The Porthcawl Elvis Festival, originally founded to help safeguard the town’s iconic Grand Pavilion, is said to be the largest such event in the world. And it’s been claimed that ‘Elvis Preseli’ has genealogical links to Pembrokeshire. But there’s no real evidence of an Elvisian Welsh connection. However, there was one American star directly involved with the Grand Pavilion and especially with the miners of Wales: Paul Robeson.
In October 1957, thanks to the recently-completed transatlantic telephone cable and restrictions on his right to travel, the famed American performer phoned Porthcawl from New York. He sang to and with an audience of over 5000 at the annual Miners’ Eisteddfod which was – despite an epidemic of Asian flu – held in the Grand Pavilion.
Paul Leroy Robeson
The remarkable Robeson was the greatest American football player of his generation; a celebrated actor on stage and screen; a bass-baritone concert artist able to sing in 20 languages; holder of a law degree from Columbia University; and a civil and workers’ rights campaigner. Though renowned for both his artistic and professional accomplishments and for his activism, his government’s response to the latter interfered with the former.
His call to Porthcawl was made during the era of the US ‘red scare’ anti-communism McCarthy hearings. Being a vocal and prominent campaigner, Robeson had his passport withdrawn, so was unable to travel. He made two musical long-distance phone calls to Britain in 1957, saying of it, “We have to learn the hard way that there is another way to sing.”
He was my mother’s favourite singer. I don’t know whether Mam was aware of his activism but am certain that, had she been, she would’ve approved.
Robeson was born the youngest of five children in Princeton, New Jersey in 1898. His father William had been born into slavery, escaping a plantation in his teens and eventually becoming a Presbyterian minister. His mother Maria died in a house fire when he was six. After a period of family instability, Robeson excelled in education, sport, and song. Despite facing much racial discrimination and other challenges throughout his life, he built a series of astonishing accomplishments by any measure.
Robeson moved to Britain with his wife Essie in part to escape the restrictions placed on their lives by the racist, segregationist ‘Jim Crow’ laws. But it would be the Welsh who truly radicalised him.
A Welsh connection
In 1929, Robeson was performing in the musical Show Boat on London’s West End. Walking home after a matinee, he heard singing in the street. The singers were blacklisted Welsh miners who had marched to London to protest about poverty and unemployment in the South Wales Valleys. Robeson spontaneously joined them, lending his tremendous voice to theirs in more ways than one. Then “he gave a donation so the miners could ride the train back to Wales, in a carriage crammed with clothing and food.”
That was the beginning of a long, mutually respectful relationship with the Welsh working class, in real life and in performance. Released in 1940, the film The Proud Valley was shot in Cwm Darran, Llantrisant, and Tonyrefail. Robeson played David Goliath, an American sailor who docks in Cardiff and seeks work in the Valleys. It was based loosely on the real experiences of a Black miner from West Virginia who ended up in Wales. Goliath is befriended by miners who are understandably keen to have him in their choir.
Goliath faces racism from a fellow miner, but is defended by his pals who say, “Aren’t we all black down that pit?” The film was well received, and the first to be premiered on the radio. But it was put on a publicity blacklist by Daily Express proprietor Lord Beaverbrook due to Robeson’s activism. Though a global celebrity, he was a highly fitting ally for the least powerful in Wales. And he had an uncle in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay who also fought racism and injustice.
In September 1934, Robeson was performing in Caernarfon when news broke of the explosion at the Gresford Colliery near Wrexham. He donated his fees for the Caernarfon concert to a fund for the families of the 266 men killed.
A place to stay
During the Spanish Civil War, hundreds of volunteers from Wales fought to defend democracy as part of the International Brigade. In 1938 Robeson sang to such troops on the front lines. Years later, at the Welsh National Memorial Meeting to remember the 33 Welshmen killed in that war, he said, “These fellows fought not only for Spain, but for me and the whole world.”
He also donated to the Talygarn convalescent home near Llantrisant, a fancy set of buildings acquired by the South Wales Miners’ Welfare Committee in 1922. Not only were thousands of injured miners treated there, but some also enjoyed performances by a visiting Robeson.
During a 1940 US tour, the Beverly Wilshire was the only major Los Angeles hotel which would accommodate Robeson due to his race, but it charged him exorbitantly and made him register under an assumed name. He responded by spending every afternoon sitting in its lobby, being recognised and chatted with, “to ensure that the next time Black[s] come through, they’ll have a place to stay.” Hotels in LA lifted racist restrictions soon afterwards.
“I learned the Russian language to sign their songs.”
During the political witch-hunts of the 1950s, Robeson was considered by fellow singer and activist Pete Seeger to be the most blacklisted US performer of all. He was unable to accept invitations to travel or perform in his own country, and was effectively silenced. Robeson’s testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) is instructive as to his finest qualities and his treatment by the committee, as well as providing an opportunity to hear that fabled voice.
Abundant and dignified lives
In May 1957, employing the new technology of the transatlantic telephone cable, a concert was held at St Pancras Town Hall in London. It was part of an international campaign of support called Let Paul Robeson Sing! He performed from a USA studio for a sold-out (in an hour flat) audience of 1000, reusing the successful new format to be ‘with’ his Welsh mining friends later that year. Porthcawl’s now-listed Grand Pavilion has a Paul Robeson Room in tribute to him.
“If you could only have seen this great body of people clinging to every note and word, you would have known the extent of the feeling that exists in Wales for you and for your release from the bondage now forced upon you.”Will Paynter, President of South Wales branch, National Union of Mineworkers, Porthcawl, 1957
Robeson’s passport was restored the following year, after the US Supreme Court ruled that the denial of travel rights without due process was unconstitutional. In 1958 he went on a world tour, using London as a base, which included 28 performances around the UK. And in April 1959 he starred as Othello for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Wherever he went, Paul Robeson held Wales in his heart. If he’s not as well remembered here as he should be, there are still people in and corners of Wales that honour him, including Swansea University, Porthcawl’s Grand Pavilion, and the Park and Dare Theatre (home of Treorchy Male Voice Choir, which sang with him in 1957).
But the Talygarn miners’ convalescent home was turned into ‘luxury homes’ in 2013. Let Robeson, that great friend to the Welsh, sharing our love of songs of the people, inspire us to fight as hard and risk as much for rights and freedoms as he did. For, as he put it, “a world where we can live abundant and dignified lives”.