September 27, 2015 by Stephen Bentley
Paul Robeson and My Father
My Father Loved Paul Robeson
He loved his deep bass-baritone voice and was a fan of anyone who had a really good singing voice. Fred Bentley loved to sing himself and often sang to our mother and to us kids. I recall him singing many times “Don’t Fence Me In” and his ‘party pieces’ at weddings and family gatherings included “My Prayer’ as well as “I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen”. The latter was aimed at Mum and he would look at her with love in his eyes every time he performed this song.
I wish I had a £ for every time he said, “Listen to that wonderful voice” whenever Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River” came on the radio or TV. I must have sat through watching “Showboat”on the TV about seven or eight times. He really did appreciate a good song, good voice and quality delivery of the song.
He instilled in me a love of good music and also his catholic taste in music. He loved swing, big band, crooners and opera in equal measure. Mum also appreciated a good song and we often had family trips out to the cinema especially if there was a musical showing at the time. I remember trips to see “South Pacific”, “Carousel” and “Oklahoma” to name just three. I also inherited his love of singing and have built up a small repertoire of favorites to showcase at karaoke or videoke time. Unlike Dad, I rely on the karaoke/videoke machine as I can’t be bothered learning all the words. I built upon his eclectic tastes in music, but using them as a base, added rock, jazz, rhythm n’ blues, blues and country to my tastes. Some of my favorite artists include Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Holly, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Pearl Jam, Dusty Springfield, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and the list goes on.
Fred Bentley also instilled in me a sense of fairness. A sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. In an era when it was common place to hear racist views being expressed, Fred Bentley never uttered one word of bigotry. It mattered not what color a person’s skin. And that applied to a singer, like Paul Robeson, our family doctor or the man in the street. Watch and listen to the video of Paul Robeson in the movie “Showboat”. It is a throwback to a time when Hollywood was struggling to deal with issues of race, slavery and segregation. I am aware some people have criticized “Showboat” as racist. I do not think it is but a far better explanation of my view can be found here. I reproduce part of that article –
“The exaggerated cartoonish depiction of the characters in blackface had little to do with real Black people, just as the characters played by drag performers have little to do with real women. The caricatures of blackface are as irrelevant to our contemporary entertainment sensibility as commedia dell’arte is. The point that needs to be made here is that including a blackface scene in Show Boat is as appropriate as using the N-word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both are absolutely appropriate because the intentions behind both are not racist and do not intend to demean. Both intend to portray.
The critic John Lahr has summed this up beautifully, saying, “..describing racism doesn’t make Show Boat racist. The production is meticulous in honoring the influence of black culture not just in the making of the nation’s wealth but, through music, in the making of its modern spirit.”
As further proof, Queenie and Joe, though secondary characters, are not stereotypes. Joe, in fact, moves through the proceedings in the role of Greek chorus, wisely commenting on what is happening. He gets the most famous song of the show, Old Man River. This song also has Black roots in that it is as close to a spiritual as a white man has ever written. The song defines the whole show – time floods on, regardless of people. The fact that this profound observation is put in the mouth of a Black man goes a long way to refute any charge of racism to which the mere depiction of a blackface number might give rise.“
I hope you will watch and listen to the voice of Paul Robeson without thinking of issues of race. My purpose in writing this article is to highlight singing talent in the context of my father and my childhood. However, I have included the previous comments about the issues of race for two reasons. Firstly to show my awareness of the historical context of that movie. Secondly, and more importantly in my eyes, to show you what kind of a man my father was.
I had a difficult relationship with my father. We came to blows once when I was 17 years old. I am not proud of that. I loved him and I was deeply upset when he died of lung cancer in 1987. However since that time I always felt more free in myself and in my spirit. Of course I had moments when I thought about him but never was I upset or got emotional at the thought of him. Not until yesterday.
It was a cool night last night here in the Philippines. It was ideal for sitting out on my roof terrace and drinking a cold beer. I was alone with my thoughts and could hear faintly a man’s voice drifting, hanging on the pleasant breeze. I could not tell if it was a record playing or a man singing live, I suspect the latter. He had the most beautiful voice.
I thought of Paul Robeson. I heard my father saying, “Listen!What a wonderful voice!” I wept at the thought of the memory of my father. I cried for the first time in 28 years at the thought of him. I could feel his love and I loved him back.
There was an unspoken conversation between us. I told him that I was sorry that I wasted my talents and did not realize all his dreams for me. He replied that it did not matter; that he loved me and I was a good son. My father never told me that he loved me even when he was dying and knew he was dying. If I was a good son then you were certainly a good father.
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