Peter E. Murphy
August 2001, South Wales
Amanda and I are driving to Treorchy, a village in the heart of the Rhondda Valley. To get there I am driving over the Brecon Beacons, the most rugged mountains in this part of Wales. The road is narrow and, of course, I am on the left side. How un-American! Vehicles from the opposite direction race past us on the right where the subconscious driver within me thinks I should be. Amanda says, “Stay to the left, Daddy. Stay to the left.” She is twenty-one. She loves Britain and will return to study in London next year. Where the land flattens out, the sides of the road are bound by yellow crime tape. Millions of miles of yellow tape. Christo on a binge. The tape looks flimsy as if it will tear, bouncing in a wind that never stops. But it holds. It is continuous.
There has been an outbreak of foot and mouth disease that has pulverized the British farming communities, especially in Wales. Foot and mouth is highly contagious and easily spread. People can carry it on their clothes and shoes. The yellow tape is to keep them from walking in the fields, infecting more livestock. If you are out in the country, you are supposed to sanitize your shoes before you get back in your car. Leaving our hotel in Brecon, I had to drive through a pool of disinfectant to sanitize my tires when I left.
Plumes of smoke rise in the distance. No matter which way we look, smoke rises, blotting the landscape. Millions of cattle and sheep are being destroyed. There is no easy way to do this. Tractors push the carcasses into mountains that are burned in huge fires. We keep the windows closed. The car is air conditioned—thank God—but the smell seeps in. We will be seeing more curls of smoke for days all over Wales. Smelling it.
A few miles to the east is the village of Aberfan where in 1966 one-hundred kids were killed when a coal tip collapsed and crushed their schoolhouse. A few miles east of Aberfan, in another valley is a town you’ve never heard of, Tredegar, near other towns you probably never heard of: Abergavenney, Ebbw Vale and Merthyr Tydfil. My mother, Thelma Elias Samuel, was born in Tredegar. During the war she lived with her mother and stepfather in the small city of Newport where they ran a pub called the Windsor Castle Hotel. My father, Eddie Murphy, was a G.I. stationed in Newport unloading ships that, like him, were sent over from the States for the great invasion. He stopped into the Windsor Castle for a pint and fell in love with the young woman who served him. He returned after the war to marry her and take her to New York where I grew up. My mother died when I was a kid, and my father lost touch with her family. I knew I was Welsh, but I didn’t know what that meant. I went to Wales when I was twenty to find my mother’s family, and I did, but I hadn’t been back for thirty years and lost them again. Yesterday, we drove through Tredegar looking for the family farm, but it had been turned into a housing development. Even the pub where they took me each night for a pint was gone.
I am proud of my heritage. Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country in the world. How industrious the Welsh, building all those castles. Then it occurs to me that the Welsh did not build the castles. The English built the castles to subdue the Welsh. I am still proud. The Welsh were so ferocious that the English had to build all those castles.
My rented Vauxhall climbs the narrow road. It is a sleek car, automatic transmission, easy to drive. As the road curves, I look down at the deep valley below. There is not much stopping us from going over the cliff. I am somewhat terrified. “Stay to the left, Daddy,” Amanda repeats. “Stay to the left,” and I think of Paul Robeson, the reason we are making this pilgrimage. When we finally arrive in Treorchy we look for the Parc and Dare Workingmen’s Hall but it’s not where it should be. Someone tells us we passed it, turn around and go back down the road a bit. We turn around and go back down the road a bit but still can’t find it. A new someone tells us we passed it, turnaround go back the other way a bit. I make another U-turn and go the other way a bit. This third time we stop at a crossroads, a few houses, some shops, a pub, and an old brick building. This is the Parc and Dare Workingmen’s Hall which shows movies and occasionally a live musical. In a room on an upper floor, there is an exhibition honoring Paul Robeson.
After leaving the West End theater where he was starring in Showboat in 1928, the thirty year-old Robeson came across a group of men, huddled together, singing in the snow. How strange! Robeson’s father, an escaped slave, was a minister to a congregation in Princeton, New Jersey. Robeson sang in the choir and knew the hymn the men were singing. He joined in, overwhelming them with his deep voice. They were astonished and asked this huge black man who he was. Robeson, delighted, told them and asked them who they were and why they were singing in the snow.
They told him that they were miners who had walked 150 miles from the Rhondda Valley to London to protest their unfair treatment by mine owners who cut their wages in half and demanded they work longer hours. They went on strike, they said, but they ran out of food and money, and their children were starving to death. The men set off for London on foot, hoping someone would pay attention.
When they told Robeson they felt like a forgotten race, he understood. Like most Americans, Robeson didn’t know anything about Wales, but he came to realize that the Welsh were treated almost as badly in their own country as Negros were in his. He bought the men their first meal in days, gave them money to get home, and told them he would see them again.
Inside the Parc and Dare, some American cartoon is playing, Little Mermaid? Lion King? Shrek? A woman sitting in a booth asks how many tickets we want.
“We would like to see the Paul Robeson exhibition.”
“Oh, that’s not open now, is it?”
“We have come a very long way.”
“You will have to come back now, won’t you?”
“We can’t come back.” I think I am going to cry.
“You’re from America, aren’t you?”
“Yes, and we have to return soon.”
“One minute,” she says and goes into a back room.
When Showboat finished its run in 1929, Robeson headed to Wales with a boxcar of food and clothes purchased with the salary he earned singing “Ol’ Man River.” This was the first of many successful performances he would have in Britain where he lived for the next decade. He starred in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Othello at Stratford, the first black man to do so in more than fifty years.
Robeson traveled throughout South Wales, sharing his good fortune with the miners and their families and singing with them. He introduced Negro spirituals to the men’s choirs. Some include those songs in their repertoires today. The Manic Street Preachers, the most successful rock band to come out of Wales, did a cover of “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” on an EP titled Let Robeson Sing. The title song’s stunning music video featured teenaged ballet dancers rehearsing at The Paul Robeson Theater in Brooklyn.
Robeson was at home in Wales. He said it was the first time in his life that his black skin did not make him feel like an outsider. He had been disappointed in his brief film career where he was forced to portray blacks as savage, stupid or base. However, he made one last film, Proud Valley, that he loved. He plays an American drifter, David Goliath, who jumps ship in Cardiff, is taken in by a humble Welsh family, works down the mine and sings with the local men’s choir at the Eisteddfod, the annual song festival. Goliath is dignified, hard-working and talented, much like Robeson himself. At one point, a miner complains that Goliath shouldn’t be working with them because he’s black. Another miner, covered in coal dust, says, “Down in the pit, we’re all black, aren’t we?” That shuts the first man up.
Mining in Wales goes back thousands of years, but the Romans were the first to do it on an industrial level, digging iron and other metals out of the earth around Newport and Cardiff to replenish their supply of swords and shields. Things picked up in the 19th Century when Wales became the world’s first industrialized country with more people working in mines and factories than in agriculture. Men, women and children as young as four years old labored twelve-hour days in the pits. It was said that if a child didn’t go down before his eighth birthday, he’d be too frightened or too smart to go down when he was older. The youngest children were stationed at “air-doors” which they were to open when a carriage full of coal approached. Candles were expensive, so they waited in the dark where it was easy to fall asleep and not hear the bell before the cart smashed through the door crushing them to death. The Mines and Collieries Act of 1842, which was pretty much ignored, prohibited girls, women, and boys under the age of ten from working in the mines. Women were not kept out of the mines for any sense of compassion. The mines were hot so they removed their blouses which had a “demoralizing influence” on the men.
The only thing worse than working in a coal mine, is not working. The miners went out on strike numerous times which usually improved their living conditions. The miners struck for the last time in 1984. The strike failed—you’ve seen Billy Elliot—when the Thatcher government closed the mines for good. Today, there are virtually no mines operating in Wales, and now foot and mouth disease is ravishing the farms. I don’t know how the Welsh will survive.
When the miners in Proud Valley go on a prolonged strike, Goliath leads a small, raggedy group on a march to London. Along the way they run out of food and sing for their supper. I guess art does imitate life. The movie originally had a radical ending, but they were filming on September 1, 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland. Like everyone else in Britain, the producers got behind the war effort, and rather than making a statement about greedy mine owners, they rewrote the script so instead, the miners beg to go back down into a dangerous pit to pull out coal to fuel the fight against the Nazis. There is a gas explosion, and Goliath sacrifices his life so that his friends, and, we get this, Britain can survive.
Proud Valley was filmed in Wales using Welsh actors, mostly amateurs, unlike its more famous cousin, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, produced a year later in California with nary a Welsh person in the cast. Okay, Ford wanted to make the film in Wales but since the war broke out, he couldn’t. He also wanted to shoot in color, but the dry Southern California landscape would belie the title of the film, so he shot it in black and white. How Green Was My Valley was nominated for ten academy awards and won five, including Best Picture and Best Director, so I don’t think Ford was too disappointed.
Amanda and I have pretty much given up on seeing the Paul Robeson exhibition and are about to leave. This excursion through the mountains has taken longer than planned. It was difficult enough driving in daylight. I don’t want to drive back over the mountains in the dark. I am not sure we would make it. I also don’t want to miss dinner at the hotel: roast shoulder of lamb in garlic and rosemary, roasted potatoes, boiled potatoes, creamed leeks, peas, carrots, a lush dessert. But then the box-office lady returns with another woman, probably her boss, who asks us to follow her. She leads us to an ancient elevator that hauls us to the fourth floor, then down a dark hallway to a great wooden door which she unlocks. We wait as she enters the room. We see lights go on, and a moment later we hear piano music, then Robeson’s voice thundering, “Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow.”
The woman stands at attention by the door and welcomes us. “Thank you for visiting the Paul Robeson exhibition. We are honored to have you. Please take as much time as you like.” “Paul Robeson, Honorary Welshman” is the life-work of Martha Edwards who was a child-extra in Proud Valley. It is not a professional exhibition—yellow newspapers curled in plastic sleeves, faded photographs tacked to a board. Where descriptions exist, some are typed, but many are handwritten. The room is full. There are props and clothing left over from the film. Lots of flotsam, jetsam—amateurish and incredibly moving. It’s clear that the Welsh, especially Martha Edwards, loved Robeson.
There is a display dedicated to the Spanish Civil War. Welsh miners were recruited to fight against Franco and all things fascist. The campaign featured posters with the slogan, “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next.” The Manic Street Preachers turned this rallying cry into a song that topped the British charts in 1998. According to Guinness, the song has the added distinction of being the number one single with the longest title and the only single that the Manics, as they are known by their fans, released in the United States. The music video for this one features the band members playing their instruments in an austere, neon-blue room, dressed in white sterile scrubs while wired to machines that supposedly control their thoughts.
Robeson said that Wales is where his social conscience was kindled. I look at a picture of him singing to the Welsh International Brigade on a battlefield in Spain. Another photograph shows him singing at a memorial for the Welsh who were killed there. George Orwell, who was shot in the throat fighting against the Fascists on those same battlefields, despised Robeson. In recently declassified papers, he accuses Robeson not only of being a communist, but of being “very anti-white.” I don’t know what to do with this information. I love Orwell. I love Robeson. I get mixed up when one of my heroes trashes another.
More songs play on the old phonograph. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “All Through the Night,” “John Henry.”
When Robeson finished Proud Valley he returned to the United States and became active in the Civil Rights Movement. He teamed up with Albert Einstein to form the American Crusade to Eliminate Lynching (ACEL). Who knew that Einstein was an early and earnest worker on behalf of civil rights? He loved his adopted country but despised the manner in which it treated blacks; it reminded him of the fascist state he’d fled. Einstein called racism “a disease of white people” and said he did not intend to be quiet about it. The ACEL sponsored one of the earliest marches on Washington to lobby congress and persuade President Truman to make lynching a federal crime so the national government, rather than local law officials, could prosecute it. J. Edgar Hoover allegedly handwrote, “This is Un-American” on this section of his voluminous file on Einstein.
Robeson had been one of the most successful performers (read: made lots of money) in the country. His “Ballad for Americans” was sung at the 1940 Democratic, Republican and Communist Party conventions. Several things happened to change this. Robeson had performed in the USSR several times and made lots of friends there. When he refused to condemn Stalin for persecuting Jews and others who criticized the government because he felt it would add to the anti communist fervor enwrapping the United States, he was accused of being a communist. He also made the controversial statement that American negroes should not support the government in a war against the Soviets until they had equality in their own country. In August, 1949 Robeson was to sing at an outdoor concert in Peekskill, New York on behalf of the Civil Rights Congress. Hundreds of union members lined the sides of the road throwing stones at the cars and buses that entered the field. They attacked the passengers with baseball bats as police stood around watching. Robeson was hanged in effigy, and the concert was canceled. A few weeks later, Robeson returned to Peekskill to try again, with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, but this second concert was also disrupted. Seeger used some of the stones that were hurled at them to build a chimney on his house in nearby Beacon. By 1950, Robeson was blacklisted and his passport revoked. Subpoenaed to testify before the Committee on Un-American Activities, Robeson, fed up with the indignity of the questions, shouted back at his inquisitioner, “You are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” This didn’t help.
Robeson was saddened that those who turned against him were the same union members and working people he had championed for decades. The National Maritime Union, a leftist rival of the International Longshoremen’s Association, considered rescinding Robeson’s honorary membership. The fledgling NAACP backed away from Robeson, afraid that they would be branded Communists, and Jackie Robinson, America’s new favorite Negro, was pretty much forced to speak out against him. Robeson’s public career in the United States was finished. But the miners in Wales did not abandon him. They joined the “Let Robeson Sing Campaign,” inviting him year after year to perform at the annual Eisteddfod. They lobbied Parliament and petitioned the U.S. State Department to return his passport. Then they came up with a novel idea. In October, 1957, Robeson sang to the five-thousand miners gathered at the Eisteddfod in Porthcawl using the newly laid Trans-Atlantic telephone cable. Wil Paynter, president of the miner’s union, welcomed Robeson:
We are happy that it has been possible to arrange for you to speak and sing with us today. We would be far happier if you were with us in person. Our people deplore the continued refusal of your government to return your passport and to deny you the right to join with us in our festival of song. We shall continue to exert what influence we can to overcome this position. We look forward to the day when we shall again shake you by the hand and hear you sing with us in these valleys of music and song.
Robeson offered greetings to “the people of my beloved Wales” saying, “All the best to you as we strive toward a world where we all can live abundant, peaceful and dignified lives.” He began singing “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” his deep voice booming through the cable on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. He continued with “This Little Light of Mine” and “All Men are Brothers.” He thanked the miners for their support and concluded, singing “Wales, Wales, O but my heart is with you.”
The Treorchy Male Choir led thousands of voices as they sang back:
“We’ll keep a welcome in the hillside.
We’ll keep a welcome in the Vale.
This land you knew will still be singing
When you come home again to Wales.”
A few months later the United States Supreme Court reinstated Robeson’s passport, and he returned to Wales to sing with the miners at the Eisteddfod one last time.
The woman at the door to the exhibition had been standing perfectly still for almost an hour. As we leave, she thanks us again for visiting and presents us with a memorial booklet commemorating the Robeson exhibition. She shuts off the phonograph, turns out the lights and locks the door behind us. As we descend the slow-moving elevator, I remember the beautiful, elegant robe I saw a few days earlier at a museum in London, the robe Robeson wore performing Othello at Stratford for the last time. He then visited the Soviet Union where he had a breakdown from which he never recovered. Some say he was exhausted from his ten-year fight with the U.S. government to get his passport. Some say he was poisoned by the CIA. Maybe, but I don’t think the fifty-four electro-shock treatments he was given helped him much. Like the Rosenbergs, he too was electrocuted. He returned to the United States in 1963 living as a recluse in Philadelphia until he died in 1976.
I drive back to Brecon as the sky darkens. Yellow tape flutters along the curved road. I am going too fast, but I don’t want to be in the wilderness when the sun goes down. I want to be somewhere safe and flat. I want to be well-fed. As we rise up the first of many mountains, Amanda repeats her refrain, “Stay to the left, Daddy. Stay to the left.” I think how unlikely the friendship between Robeson and the miners. Although they could have ignored each other’s suffering, they helped each other. Smoke rises in the distance, curling heavenward as the sky blackens. I smell burning livestock. In an hour or two we will arrive in the dark at the hotel in Brecon. In a week or two, we will arrive back in New York just before the Twin Towers crumble and turn to dust and smoke. So much smoke.
Peter E. Murphy was born in Wales and grew up in New York City where he operated heavy equipment, managed a night club and drove a cab. His essays and poems are forthcoming in The Journal of Bahá’í Studies, The Lindenwood Review, The Schuylkill Valley Journal, Passager, and Rattle. He directs the annual Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway and other programs for poets, writers and teachers in the U.S. and abroad. www.MurphyWriting.com.