Paul's Promise (A Dedication to Paul Robeson and the Peekskill Riots) EP 2024 - STEVE FRIEDER
I was a child when I first saw the obscure photographs on the walls of Old Fashioned Pizza. Black and white images depicted a tumultuous clash in a field with mobs of angry people and smug-faced policemen, flipped cars with shattered windows, young men with fists raised and fire in their eyes. An event seldom taught about or discussed in the Cortlandt/Peekskill area, it wasn’t until years later, after reading T.C. Boyle’s novel Worlds End, that I began to understand the significance of the Peekskill Riots of 1949 and the work of Paul Robeson.
Through researching the history of the Peekskill Riots, I have garnered insight into the political and cultural landscape of this time in America. In spite of mainstream opposition to progressive movements and civil rights, I marvel at the courage of those artists and activists who stood up for freedom of expression and ethnic inclusion. Divergent figures like folk artist/labor rights activist Pete Seeger, theremin innovator and virtuoso Clara Rockmore, singer/actor Hope Foye, pianist/composer Lawrence Brown, pianist/composer Leonid Hambro and many others coalesced in support of Robeson’s performance. After the event, much of the political right, including Governor Dewey of New York and members of the US House of Representatives, condemned Robeson and communist agitators for the violence. In the following years, many of the performers were subsequently blacklisted under the HUAC.
In 2022, I wrote and recorded Paul’s Promise with a mission to shed light on this critical moment in American civil rights history for the people of my town and the world. By no means do I claim to know all there is to know about this event and it is certainly possible that there are inaccuracies in my understanding. This piece represents parts of the story that I find most compelling. There is much more to study about this event and there are members of the Peekskill and Cortlandt community that are doing even greater work at this moment to give it broader recognition. As I finally release this piece into the world in 2024, I hope that Paul’s Promise can contribute to this mission.
“My process is inspired by abstract painters. I start with a blank canvas of sorts, no composition written out or memorized. Rather, with the first stroke unto the canvas, on an empty tape an improvised melody emerges, perhaps with an idea ahead of time or a motivic locking. It’s akin to a real time composition - subconscious if you want to go full on abstract. A second pass through is now a self dialogue, this model was certainly mastered by pianist Bill Evans in “Conversations with Myself”. All of my wind instruments can be used as new voices and colors. At this point, a piece can be layered to a degree most in line with the artist's message.”
1. Evening Star - On August 27th, 1949 in Peekskill, NY, American singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson was scheduled to perform at an outdoor fundraising concert organized by a diverse coalition of progressive activists and artists. The cause was to raise money for the Civil Rights Congress, a legal defense fund for Black New Yorkers. Reports of Robeson’s speeches in the Soviet Union earlier that year and ties to socialist and progressive movements, induced an angry fervor amongst a large percentage of largely white Peekskill locals. Anti-Robeson opinions were published in the Peekskill Evening Star Newspaper galvanizing anti-communist veteran groups and townsfolk to protest the concert.
2. Courage We Know Well - As Robeson rode the train north from New York City to Peekskill, protesters gathered near the grounds, parading and threatening the concert. Quickly, the anti-Robeson protests devolved violently. Protesters destroyed the outdoor grounds, burning the stage, chairs, pro-labor/civil rights pamphlets and books. Effigies of Robeson were hung. Reports were made of burning crosses.
3. Winds of Still Lake - Robeson fled in secret from the Peekskill train station, heading towards the Ossining summer cottage of pianist Nadia Reisenberg and theremin virtuoso/innovator Clara Rockmore, sisters renowned in the classical music world. In hiding overnight, on the shore of Still Lake, Robeson vows to double down and hold the concert a week later.
4. Paul’s Promise - On September 4th, the concert went on, with thousands of union workers protecting the grounds while anti-Robeson groups paraded on the hill. It's been estimated that tens of thousands of people attended the concert. Pete Seeger, Hope Foye, Sylvia Kahn, Leonid Hambro and Ray Lev performed with Paul Robeson headlining the concert with his famous rendition of “Old Man River”.
5. Everlasting Shame - After the concert, the attendants were sabotaged. Concert goer’s cars were directed one way out of the grounds by police, only to be pummeled by stones and bricks from the overpasses, all the way back to lower Westchester. Anti-Robeson protests descended into an all out pogrom, with anti-semitic, anti-black and racist slurs being slung at concert goers.
6. Hold the Line - My arrangement of Pete Seeger’s song, which tells the dramatic story of the Peekskill Riots. This pivotal event in civil rights and labor rights history has mostly been forgotten in my town, where very few people know about what happened, many of whom are likely descendants of the attackers and concert goers still living here today. There has been much written on the Peekskill Riots; novels, poems, musical compositions, articles, etc. But not a lot has been read or understood about the events. My goal with this work is to shed light on and foster recognition of this infamous event that happened in my hometown.