top of the splendid rotunda staircase, and alongside the Stars and Stripes, a large portrait of Robeson gazed down on all who entered. Almost six decades after being deprived of his US passport in 1950, there was at least one US city finally prepared to honour this world-renowned singer and pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement.

The reason I had the good fortune to see that exhibition was that two days previously, as Ireland Secretary of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, I was present for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Monument unveiling ceremony, where I witnessed surviving Brigade veterans of the Spanish anti-fascist war being honoured by the city of San Francisco. As far as I was concerned, the Oakland and San Francisco experiences were two of a kind, since Robeson was an internationalist, whose most outstanding campaign of solidarity had been on behalf of the besieged Spanish Republic.

At a London rally in June 1937 Robeson would proclaim: ‘The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice… I stand with you in unalterable support of the government of Spain, duly and regularly chosen by its lawful sons and daughters.’ In the course of that campaign he would add a new song to his repertoire, the bitterly anti-Franco ‘The Four Insurgent Generals’, where he expressed his wish that the tears of sorrow of Madrid, bombed by the fascists, should be avenged. This solidarity campaign would also see Robeson radically alter the lyrics of that song so closely associated with him, ‘Ol’ Man River’. 

When performed at a London rally for Republican Spain in December 1937, the Albert Hall erupted in wild enthusiasm. Robeson’s altered lyrics resonated not only with the struggle for racial equality but also with class struggle. As he would write in ‘Here I Stand’ (1958):

‘I went to Spain in 1938, and that was a major turning point in my life. There I saw that it was the working men and women of Spain who were heroically giving ‘their last full measure of devotion’ to the cause of democracy in that bloody conflict, and that it was the upper class—the landed gentry, the bankers and industrialists—who had unleashed the fascist beast against their own people. From the ranks of the workers of other lands volunteers had come to help in the epic defence of Madrid, and in Spain I sang with my whole heart and soul for these gallant fighters of the International Brigade.’

More than 30 years ago, three of my International Brigade veteran friends told of their vivid memory, half a century later, of the morale-boosting concert that Robeson had given to Brigadistas in Spain in January 1938, before they were sent to the front. These were Dubliners Bob Doyle and Maurice Levitas, and Dave Goodman from Middlesbrough, who wrote to me of their short period at training camp:

‘My company commander was an Irishman, Paddy O’Sullivan. We didn’t even have rifles to train with, and we weren’t there long anyway. Teruel had been re-taken by the fascists and we were needed at the front to try and stop the rot. Before leaving we had a concert with Paul Robeson. Although many details of my experiences in Spain have faded from my memory, the fact that my memory of Paul Robeson singing to us on the eve of our departure for the front is evergreen, and is a measure of the impact of his singing. The effect was electric and inspirational.’


Posted on 14 April 2021.

IBMT logo

Support our work

You can support the IBMT by joining us or affiliating your union branch – see details and membership forms here:
menuchevron-up linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram