U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Rodriguez, Paul Robeson, and Complicated Narratives of Reception

I’ve been thinking a bit about reception history, both because of Andrew’s post on two reviews of Jonathan Sperber’s new biography of Marx and because of Searching for Sugar Man, which recently won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and which I saw last week (warning: there are some spoilers in the discussion that follows, to the extent that a documentary can be spoiled). The film essentially concerns the distinctly bifurcated reception of the early ’70s American singer-songwriter Rodriguez, who was totally obscure in his own country but, unbeknownst to Rodriguez himself, a huge star in apartheid-era South Africa.

The story of Rodriguez – whose full name is Sixto Rodriguez—is fascinating in and of itself, and the movie tells it extremely effectively.   A clearly talented poet and guitarist from Detroit, Rodriguez wowed a number of record executives and producers and recorded two somewhat over-produced, but nonetheless wonderful, albums in the early 1970s, neither of which found an audience in the US.  So Sixto Rodriguez focused on other things: raising a family, working for political change, and paying the bills with manual labor, mainly construction work.  Meanwhile in South Africa, he became a mysterious superstar, whose countercultural and political lyrics were largely banned from the airwaves but were lionized by young people who were turning against the apartheid regime.  Among his South African fans, Rodriguez himself was widely rumored to have committed suicide on stage.  In the 1990s, a number of South African fans of Rodriguez began to search for clues about the singer: how did his music come to South Africa and what really happened to the singer?  They eventually located Rodriguez and invited him to perform in South Africa, where he played a series of sold-out shows in the late 1990s.  More than a decade later, he’s still a superstar in South Africa and (at least until the movie came out) still obscure in his home country.  But, it turns out, the story may be more complicated than it at first appears (as most stories are).

After watching Searching for Sugar Man, I came across this interesting review by Mark Aitken at the cinematic e-journal Electric Sheep.  Aitken acknowledges the effectiveness of the film (it would be hard not to), but complains that the portrait that it paints is largely mythical. Aitken, himself a South African, was a teenager in the 1970s and thus lived much of the history covered by the film. While he certainly remembers Rodriguez’s popularity, he strongly disputes the film’s suggestion that the singer was in any serious way connected to the movement to end apartheid:

To keep it simple, there were generally two types of young white boys in South Africa in those days: those who played rugby, drank beer and got into fights; and those who listened to music and smoked dope. The latter crowd all knew the Rodriguez album forensically but we listened to a lot of other stuff and when I moved to Johannesburg in 1979 I discovered punk and everything changed. Us dope-smoking army dodgers thought we were cool and that apartheid was wrong. But our position was an extremely comfortable one much like looking at the slaughter in Syria now but not doing anything about it, or people from Hampstead on Radio 4 being shocked about teenage pregnancy. We were nothing more than liberals. Those white South Africans who did make an effort to overthrow the regime made real sacrifices. I can’t imagine Joe Slovo or Albie Sachs were smoking joints and listening to ‘The Establishment Blues’ while operating for uMkhonto we Sizwe. Equally you’d be hard pressed to find a single African from those times who owned a Rodriguez album.

I think Aitken overplays the extent to which the film focuses on Rodriguez as a figure important to the movement to end apartheid. But he is entirely correct about how unspecific the film is in its portrait of Rodriguez fandom in South Africa. The footage of the large, adoring crowds at Rodriguez’s late 1990s South African concerts show audiences that are entirely white, yet the film takes no notice whatsoever of this fact.

Where I think Aitken is wrong is in his casual dismissal of the South African white liberals who listened (and listen) to Rodriguez.  On the one hand, it’s very important to distinguish such folks from those actually involved with the ANC during the apartheid years. But from the standpoint of social, cultural, political, and intellectual history, liberals in South Africa, like liberals elsewhere, are an important subject. What’s wrong with Searching for Sugar Man in this regard is not, as Aitken suggests, that it focuses on white South African liberals instead of Joe Slovo and Ruth First, but rather that it doesn’t spend enough time socially and culturally positioning the people on whom it focuses.

If this is a problem with the South African portion of the documentary, it’s an even bigger issue for its U.S. sections (about which Aitken is silent).  A number of Americans are interviewed in the film, including Sixto Rodriguez himself, his three daughters, the producers of his records, some friends from Detroit, and the former president of the label that put out his records in the U.S. (and presumably received the South African royalties, though this remains unclear).  The film paints a portrait of Rodriguez as a son of working-class immigrants to Detroit, who has chosen to remain in his hometown’s inner city and who has, in every way, retained his working-class identity.  His daughters refer to his radical politics, including two failed city council campaigns.  Others speak of his somewhat mysterious persona as a singer-songwriter. But all aspects of this story are treated as if Sixto Rodriguez were a lonely monad.

In fact, as most readers of this blog probably know, the Detroit in which Rodriguez played and worked was a hotbed of both musical innovation and working-class politics.  From Motown to the MC5, from Iggy and the Stooges to Eminem, from Alice Cooper to Ted Nugent, Detroit has produced an extraordinarily diverse group of musicians. And, due both to the growth of a multiracial working-class during its years of economic health, and the crises that have befallen the city since the mid-1960s, Detroit has also been a politically vibrant and often radical place. And the worlds of Detroit music and Detroit politics have frequently interacted in complicated and interesting ways, though historians are only begin to scratch the surface of these interactions.[1]  None of these things gets mentioned in Searching for Sugar Man, which in some ways seems to prefer the mysterious Rodriguez of South African myth to the flesh-and-blood Sixto Rodriguez of Detroit, Michigan.

The film spends much more time noting that Rodriguez’s lyrics violated South African taboos against drug use, premarital sex, and criticism of “the Establishment,” than it does spelling out more specifically what political messages could be found in them.  And Searching for Sugar Man is utterly silent on the precise nature of Sixto Rodriguez’s later politics, beyond calling them “radical.” It does not even mention any connections he may have had to broader political movements within Chicano and/or working-class Detroit.

The point of all of this is that the dual story of reception that the film tells – of Rodriguez as forgotten (and barely even known) in the US and lauded in South Africa – is true enough so far as it goes. But there’s clearly so much else going on in the stories of Sixto Rodriguez and his reception(s) that goes unsaid.  How much of a problem the film’s silences are depends in part, I think, on what one expects from one’s historical reception narratives.  Does a film like this need to aim to provide a complete picture? Or should it be seen as opening a conversation that can be continued via, e.g., Mark Aitken’s review?  I’m temperamentally inclined to see it the latter way.

The complicated story of Sixto Rodriguez’s reception reminded me of the complicated reception narratives surrounding another, much more famous American singer: Paul Robeson.

A singer, actor, athlete, and activist, Robeson was, of course, a key figure in American Popular Front culture.  His recordings from the late 1930s through the 1940s featured both spirituals and a kind of international songbook of the Old Left, including both key American Popular Front pieces like John LaTouche and Earl Robinson’s “Ballad for Americans” and Abel Meeropol and Earl Robinson’s “The House I Live In,” and a variety of songs from around the world, such as “Chee Lai” (which would later become the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China),  the Soviet National Anthem, and “Native Land,” the climactic number from the 1936 Soviet musical Circus.[2]  Then in the 1950s, Robeson was blacklisted and had his passport taken away.

Since at least the late 1970s, Robeson has become one of the most retrospectively celebrated cultural figures of the Old Left. The attractive aspects of Robeson’s story and legacy are clear. He was an extraordinarily talented and moving performer. He was a victim of both racial discrimination and McCarthyism.  A short documentary about Robeson, “Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist,” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short in 1980.

Robeson’s music also served as much of the soundtrack for Sidney Lumet’s Daniel (1983), a cinematic adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, in which the son of a fictionalized version of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg searches for the truth about his parents.  The movie is a celebration of the Old Left, which, it suggests, can be effectively vindicated by the New Left.  And Robeson’s rich bass very effectively underscores the movie’s often-elegiac tone.[3]   In ensuing decades, Robeson’s recordings have been repeatedly reissued in this country.

But if memories of Robeson have, at least in recent decades, been very positive in the U.S., his legacy is viewed quite differently in the former Soviet bloc.  Here, for example, is the way that the Czech novelist (and jazz fan) Josef Skvorecky remembers Robeson’s place in post-war Czechoslovakia:

In place of [Stan] Kenton, they pushed Paul Robeson at us. And how we hated that black apostle who sang of his own free will at open-air concerts in Prague at a time when they were raising the socialist leader, Milada Horakova, to the gallows, the only woman ever to be executed for political reasons in Czechoslovakia by Czechs, and at a time when the great Czech poets, some 10 years later to be rehabilitated without exception, were pining away in jails.

Well, maybe it was wrong to hold it against Paul Robeson. No doubt, he was acting in good faith, convinced that he was fighting for a good cause. But they kept holding him up to us as an exemplary progressive jazz man, and we hated him. May God rest his hopefully-innocent soul.

I became aware of Skvorecky memoir, which served as the non-fictional introduction to his novella The Bass Saxophone, when it was featured in an early episode of This American Life in 1999. And though I wasn’t exactly surprised by the way a Czech experienced Robeson, I was nonetheless struck by what a totally different set of associations Robeson had for Skvorecky. Nor was his memory of Robeson unique. Germans I’ve met who grew up in the DDR have similar associations when Robeson is mentioned.

Neither of these memories — Robeson as heroic activist and victim of racial and political oppression (or even Robeson as object of left-wing nostalgia) and Robeson as symbol of the phoniness of totalitarian culture – trumps the other, in my view.  Reducing Robeson’s reception to either of these two poles is to miss an important part of the story of the cultural work that Robeson and his voice have performed during and after his life.

Obviously the cases of Sixto Rodriguez and Paul Robeson are different in many ways. But they each highlight the ways in which reception tends to be polyvocal and complex.  And though these are instances more in the realm of cultural than of intellectual history, I think the reception histories of ideas are often similar.

[1] Suzanne E. Smith,  Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Harvard, 2001) is an excellent attempt to draw some of these connections.

[2] The last of these songs has its own complicated history.  A celebration of freedom and equality in Stalin’s Russia, Circus concerns an American circus performer (Soviet musical star Lyubov Orlova) driven out of her home country because she had an interracial child out of wedlock.  Blackmailed by a German (and presumably fascist) circus owner who knows her secret, she comes to Moscow and discovers that the USSR is a land of freedom and equality. When the evil circus owner exposes her black baby to the audience of the circus, the crowd rejects the German’s racism and sings a beautiful lullaby to her son in the many languages of the Soviet Union.  Convinced that she has seen the future and it works, Orlova concludes the film by marching into Red Square with a dashing Soviet aviator, as the strains of the song that Robeson would later record fill the soundtrack (you can see the conclusion of the film, including the lullaby here). It’s a lovely fantasy, which of course bore very little relationship to the reality of life in Stalinist Russia (indeed, one of those singing the lullaby is Solomon Mikhoels, the great Yiddish actor and chairman of the wartime Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, who would later be murdered in a post-war antisemitic purge). The late historian Richard Stites argues that musicals like this were beloved even by Soviet audiences that understand that their image of the USSR was largely a lie.  The song that Robeson recorded as “Native Land” became the broadcast signal for Radio Moscow and its lyrics were even quoted (perhaps ironically) at trial by one of Stalin’s purge victims on the day before his execution (James von Geldern and Richard Stites, Mass Culture in Soviet Russia (Indiana University Press, 1995), p. 271).

[3] My OU colleague Joanna Rapf has written about the importance of Robeson’s music in Lumet’s film.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m entirely with you, Ben, when you assert that films like *Searching for Sugarman* are probably best as conversation _starters_. Even when a director is creative, because film is primarily a visual medium, nuance is limited.

    To get at subtlety, the filmmaker would likely desire some kind of relevant visual reference (i.e. an interview) in relation to questions reception. And then there are questions of time; how much narrative will fit in 1.5 hours of real/virtual celluloid. A film, in sum, can’t be an encyclopedia. Finally, there are questions of character development. How is each individual presented in a credible fashion—such that the audience is drawn in? The printed word gives more room for these nuances, but not a lot more. Hence the need for multiple narratives—narratives that are often interdependent by necessity.

    That said, films can hint at the larger, more complex questions. At least they can provide a teeny bit of the issues as opposed to countercultural flash. It sounds like that is the real problem with *Searching for Sugarman*.

    In any case, thanks for the nice mix of film, music, and larger issues. Great post. – TL

  2. Of course the uses to which “Paul Robeson” was put by Party-State socialist regimes, is in no way a reflection of the life, work, and artistry of Paul Robeson, the man. And I do think any historical assessment of his legacy would, in truth (should we care about such a thing) mean that Robeson as a “symbol of the phoniness of totalitarian culture” (I prefer, with Vaclav Havel,
    ‘post-totalitarian’ as more descriptively accurate) is indeed “trumped” by “Robeson as heroic activist and victim of racial and political oppression,” that latter vindicated and verified by the life he lived….

  3. I recall, for example, the manner in which many lifelong Marxists or socialists who became part of KOR (later, KSS-‘KOR’)* and later Solidarity in Poland were able to distinguish between the regime’s ideological manipulation of Marxist-Leninist ideas and a Marxism or socialism closer in letter and spirit to what Marx wrote and fought for (and Havel was shrewd enough to warn is compatriots in Czechoslovakia of the dangers of ‘capitalism,’ fully cognizant of the fact that Party-State Socialism can and should be distinguished from other possible forms of non-capitalist economic system, in other words, it hardly exhausts what we might…and should…mean by socialism). I would say the latter “trumps” the former with regard to the philosophical and socio-economic “truths” (whatever they may be) found in the Marxist corpus and tradition.

    * I discuss KOR and Solidarity as an “exemplum” of nonviolent theory and praxis here: http://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2011/09/socio-political-conflict-resolution-nonviolence-a-select-bibliography-and-historical-exemplum.html (Lipski’s wonderful book on KOR discusses the role of these Marxists in the revolutionary underground and opposition in his book found in the list of references and further reading).

  4. You make a number of interesting and important points, Patrick…

    It’s in the nature of reception histories they do not always reflect the intentions of the person whose works are their focus. Authors are not able to control how texts get used. And I think it’s telling that, in his very negative recollections of Paul Robeson’s music in Czechoslovakia, Skvorecky quite explicitly notes that his experience may not reflect Robeson’s intent. But if we’re serious about reception history, I think we need to deal honestly with the way works are used and received and not let our focus be limited by some notion of authorial intent. Not that there’s anything wrong with discussing authorial / artistic intent. It’s just a different issue.

    I think the disanalogy between your second comment and the point I make in the post is that you seem ultimately interested in determining what is best in the Marxist tradition or what in the Marxist tradition is closest to Marx’s intent. These are both perfectly reasonable goals (and are, as you note, particularly pressing goals for those whose chief interest is in changing world, not merely describing the history of the one that we’ve inherited). But they’re rather different from the goal of, e.g., a comprehensive history of the many ways Marx and his ideas have, in fact, been used, which would necessarily include the bad and the good, the false as well as the true. (FWIW, I certainly wouldn’t want to refer to the official culture of post-war Czechoslovakia as “Marxist.”)

    I think if one were writing a biography of Robeson, that is a work focused not on Robeson-reception but on his life and work, one would indeed conclude that the positive aspects of his life outweigh the negative ones Though I do think that anyone grappling with the legacy of the Stalinist left in this (or any other) country during the middle decades of the twentieth century does need to deal with the fact that Stalinists made a choice to cast their lot with an “actually existing socialism” whose quite appalling flaws were already clear to many others, across the political spectrum. I don’t think that means that we ought to condemn American Communists. But I do think that, in our discussions of them, their many good works shouldn’t be allowed to entirely drown out the screams in the night. Rather, they need to be considered side-by-side (just as it’s important to remember, as Ira Katznelson reminds us, how dependent the New Deal was on the votes and ideas of white supremacist Southern Democrats). But, as the kids say, YMMV.

  5. Great post, Ben. I had really enjoyed Searching for Sugar Man and I appreciate the nuances you’ve pulled out, particularly courtesy of the Aitken’s review. Certain omissions are quite obvious when watching the film, namely the absence of black South Africans, and I’m not surprised, though I had originally just taken the film at face value on this (I can’t remember if it’s explicitly stated or just heavily implied), that the claims that Rodriguez’s music bore such great influence among whites directly involved in the anti-apartheid movement were overplayed. However, like you, I don’t think that takes away much from the power of the story, or renders the “reality” any less interesting — it just, as you say, needs to be properly contextualized.

    I’m currently studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, which Paul Robeson apparently attended in the 1930s. (He studied African languages and law, according to a plaque dedicated to him on the first floor of the building; the post-graduate student hall is also named after him.) Aside from school pride, I think his reception here probably owes similarly to his credentials as an Old Left, antiracist, and anticolonial activist, which in turn also made him popular — at least among a certain class — in India. He and Eslanda Robeson were, for example, close friends of Jawaharlal Nehru and Vijayalakshmi Pandit, among others, I believe whom they originally met in London. The Robesons, and their connections to the Indian freedom struggle, are mentioned occasionally in Nico Slate’s Colored Cosmopolitanism, the title suggesting another form of reception (and identification), namely a commitment to social justice with attention to colonialism and racial oppression built largely upon mutual recognition among, as WEB DuBois had it, the “darker races” of the world.

  6. Neither of these memories — Robeson as heroic activist and victim of racial and political oppression (or even Robeson as object of left-wing nostalgia) and Robeson as symbol of the phoniness of totalitarian culture – trumps the other, in my view.

    An interesting assertion. I’m not sure I can agree that good motives and personal victimhood make it a wash for being a Useful Idiot for a regime that killed millions. Such a smart man must surely have smelled a rat at some time in his life [d. 1976] but he never apologized, never set the record straight.

    Also interesting that at this moment we’ve had more Useful Idiots touring Castro’s Island. [True, he didn’t murder millions, just thousands.]


    My congrats on a brave post here, Ben, revealing Czech feelings about Robeson. Here in the West, our moral calculators are bit broken–we tend to balance things out where there is no balance.

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