SINGER/SONGWRITER Earl Robinson has guaranteed himself a place in history. Some of his many songs--"Joe Hill" and "Ballad for Americans" spring to mind--are classics of American folk music, and Robinson is still singing them robustly, as well as helping to preserve a chunk of the music he helped foster.
The energetic 73-year-old songwriter was in town over the weekend to perform for friends and to apply for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund a PBS documentary on his life and songs, which will be produced and directed by Steve Binder.
Some his songs have hit the pop charts --Frank Sinatra did a well-known version of "The House I Live In." Sammy Davis Jr. sang Robinson's "Black and White," marking the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision, and the song was a number one hit for the pop group Three Dog Night 23 years later, earning Robinson more than $100,000 in royalties.
Robinson worked his way to China and back as a lounge pianist on a passenger liner in his twenties, then he traveled across America, collecting folk songs, many of which he recorded for the Archives of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress. In his travels he became friends with folksingers like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Burl Ives and Josh White.
In 1936, Robinson co-wrote "Joe Hill," a celebration of the labor organizer who was executed by a firing squad in Salt Lake City in 1914. Hill wrote the classic folk song "Casey Jones."
"It was at Camp Unity, a little left-wing summer camp north of New York City," Robinson says. "We decided to celebrate Joe Hill as a songwriter, which he was, you know. Alfred Hayes gave me the lyric the night of the campfire, and I went into a tent with my guitar. I came out 45 minutes later with a tune. I don't remember much of a reaction that night."
But within a couple of weeks, Robinson had heard that his song had been sung in a New Orleans labor council, on a San Francisco picket line and later, by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. The song has been covered endlessly, including Joan Baez's version from the Woodstock rock festival. "I liked her version very much," he says. "She added more of a country flavor to it. And the 'Woodstock' record was tremendously successful, so the Robinson family ate for a few years."
His favorite version of "Joe Hill" is by Paul Robeson, the great black singer and actor, whom Robinson met while working on the WPA Federal Theatre Project in New York City. Robinson had written the Federal Theatre revue "Sing for Your Supper," which had a short run on Broadway.
Author Norman Corwin heard Robinson's 11-minute cantata "Ballad for Uncle Sam" in the show and wanted it for his CBS radio show "Pursuit of Happiness." After auditioning the cantata for CBS officials, Robinson says he remembers a CBS vice president standing and saying, "Wouldn't Robeson knock the hell out of this!"
"So they put me together with big Paul," Robinson says. "He told me he knew me--he had learned 'Joe Hill' in England. He'd be so meticulous, and would work for hours getting an exactly perfect reading of a song."
Retitled "Ballad for Americans" for CBS, the work drew a riotous 15-minute ovation from the studio audience after Robeson's delivery.
"I have such a profound respect for the folk song," Robinson says. "You don't sit down to write a folk song. Anyone who calls himself a folk-song writer is either stupid or ignorant. It becomes a folk song only when the folks pick it up, when it goes into history. So I don't call myself a folk song composer."
But Robinson can call himself a serious composer. He has an impressive list of diverse works in his songbook, including six folk operas written in the past six years, and he has created musical settings for the poetry of Carl Sandburg and the words of Abraham Lincoln, among others.
One folk opera, "David of Sassoon," about an Armenian folk hero, was inspired by a statue Robinson spotted in Fresno, Calif. "I saw this statue of a man on a horse brandishing a sword; there was a passionate light in his eye. The minute I saw that, I knew there was an opera in it."
Recent works include "Listen for the Dolphin," a children's musical about a baby dolphin who wants to meet human children, which incorporates dolphin "singing." He describes his latest piece, "Song of Atlantis" as "taking off on the concept of Atlantis as an advanced civilization--as far as nuclear power, too--and they succeed in blowing themselves into the water."
Despite a half-century making music, Robinson is not ready to slow down. "Age is irrelevant," says Robinson, who lives in California, and says he believes in reincarnation and is a vegetarian. He still performs "wherever they would like me," and still draws inspiration from everything he sees.
"I want to encompass the world," he says. Modestly.