Sixty years ago today Cwmbach Male Choir had the honour of singing with the legendary Paul Robeson…. The story follows below
Paul Robeson was one of the foremost African-Americans of the 20th Century. He was a world-renowned; much loved and respected singer, actor and leading civil-rights campaigner and activist.
He was born the fifth child of an escaped slave in 1898 the same year that the fledging South Wales Miners Federation was formed. This is just one of a series of striking coincidences that marked the life and ideals of those early trade unionists and those of Paul Robeson. It is, therefore, not surprising that once their paths had crossed, the lives of the great man himself and the working people of South Wales became intertwined, indeed almost inseparable for the five decades between the early 1920's and the 1960's.
Robeson's links to mining and South Wales were reinforced when in 1939 he starred in the film "The Proud Valley". Supposedly based on the Rhondda Valleys, it was largely filmed on location, not in Tylorstown, but in Tinseltown! It is said he insisted on the plight of the South Wales miners being faithfully depicted in the film, and he learned to sing in Welsh, and to love "All through the Night"- the Welsh air he would sing 20 years later with the Cwmbach Male Choir.
In the post-war years, Robeson's increasing support for Communism led to his political activities being declared "Un-American", and as a result his passport was withdrawn, severely curtailing both his career and his international campaigning. Despite the ban, every year between 1950 and 1957 Robeson received an invitation to attend the Miner's Eisteddfod in Porthcawl, which he had promised to one day attend. Famously In 1957, as a result of the recently laid transatlantic telephone cable he addressed the Eisteddfod via the telephone from a secret studio location in New York.
My warmest greetings to the people of my beloved Wales, and a special hello to the miners of South Wales, at this great festival. It is a great privilege to be participating in this historic Festival. All the best to you as we strive toward a world where we all can live abundant, peaceful and dignified lives."
He ended his contribution by singing the Spiritual "Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel?" The audience and competing choirs, including Cwmbach, sang, "We'll Keep a Welcome" back to him.
Mr Dai Francis, who was General Secretary of the South Wales Branch of the National Union of Mineworkers and also, President of Cwmbach United Male Choir presented him with a Welsh Prayer Book and symbolically, with a Miner's Lamp, made at the famous Cambrian Lampworks in Aberdare. He then accompanied Robeson to witness the final of the Chief Male Voice Choir competition Finally Robeson attended a reception given in his honour by the National Union of Mineworkers and told an audience of miners
"You have shaped my life, I have learned so much from you. I am of the working class and, like you, proud to be so…"
Dai Francis was also involved with an organisation called the "Movement for Colonial Freedom", a campaigning organisation fighting for the cause of Black Africa. He talked to Paul Robeson about the Movement and asked would he join with a Welsh Choir at one of their events in London to which Robeson agreed. The event to mark 'Africa Freedom Day' was held at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on Easter Sunday 1960 and featured Robeson singing with Cwmbach Choir.
The choir’s then conductor TR James had discussions with Robeson's musical director, and it was agreed that he would join with the Choir to sing the welsh air "Ar Hyd y Nos" (All through the Night)
During the performance Robeson stopped singing half way through and the choir finished the piece on their own. Robeson joined in the applause that followed, apologised for stopping and told the audience
"I just wanted to join you to listen and enjoy the sheer beauty of the voices"
In 2020 just one of the Choir that sang with Robeson is still alive, Dalla Jones a former teacher at Aberdare Boys Grammar School.
The concert was so successful that a second concert was arranged for the following year, 1961. Robeson, despite his increasing poor health, agreed to attend.
The choir left Cwmbach in two coaches and arrived in London on Sunday 18th April. In the late morning when the choir was preparing to rehearse, the organisers received a message to say that Paul Robeson had been taken ill and would be unable to perform in the concert. No professional replacement was available at such short notice so T.R. James asked one of the Basses, George Lloyd to take Robeson’s place. Lloyd had been a member of the audience who had listened to Robeson at the Mountain Ash Pavilion back in 1938.
Upon being asked George is reported to have said:
"Well if you think I can do it, I'll have a go!”
In a wonderful, but largely amateur singing career, he had sung with the Welsh National Opera, the Welsh Festival Choir and Saddlers Wells. His performance on the day would bring the capacity audience to its feet, giving him a well-deserved thunderous ovation. Dai Francis, writing in the National Union of Mineworkers magazine later said:
" This working man from South Wales will never forget the memorable occasion when he was called upon at such short notice to fill the breach caused by the illness of one of the world's most famous singers…..and how wonderfully he acquitted himself…."
George died in 1999 at the age of 80. He was a Life Member of Cwmbach Male Choir, and at that time, the only chorister to have served for 60 years. His funeral eulogy fondly recalled his proudest moment.
Following the death of his wife in 1965, Robeson stayed largely out of the public eye until his death in 1976.
In 2002, the choir were honoured and privileged to be invited to sing at the opening of the "Let Paul Robeson Sing" exhibition at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. More recently, the Choir's singing was featured on Alan Yentob's television documentary on the life of Aneurin Bevan, in which Paul Robeson's visit to the Ebbw Vale Eisteddfod of 1958 was recalled.