by Larry Fyffe
Right wingers in American politics, prior thereto and during the 1960’s, see a hard-line Communist behind every bush, as they still do today. The folk-singing ‘Weavers’ member Jackie Alper notes that Bob Dylan spends a lot of time listening to Paul Robson records when he’s at her house in 1962. Ten years earlier, Paul Robeson, a former football player turned civil rights activist, with one foot on Canadian soil, performs before a crowd of nearly 40,000 after he’s ‘blacklisted’, thanks to Senator Joseph McCarthy, and deprived of a passport due to his ‘UnAmerican’ activities.
One of Paul Robeson’s favourite numbers is a ‘spiritual’ originally sung by American slaves who escaped up north to Canada:
No more driver's lash for me No more, no more No more driver's lash for me Many thousands gone
(No More Auction Block For Me)
Bob Dylan considers himself blacklisted because he’s prevented from performing “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” on the Ed Sullivan Show; he travels to Canada the next year, and records a number of songs for CBC-TV in Toronto.
The young singer/songwrite indirecty mentions Robeson in a song on an album released in 1964:
He said he's gonna kill me If I don't get out the door in two seconds flat "You unpatriotic, rotten, doctor, Commie rat"
(Bob Dylan: Motor Cycle Nightmare)
Untold is the profound impact that the Afro-American bass singer has on the Dylan, an impart still apparent in more recent lyrics.
As noted in a previous article, ‘Sweetheart Like You’ makes reference to the film noir ‘All Through The Night”, starring Humphrey Bogart. However, this song is haunted by the ghost of Paul Robeson. Playwright Eugene O’Neill makes Robeson famous by having him star in the movie ‘The Emperor Jones” that is based on an O’Neill play. Dylan’s song ‘Sweetheart Like You” is loosely based on the movie and play.
Influenced by the Naturalist School of Literature, Eugene O’Neill stresses how both heredity and the surounding environment affect human behaviour. Samuel Johnson, who befriends Oliver Goldsmith, opens the door for the Romantic Transcendentalist poets who react against previous writers who consider it dangerous to portray human beings as free-thinking individuals who do not require authoritarian social control.
Then along comes the English Naturalist Charles Darwin and he shuts the door with his deterministic and empirically based Theory of Evolution. According to a number of writers, including O’Neill, (they turn Darwinian science into an art form), any hope of individual freedom is carried away, grasped as it is in the greedy claws of jingoistic patriotism and imperial capitalism.
Bob Dylan sums things up quite nicely:
They say that patriotism is the last refuge To which a scroundrel clings Steal a little and they throw you in jail Steal a lot and they make you king
(Bob Dylan: Sweetheart Like You)
Samuel Johnson’s 1775 aphorism is presented by Dylan to the listener (or reader); then it’s Paul Robeson speaking as Brutus Jones:
"For a little stealin', they put you in jail sooner or later For big stealin', they make you emperor and puts you in the Hall of Fame when you croaks"
(Eugene O’Neill: The Emperor Jones)
In the movie, the intelligent and muscular blackman Brutus Jones, departs fom his Hezekiah Baptist Church friends in the Ameican South, and travels up North to New York City as a porter on a train where he starts gambling and womanizing, and ends up in a chain gang for killing a black friend; he clubs a white guard to death, jumps in a dump truck, and manages to steam off to an isolated West Indian island inhabited by blacks. There he gets sold to a white trader, but he outsmarts the island’s black ruler by demonstrating that he can only be killed by a silver bullet.
Paul Robeson crowns himself ‘Emperor Jones’. Says to the trader:”Phew! This place smells more like a chain gang dump than a palace.” Imitatinng the behaviour of the white authorites that he’s used to back home, Emperor Jones is as exploitive and cruel to the islanders as were the historical slave-holders in the United States.
Dylan’s song ‘Sweetheart Like You’ begins:
Well the pressures down, the boss ain't here He's gone North for a while They say that vanity got the best of him But he sure left here in style
(Bob Dylan: Sweetheart Like You)
Emperor Jones overplays his hand, realizes he has stayed too long. War drums beat and he flees into the jungle. Lost in the darkness, Jones goes mad from fear; he doesn’t know what is happening, and he shoots off his silver bullet at phantoms – he’s been keeping it to kill himself with should he be hunted down. Meanwhile, the angry islanders have manufactured silver bullets of their own.
At the end of the movie, the white trader (who appears to get along with the islanders) says to the dead body of Jones:
"Where's all your high-and-mighty airs now, your bloomin' Majesty. Silver bullets. Blimey. Anyhow, you died in the 'eighth of style."
At the time, American political authorities have problems with the O’Neill movie/play because of its oblique critique of the US Marine invasion of Haiti that forces the government there to allow foreign ownship of property
(As well, civil rights groups express concerns about ‘The Emperor Jones’):
They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five Judge says to the high sheriff 'I want him dead or alive Either way I don't care" High water everywhere
(Bob Dylan: High Water)
‘High Sheriff’ Joseph McCarthy does his utmost to destroy Paul Robeson’s career.
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