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Robinson, Earl

Robinson, Earl

(b. 2 July 1910 in Seattle, Washington; d. 20 July 1991 in Seattle, Washington), political activist, musician, conductor, teacher, and composer, best known for his compositions “Joe Hill” (1936) and “Ballad for Americans” (1940).

Robinson was the oldest of three children born to Morris John Robinson, a manager for a local Sears store, and Hazel Beth Hawley, a homemaker. He grew up in Seattle, expecting and expected to follow in his father’s footsteps in business. His father got him a summer job at Sears, but his real love was music. After graduating from West Seattle High School, he enrolled at the University of Washington in 1928, planning to study business. His grades were so low in his first semester that he was required to complete an extension course before being readmitted as a full-time student. He enrolled in a course on harmony, excelled, and switched his major to music when he returned the following year. He graduated in 1933 with a B.A. in music.

Following graduation he worked as a musician on a ship sailing the Pacific. The trip gave him experience as a working musician and began his political education. On a visit to the American sector in Shanghai he saw a sign saying “No Chinamen or dogs allowed.” It made such an impression on him that fifteen years later he quoted it to explain to people how China could become communist.

In 1934 he went to New York City to find work and continue his study of music. There he was introduced to labor politics and joined the Communist Party after a policeman clubbed him during a demonstration. He also joined a communist theater group but never found his way to the prestigious Juilliard or Eastman schools, choosing instead to take “theater out to the struggling people.”

In 1935 he won a competition in musical composition sponsored by the American composer Aaron Copland. The prize of a year-long study with the master began a long relationship with Copland. In the mid-1930s, Robinson worked at Camp Unity in New York, sponsored by the Communist Party. It was there in the summer of 1936 that he wrote music for Alfred Hayes’s lyrics “Joe Hill,” arguably his most famous composition. During these years he also composed scores for films.

In 1937 he married Helen Wortis. Robinson admitted that he was far from an ideal husband. He reported telling his wife before they married that the Communist movement and his music would always come before their marriage. It was a testimony of her love, he said, that she married him anyway. They had two sons, one born in 1938 and another adopted in 1947.

Robinson received national recognition on 5 November 1940 when Paul Robeson performed his composition “Ballad for Americans” on a CBS radio broadcast. The song is a tribute to the American people composed for a 1939 musical revue, titled Sing for Your Supper, sponsored by the Federal Theater Project. Robeson’s performance was so popular that he repeated it on New Year’s Eve. These performances, along with his work in the communist theater group, brought Robinson to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which maintained surveillance on him for more than thirty-five years, beginning in 1939 or 1940. FBI files indicate that he was considered for “custodial detention” following the broadcasts. A short film version of “Ballad for Americans” was used at the 1940 political conventions of both the Republican and Communist parties.

In 1940 Robinson received a coveted Guggenheim fellowship, which he used to compose music for Carl Sandburg’s long poem The People, Yes. He was invited to the White House for the first time in December 1941. Expecting a large gathering, he found himself at a small dinner, seated next to President Franklin Roosevelt and across from Eleanor Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. He had never supported the president, but he later said, “They reminded me of my father and mother.” Mrs. Roosevelt subsequently invited him to perform at numerous events, and Robinson worked for Roosevelt’s 1944 reelection campaign. His composition “Lonesome Train,” commemorating Abraham Lincoln, was widely used on the radio to mark President Roosevelt’s death.

Robinson went to Hollywood in 1943. His first significant film score was for The Roosevelt Story in 1946. After the war he composed “Same Boat, Brother,” for the ceremony celebrating the founding of the United Nations. His career suffered during the 1950s when promoters were reluctant to hire left-wing performers. Robinson was denied a passport in 1952 and was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee on 11 April 1957. When asked by a committee member if he had ever written a song praising America, he responded by singing “The House I Live In,” originally performed by Frank Sinatra in the Oscar-winning movie of the same name.

With his career languishing, he began teaching high school in New York City in 1957. In the early 1960s his wife died following a long illness. He married Ruth Martin on 5 May 1965. They were divorced in 1973. During the 1960s and 1970s he continued to compose a wide variety of music, including “Ride the Wind” (1974), a cantata about Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and an opera, David of Sassoun (1978). He also taught music at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Later in his life Robinson lost interest in the political struggles that occupied his earlier days. He developed a fascination with New Age philosophies, becoming involved in Transactional Analysis and est in the early 1970s. Several years later he became interested in communicating with the dead, using these experiences with “channeling” to provide material for his compositions. His music became less political and more introspective. Robinson commented that these new interests did not detract from his earlier work; rather, he said, they simply allowed him to expand into other aspects of life. By the time of his death, however, he seems to have abandoned his former political stance, with its emphasis on oppression and struggle, in favor of a belief that each of us chooses what happens to us.

Robinson had long maintained that he would live to the age of 140 and then decide whether he wanted to stay here or “move to a new address.” However, he died in an automobile accident in Seattle. His remains were cremated.

Comprising more than five hundred compositions in a career spanning half a century, Robinson’s music documents the working-class struggles and aspirations of his generation.

The primary collection of Robinson’s papers, including his musical manuscripts and videos, is held by the University of Washington Archives. Ballad of an American: The Autobiography of Earl Robinson with Eric A. Gordon (1998), presents one of the most thorough examinations of his life and work. While not free of bias and lacking serious analysis of the importance of his music, it does provide a compelling portrait of the man and an introduction to his music. The most informative obituaries appeared in the Seattle Times (21 July 1991) and Seattle Post-Intelligencer (22 July 1991). Betty Jean Bullert’s documentary Earl Robinson: Ballad of an American: A Documentary (1994) is another thorough examination of Robinson.

Ken Luebbering

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