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Leftist Folk Musician : Earl Robinson Makes Friends With His Music

September 11, 1987|STEVE HOCHMAN

In his 77 years, Earl Robinson has made the kind of friendships and associations you'd expect of a leftist folk musician: Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, Carl Sandburg, Joan Baez, Frank Sinatra. . . .

Sinatra?

That's right. Robinson, who is probably best known as the composer of "Joe Hill," a Depression-era ode to a slain union organizer that Baez performed at Woodstock, counts Ol' Blue Eyes among his close friends. In fact, Sinatra--who is generally perceived as a political conservative--chose "The House I Live In," a tribute to the ethnic diversity of America written in 1942 by Robinson and lyricist Lewis Allan, as the centerpiece of his set at the Statue of Liberty centennial celebration last year.

"I read a lot about Frank and his doings and connections and it rolls off me like water off a duck's back," said Robinson, who will perform today through Sunday at the Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society as part of the Fringe Festival. "I feel that Frank is a sincere person and for his own reasons acts his own way. But in relation to me and the song and (racial) equality, I feel he has taken his position very well. I don't go around criticizing him."

A friendship with Sinatra is not the only unusual element in Robinson's resume. Rather than learning his art through a rural folk background, the Seattle native is a trained classical musician who studied with Aaron Copland, among others. But when he graduated from the University of Washington in 1933 with a music degree, he found that his intent to start his career as a serious composer by taking on work as a music teacher was not practical.

"I graduated in the middle of the Depression and it seemed the one thing the country didn't need was music teachers," he said from his home in Santa Barbara. "So I went to New York and joined a (WPA-sponsored) workers' theater, and that formed the base of my audience for many years after."

It was there that Robinson became immersed in labor issues, joining the Communist Party, and, in American music traditions, serving as unofficial political adviser to the Almanac Singers, a pioneering urban folk ensemble formed in 1941 by Guthrie, Seeger and others whose influence was felt through the early '60s folk revival. Throughout the '40s, Robinson also composed scores for film and radio, moving to Los Angeles and collaborating with such successful lyricists as E. Y. (Yip) Harburg, until being blacklisted during the anti-Communist frenzy of the '50s.

Robinson's songs were kept alive over the years by the likes of Peter, Paul & Mary (who recorded "Hurry Sundown" in 1962), and following Baez's 1969 Woodstock performance of "Joe Hill," the composer found himself in demand at anti-war protests, where he served as a bridge between the youth and the labor factions who felt that the anti-war movement was "un-American" and threatened their jobs.

With his renown boosted even more by Three Dog Night's 1971 No. 1 hit version of his "Black and White" (which celebrated the 1954 Supreme Court anti-segregation ruling), Robinson has been able to remain active as a performer and writer.

Throughout it all, Robinson has been unconcerned about the relevance of his old songs.

"If they're not relevant, I stop singing them," he said, admitting that his feelings about Marxist ideology and the role of the unions have changed considerably since he first championed their causes. "That I handle as historical matter and say, 'This is where we were and we are here today because of some of the struggles and this is to be honored.' "

But Robinson stressed that not all of his material is about history.

"I have recently added a new string to my bow--I've added the New Age," he said spritely. "I have a song called 'Four Hugs a Day' which is very much a song of now, a song of love. I have audiences who come looking for the left material only, and I bring them into the New Age. I believe we are on the edge of a beautiful New Age. There are children around the world who are not here to feather their own nests but to bring us together. I think there's not a chance in hell of us blowing ourselves up."

And his own future? Robinson only had one word for it.

"Indefinite!"

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