Today Grace Petrie releases her first ever live DVD and CD. Live and In Conversation was shot at St Pancras Old Church – a beautiful music venue and working church in Camden, originally made famous by a beatles photoshoot. The gig itself is interspersed by Grace talking, in interview, about her songs and her life in and out of music.
Its a show of much variety. At moments the crowd raise their fists as they sing along to They Shall Not Pass. At other moments one imagines the crowd holding back tears as she sings songs like Iago and Baby Blue which, she explains, were inspired by a relationship in which she felt “incredibly insecure”. Grace told me that when she released her last album Love is My Rebellion, she was worried that people would hate the fact that it was far less political than the album before. Yet amongst the crowd at St Pancras there was every bit as much appreciation for those songs that dealt with love and life.
Certainly it showed that the frequently applied label of “protest singer” is nowhere near sufficient to describe what Grace does. It’s term that she “actively dislikes”.”I just think it’s a way to make it seem seperate from orher kinds of music” she says. “If you ever talkabout anything political in your songs your in this sereprate category, no other subjects get you placed in this seperate category based on what you write about. She also, she says, dislikes the cliche of the “friendship braid wearing, doc martin wearing hippie who plays at demos”.
Before she became a full time musican Grace was an LGBT youth worker. As she explains in the DVD she wrote love songs about women, not as a way of trying to change society but simply because that”s “what came naturally. Nonetheless she acknowledges that it’s “the most amazing thing” when people come up to her and say that her songs helped them to come out or to feel a bit less lonely. One thing she’s clear about is that she doesn’t feel that she has a “duty to write political songs”. “I write about things that move me, and politics is one of the things that moves me, and it always will be”.
From my own perspective as a folk promoter, I think that people often read to much into the subject matter with which a song most immediately deals. We tend to see 90% of the songs that get produced as being about love or sex. But in way this just a sort of literary convention – the framework within which we happen talk about our regrets and hopes, our feelings of emnity and kinship, and indeed every other aspect of our social and emotional lives.
At the St Pancras gig Grace slates herself for writing a song about a failed relationship, and being so grandiose as to entitle it “I Climbed a Mountain”. Yet when the music starts up, you realise that, for many who it hear it, it may be about so much more. “Good days come, bad days get better, and nothing lasts forever”.
British Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen is to make a biopic of Paul Robeson, whose commitment to the plight of the common man, regardless of race, creed or nationality, left behind a legacy that will never be surpassed.
The early years
One of my most treasured possessions is a book of the writings and speeches of Paul Robeson. It charts his remarkable life from the post WWI years, when he first came to prominence as a student at the prestigious Rutgers University, excelling in college football as the only black player on the team and first demonstrated his prodigious talent as an actor and singer. The son of an escaped slave, this alone signalled the remarkable drive and self belief he would exude throughout his life.
The book moves on to the 1920s, when after a brief flirtation with a law career Robeson entered the world of show business, finding international fame on Broadway by the end of that decade. The 1930s he mostly spent in London, where he embarked on a career in movies, playing a succession of African characters that in their depiction of servility and racial stereotyping he would later consider an insult to his people. It is here in England in the thirties where he experiences the political, racial, and social awakening that would define the rest of his life and legacy. In particular he forges an undying bond and affinity with the Welsh miners, identifying with their struggle and proud musical cultural tradition, one he associated with his own people in the United States.
Solidarity with the Soviet Union
By the 1940s Paul Robeson was a passionate anti-fascist and anti-colonialist, who having visited the Soviet Union returned an unapologetic supporter and sympathizer with the socialist state. “During the 1934-1938 period I visited the Soviet Union many times and decided to send my boy there to school. There I found the real solution of the minority and racial problem, a very simple solution – complete equality for all men of whatever race,” he wrote.
What’s remarkable here is that the period Robeson describes in the letter is referred to by anti-Soviet historians as the Great Terror, when it is commonly asserted that millions were being arrested and either executed or sent to the gulag by Stalin. Robeson was therefore accused of glossing over this hugely convulsive period in the Soviet Union’s history. Yet he felt compelled to announce during a 1935 visit to the country that he “was not prepared for the happiness I see on every face in Moscow…It is obvious that there is no terror here, that all the masses of every race are contented and support their government.”
The singer and by now political activist had visited Spain during the Civil War, where he toured the country singing to the anti-fascist Republican troops and volunteers to raise their morale. Like many within the artistic community in the United States and throughout Europe, Robeson considered fascism to be the common enemy of mankind. Indeed during the Second World War he extended himself in touring war plants and factories throughout the US giving concerts and speeches in support of the war effort.
He combined this with regular appearances onstage, winning rave notices for his portrayal of Shakespeare’s Othello in particular. Touring with the play, he refused to appear in Southern states in venues where segregation was in force. In a 1942 speech to a mixed audience of blacks and whites in New Orleans, he said, “Nothing the future brings can defeat a people who have come through three hundred years of slavery and humiliation and privation with heads high and eyes clear and straight.”
Running through him too was a fierce class consciousness, fuelling a consistent message of unity among workers across the racial divide. In 1945 he reminded delegates at the annual convention of the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union of “the necessity of complete unity of all groups in our country.”
After the Second World War he found himself under attack from the political and media establishment in the United States for his refusal to renege on his support and solidarity with the Soviet Union. If anything he raised his voice even louder when it came to articulating his refusal to bow to the huge pressure to conform to the new wave of anti-Soviet hysteria as the Cold War got underway. His appearance at the 1949 Paris Peace Conference resulted in a firestorm of criticism in the US press after giving a speech in which he was reported to have said, “It is unthinkable that American Negros would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against the Soviet Union which in one generation has lifted our people to full human dignity.”
Despite claiming that his words were distorted by the American press, he was hung out to dry, depicted as a traitor and a dangerous subversive. When a reporter asked him about a story claiming that during a recent visit to Moscow he said that he loved Russia more than any other country, he replied, “What I said was that I love the America of which I am a part. I don’t love the America of Wall Street. I love the America of the working class. I love the working class of England and France and other countries. And I very deeply love the people’s democracies in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union…They are fighting for my people and for the white working people of the world.”
Refuses to yield
It was now that Robeson was deserted and abandoned by former friends and allies in his home country as a campaign of demonisation succeeded in uniting right and left against him. He was a major target of the McCarthyite anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s. But even so he remained defiant, “The big lie is the fairy tale that the American people are somehow threatened by communism,” he wrote in 1954.
In fact rather than slow him down, the pressure he was under merely served to increase his determination to keep fighting for the causes he believed in. He continued to raise his voice and speak throughout the United States in solidarity with workers in a struggle, with poor blacks suffering the degradation and humiliation of racist segregation, in solidarity with the Vietnamese struggle against French colonialism, against apartheid in South Africa, and for peaceful co-existence with the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc.
Increasingly the State Department began taking steps to silence him. In order to prevent him travelling overseas, his passport was revoked. Thereafter scheduled television appearances and concerts were cancelled and over five years from 1950-55 repeated applications for a passport to enable him to travel out of the US to make a living were denied by the US Passport Office. When in 1955 he appealed to the Supreme Court to have his passport reinstated, the Judge presiding over the case implied that one may be issued to him if he agreed to sign a “non-Communist oath.” Robeson refused.
During this period his career as a singer and performer dried up, and with it his income, which plunged from $150,000 to $3,000 per year.
A new appreciation as the struggle continues
Finally, supported by an international campaign, Robeson was allowed to leave the US in 1958, embarking on an international itinerary which took him to London then on to Eastern Europe, where he was accorded a hero’s welcome. Appearing at a Miners Gala in Edinburgh, Scotland to celebrate May Day in 1960, he told his audience, “My people were hewers of wood and drawers of water all over the Western world. Today on the continent of my forefathers, we are saying it is time for us to live a new life, time to be free.”
Though the 1960s marked a steady decline in his health, by its end the anathematisation he had suffered over many years gave way to a new appreciation of his life and convictions. In 1971 his 1958 autobiography, Here I Stand, was reissued to critical and literary acclaim, and in 1973 a Salute to Paul Robeson concert was held at a sold out Carnegie Hall in New York to celebrate his 75th birthday. Upon his death in January 1976, 5000 people attended his funeral in Harlem.
What to make of such a rich life and how to begin to condense it into a film? Perhaps it is best to begin with its meaning, which in the case of Paul Robeson is surely that it is not what a man wins or gains that is the true mark of his success, but what he is willing to sacrifice for a cause greater than himself.
The recent book, “Against the Grain, the British far left from 1956”, edited by Evan Smith and Mathew Worley covers the period up until the modern day, but starting from the year when British political life was shaped by both the crisis of British imperial confidence in Suez, and the contemporaneous impact of the invasion of Hungary by the USSR and its allies, and the dramatic denunciation of Stalin by Khrushchev at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in February 1956.
The reason that the year 1956 was so dramatic in Britain is that the UK’s social, economic and political life was shaped by the context of the still considerable but declining legacy of colonialism and imperialism, and by the external challenge of socialist countries, and the internal challenge by their advocates within the British labour movement.
Britain has a distinct culture in its labour movement, founded on trade unionism and the political envelope of labourism. It is worth exploring this context: as the ideological and social parameters of trade unionism are delimited by seeking to represent the sectional interests of working people (or in some cases the professional salariat) within capitalism. It therefore seeks to improve the lot of the working classes, but not overthrow the profit system, or the institution of wage labour. The political expression of trade unionism has therefore been hostile to the greed, privilege and corruption of individual capitalists, and indeed sometimes hostile to the capitalist class collectively, but has not been systematically opposed to the capitalist system, notwithstanding the rule book commitments of some older unions. Click to continue reading →
Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper is to working people what Dr Harold Shipman is to medicine. Yet from the transparent and naked opportunism of this downmarket, criminally compromised tabloid in seeking to exploit the furore over Labour’s Emily Thornberry, you would think it’s the in-house newspaper of the British trade union movement rather than a champion of Thatcherism and a committed enemy of anything resembling the interests of working people.
Emily Tornberry’s only crime is that she identified the collapse of working class identity and culture in Britain into a Thatcherite caricature – a process involving its confusion with jingoism and white van man individualism. And before being accused of snobbery or of being another out of touch liberal commentator, I grew up on a housing estate in Thatcher’s Britain and left school at 15 with zero qualifications. I then graduated from a dead end job in a factory to working as a bouncer in bars and clubs at the age of 17, and in my time have driven a white van too. In other words I’ve got the T-shirt when it comes to the archetypal uneducated white working class male projecting an over-masculine persona to compensate for the crisis of identity that has beset this particular demographic over the past three decades and more. Click to continue reading →
I was delighted to see the commitment from Ed Miliband that the next Labour government willtackle the unscrupulous activities of some recruitment agencies. There is a legitimate role for agencies providing temporary workers, to fill gaps where an employer genuinely has fluctuating work volumes, or where there are temporary tasks to be done.
But all too often employment agencies are used to seek to push down wages, and to use legal trickery to make it harder for workers to assert their workplace rights, whether it is the right to be treated with dignity by supervisors, or the right to a safe and healthy working environment.
I am old fashioned enough to value the relationship where most workers are employed by the company who name is over the door;and where employers feel a social responsibility to recruit from the area where that company is located. Click to continue reading →
In contrast with western complicity with Israel’s attack on Gaza over the summer and ongoing attacks and land grabs since, Venezuela and its allies in Latin America are offering concrete help to Palestine, says Matthew Willgress of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign, with additional reporting from Paul Dobson in Venezuela.
Venezuela’s Government sent a third consignment of humanitarian aid to the embattled people of Palestine this month. In return, they greeted 119 young Palestinians who are going to be trained to be doctors at the Latin American Medical School in Caracas, demonstrating that genuine solidarity does not consist of excellent speeches, heartwarming discourses, nor best intentions, but rather has concrete actions and deeds at its centre.
“If the 21st Century saw a fighting and brave country, it is that which belongs to the people of Palestine” stated Minister for University Education, Science and Technology, Manuel Fernandez at the sendoff of the aid.
“[Hugo] Chavez brought the love of Palestine to Venezuela and left this legacy with .. Nicolas Maduro” commented the Palestinian Ambassador in Caracas, Linda Sobeh Ali. Click to continue reading →
The way M&S is acting the letters M&S could stands for Marley and Scrooge over the mean spirited way these workers are being treated over the Christmas period says GMB
GMB members, employed by Tempay Ltd at a Marks and Spencer distribution centre in Swindon, protested outside M&S’s store in High Street Slough on Tuesday 18th November over being required to work six days every week until January with only one day off in a 14 day period.
More than 150 formal grievances have been submitted to Tempay Ltd about the Christmas work rotas, from among their 500 staff on the site.
The Marks and Spencer distribution centre in Swindon is run by Wincanton. However most of the staff are employed by an employment agency, 24.7 Recruitment. They are then formally employed through a further company, called Tempay Ltd. Workers employed through Tempay earn the minimum wage of £6.50 per hour compared to the £8.50 per hour paid to workers doing exactly the same job but employed directly through Wincanton. Click to continue reading →
Back in 1984 a group of rich pop stars gathered together to ‘save Africa’ in response to famine in Ethiopia. The result was Band Aid. Thirty years on and another group of rich pop stars has come together to ‘save Africa’ in response to Ebola.
Tarzan of the Apes is a fictional character who first appeared in a 1912 book of the same name by Edgar Rice Burroughs. At the time the popular view of Africa and Africans in the West was of a primitive, backward, and retrograde culture and people who needed to be ‘saved’ by the white man and white civilization.
It was the very mindset responsible for the continent’s colonisation, which over a period of 400 years devastated its people and plundered its natural resources, leaving deep economic, social, and historical scars that have yet to heal. While Africa no longer suffers the colonisation that it did when Tarzan first appeared in popular culture, it continues to suffer from the colonial mindset and from a global economic system that has ensured its continued under development up to the present day.