March 18, 2022 People’s World
Ballad of an American: The Autobiography of Earl Robinson, co-written with People’s World staff writer Eric A. Gordon has been out of print for almost twenty years. International Publishers has just reissued it in a new paperback edition now that Gordon, the surviving co-author, has secured the legal rights from the original publisher. People’s World sat down with Eric for a chat.
C.J. Atkins: You and I have had a series of author chats over the last year or so about your first translations into English of fiction by Manuel Tiago, pen name for Álvaro Cunhal. But today we’re talking about something entirely different.
Eric A. Gordon: Very different indeed! And such a different time we’re living in than when the book first appeared in 1998. Some of our newer readers may need to be reminded who Earl Robinson was: the composer of the songs “Joe Hill,” “The House I Live In,” “Black and White,” and the short cantata Ballad for Americans made famous by Paul Robeson. And much more. Earl lived from 1910 to 1991, so we’re already more than 30 years out from his death and approaching 25 years since the first edition of his autobiography. The people, the movements, and communities who knew Earl personally are waning in numbers. Even his two sons, jazz musician Perry (1938-2018) and union organizer Jim (1946-2019) are both gone. It won’t be much longer now before Earl becomes a purely historical memory. A few months ago the editor of Opera News magazine, writing about Paul Robeson, cited “Joe Hill” as one of his Top Ten recordings, listing its authorship as “traditional” and not even deigning to publish a correction.
Atkins: Yet that’s very telling. It suggests that “Joe Hill” has become such a part of the fabric of American folklore that it’s risen beyond anyone’s individual claim to ownership.
Gordon: I agree. A composer primarily wants their songs to be remembered and sung. And there are quite a few more of Earl’s songs that I hope and believe one day will achieve that kind of immortality.
Atkins: How did you wind up as Robinson’s co-writer?
Gordon: I had initially interviewed him in connection with my Marc Blitzstein biography. They were friends—and comrades—only five years apart in age, who lived through the same times and movements. I also asked him, as someone active in those cultural-political circles, to read the pre-publication manuscript of my book in case he could spot any mistakes of fact or interpretation, and though he came back with only a few, well-considered comments, it was his proposal to me that captured my attention. “I’ve been struggling to complete my autobiography,” he confessed, mentioning a previous collaborator or two or three, “so would you help me?” Could I say no to the man who wrote “Joe Hill?” Even before the Blitzstein book appeared in 1989, Earl and I were already at work together. The last event in our collaboration came in the spring of 1991 when he finally obtained his FBI file and reviewed it in time to be included in the book.
Atkins: What happened with the first edition of the autobiography?
Gordon: Critically, it did well, but there weren’t many reviews. The publication Notes called it “a welcome addition to the growing collection of life stories of contemporary American composers” and gave me “high praise for guiding this book to completion.” The radical historian Paul Buhle gave it a glowing notice—and later published a graphic biography of Paul Robeson, also calling it Ballad of an American! That’s how seminal that composition was to the lives of these two musicians who, by the way, because of the similarity of their last names, were sometimes confused in the public mind.
I especially appreciated the review by multi-talented David Manship Hollister, who wrote, “Gordon has created what must be a new genre in the field of biography, one which gives free rein to the actual voice of the subject, thereby preserving beautifully its exact tone (especially delightful for all who knew Robinson personally) while enhancing it with all the factual details that the subject may not remember with precision. In his skillful hands, the two voices become one, in a seamless and highly readable whole.”
Atkins: So what happened?
Gordon: The first publication turned out to be something of a disappointment. In the first place, Earl and I had always expected he would be around for promotional appearances on major media, book signings, book-release concerts, and celebratory retrospectives of his work. But he was killed in a tragic car crash at a still energetic 81—and I’m not so far from that age myself now! So the wind in our sails had been sucked out. Seven years later, the book wound up in a severe, academic-looking hardcover edition with no jacket, no photograph on the cover, and priced at almost $50! Clearly, the aim was for library sales, with no eye appeal to individual readers. So the book never reached the audience we had always hoped for. Another of my disappointments is that his music publisher has done practically nothing for Earl, not even for his centennial in 2010.
Atkins: So, is there still an audience to be captured for a new edition?
Gordon: That’s the $64 question! Though I believe that coming out from International Publishers makes a statement readers, including PW readers, can’t fail to notice. What makes republication of the autobiography so critical now is that we have perhaps entered into a new phase of the “Popular Front” thinking that brought a lot of diverse interest groups together in the 1930s and 1940s. We are so much more aware now of the systemic reasons and ways our nation has failed to serve so many of its people. And we sense the dire need for ever greater levels of unity around a common program for progress and social justice.
Events in Ukraine are occupying the world’s attention right now. A lyric by E.Y. (Yip) Harburg that Earl set to music in “The Same Boat, Brother,” one of his most memorable songs, speaks about how we are all interconnected around the world:
“When a boiler blew somewhere in Spain/ The keel was smashed in the far Ukraine/ And the steam poured out from Oregon to Maine./ Oh, it took some time for the crew to learn/ What’s bad for the bow ain’t good for the stern./ If a hatch takes fire in China Bay/ Pearl Harbor’s deck’s gonna blaze away./ ’Cause it’s the same boat, brother/ Yes, it’s the same boat, brother/ And if you shake one end you’re gonna rock the other/ We’re in the same boat, brother…/ And we must live with each other/ In the same boat, the very same boat, brother.”
So much of his work supports what could be called the “Black Lives Matter” movement of his day. At the same time, I feel some of Earl’s truly significant gems need to be discovered or rediscovered. Like the Banjo Concerto, for example, or The Lonesome Train, or the still to be premiered work for men’s chorus, A Natural Human, based on texts by gay male poets—which, incidentally I had a hand in, calling Earl’s attention to a competition for new works sponsored by the gay and lesbian choral association. I recently commissioned a fresh mixed chorus arrangement of Earl’s great Depression-Era song “He Built the Road” which has yet to be performed. The book has a complete list of works.
Atkins: Earl Robinson started recording his songs way back in the days of 78 RPMs. Then came LPs and cassettes. Did he ever make it onto CDs? —and they’re just about on the way out now too. How are people supposed to hear his music today?
Gordon: His 1986 last album Alive and Well came out on CD, I believe, as well as LP. We live in a vastly different terrain now because of the hegemony of the Internet. With a few keystrokes on any computer in the world, a fair number of Earl’s songs can be referenced and heard. I expect a new generation of readers, unlike those in 1998, will find themselves frequently turning to this ready resource to see if a certain song or piece of music that piques their curiosity might be available there.
Atkins: Do you think his brand of populist patriotism still holds up?
Gordon: Yes, I fervently do believe so, if the country is going to hold up at all. I simply have to. Because he and his lyricists—can’t forget them!—didn’t just celebrate America for its mythic exceptionalist superiority. They celebrated the best of American aspirations in the context of their time while pointing to areas sorely in need of correction. “Black and White” addressed school integration. “Free and Equal Blues” challenged the segregation of blood during World War II. “Joe Hill” is about an immigrant who dedicated (and lost) his life for the multiracial, multinational American labor movement. And now that sports figures, students and others are “taking a knee” for the militaristic, pro-slavery national anthem, I have even seen calls for Earl Robinson and Lewis Allan’s “The House I Live In” to be adopted as our new one. I wholly endorse that suggestion!
Furthermore, I think that if a visionary director were to attach themselves to Earl’s story, it could make for a terrific film treatment of music and culture as an integral component of the struggle for democracy, the Blacklist, the years of tightened belts, the ’60s.… This life, and the book, are rich with potential.
Atkins: Well, thanks, Eric. This has been an illuminating conversation. I have to admit, I just heard some of these songs for the first time, and I hope our readers will check out these links. That “Free and Equal Blues” with Josh White is incredible! I can see why you put so much time into this book.
Gordon: Could I add one last thought? You know, I’ve been mulling over your comment about how different this conversation is from my work translating Álvaro Cunhal. And I think in a lot of ways they’re actually closely related. Cunhal, born in 1913, only three years younger than Robinson, also devoted his life to fighting fascism in his country, Portugal, during the same period that Earl was active. So, as different as these two projects are from one another, what they have in common is these guys were fighting for democracy, each in his own country, but as part of a larger vision for humanity—in short, for a fair, inclusive socialism. And I am in that same ongoing fight today.
Ballad of an American: The Autobiography of Earl Robinson
by Earl Robinson, with Eric A. Gordon
New York: International Publishers, 2022
475 pp., $25.99
Order your copy here.