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From An Historian’s Notebook: How to Write a Folk Song

This would have made no difference to Paul Robeson, when he chose to sing the song. He was comfortable with the work of Dvořák; he
Paul Robeson
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One morning’s flea-market visit yielded an old Paul Robeson record, an East German pressing from the years when Robeson’s reputation and his music were kept alive by the communist bloc, while he lived a miserable and uncertain life in the United States, his passport confiscated and his right to perform taken away from him. The record, referring to Robeson (1898-1976) as ‘der berühmte Negrosänger’, the famous Negro singer’, yielded several songs I hadn’t heard before, and one or two that I had: among them was ‘Going Home’, set to the tune of the second, slow movement from Antonín Dvořák’s ‘New World’ symphony[1]. 

This was a regular part of Robeson’s set, and he sang it in the manner of a blues lament, even if the structure of the tune had, I thought, little to do with the blues; Dvořák (1841-1904) was a Czech composer from the age of nationalism and the years of folk revival, though of course the symphony was his imagination of the Americas set to music. The record sleeve of Robeson singing ‘Lieder verschiedener Völker’, songs of diverse peoples, said about the Dvořák adaptation, somewhat evasively, that the lyrics had been written by someone else, or in somewhat peculiar German, that the English lyrics had been added ‘von fremder Hand’, by a foreign hand. 

This of course creates a few translational difficulties: Volk and Völker in German can of course mean ‘people’ and ‘peoples’, in a harmless if potentially populist manner; Volk is also a reasonable and literal translation of the English qualifier ‘folk’ as in ‘folk music’, which also has populist potential. But völkisch is an adjective that indicates a community of blood, soil and race in a way that the abstract noun it apparently derives from does not: a precursor to Nazi ideas about the cleansing of a people of its impurities that are not völkisch. The slippage of meaning is less evident in the noun: the Monday demonstrations in the German Democratic Republic in the years 1989-1990 started with the slogan ‘wir sind das Volk’, we are the people – a reasonable claim against a government that claimed to represent the popular will, but had lost its right to that claim, the emphasis here being on the we. That slogan changed to ‘wir sind ein Volk’, we are one people, with the emphasis decidedly on the one. Der Fremde is also a difficult concept, between outsider and stranger and someone else, with different connotations in various contexts: not that any of these translational subtleties or semantic syncopations can be attributed to the J. Loewenbach who wrote the sleeve notes for the Robeson collection. But a little context can be provided by the fact that Der Fremde is the German title for the Albert Camus novella L’étranger, translated into English in different versions as either The Outsider or The Stranger.

Antonín Dvořák Czech composer and collector of folk tunes

As an historian, of course, the first thing that occurred to me was that I should find the foreign hand responsible for the lyrics; a little research yielded the name William Arms Fisher (1861-1948), and a year of the song’s first appearance, 1922. The cover page of one version of the sheet music that I could first find declared: ‘Goin’ Home: Negro Spiritual. Based on the Largo from the New World Symphony by Anton Dvořák, op. 95. Words and adaptation by William Arms Fisher.’ In other versions of the sheet music, the qualifier ‘Negro spiritual’ is missing, notably what appears to be the first edition of the work, published in Boston.

The lyrics went:

Goin’ home, goin’ home, I’m a goin’ home;
Quiet-like, some still day, I’m jes’ goin’ home.
It’s not far, jes’ close by,
Through an open door;
Work all done, care laid by,
Goin’ to fear no more.
Mother’s there ‘spectin’ me,
Father’s waitin’ too;
Lots o’ folk gather’d there,
All the friends I knew,
All the friends I knew.
Home, I’m goin’ home!

Nothin lost, all’s gain,
No more fret nor pain,
No more stumblin’ on the way,
No more longin’ for the day,
Goin’ to roam no more!
Mornin’ star lights the way,
Res’less dream all done;
Shadows gone, break o’ day,
Real life jes’ begun.
There’s no break, there’s no end,
Jes’ a livin’ on;
Wide awake, with a smile
Goin’ on and on.

Goin’ home, goin’ home, I’m jes’ goin’ home,
goin’ home, goin’ home, goin’ home![2]

William Arms Fisher wrote a long note to the piece, in which he said, among other things:

“The Largo, with its haunting English horn solo, is the outpouring of Dvořák’s own home-longing, with something of the loneliness of far-off prairie horizons, the faint memory of the red-man’s bygone days, and a sense of the tragedy of the black-man as it sings in his ‘spirituals.’ Deeper still it is a moving expression of that nostalgia of the soul all human beings feel. That the lyric opening theme of the Largo should spontaneously suggest the words ‘Goin’ home, goin’ home’ is natural enough, and that the lines that follow the melody should take the form of a negro spiritual accords with the genesis of the symphony.”[3]

But Fisher was neither a red man nor a black man: he was a white man who had just written a Negro spiritual. 

This would have made no difference to Paul Robeson, when he chose to sing the song. He was comfortable with the work of Dvořák; he sang a song from the 1848 Revolution in Czech by Smetana; and he said of himself that he could sing in twenty-five languages. As an internationalist and a communist, the purpose of his work was to emphasise what was common to the human condition. Dvořák took his interest in folk melodies with him to the United States when he went there to teach in 1885, and he evinced an interest in the music of Native Americans as well as in ‘Negro spirituals’ that in today’s racially-divided environment would have made him quite suspect, as indeed it makes William Arms Fisher in retrospect. 

Indeed, internet pundits have already declared that ‘Goin’ home’ was given its words not by Fisher but by a black man; others are equally convinced that Fisher stereotyped and therefore disrespected the cultures he claimed to write about, whose sounds he said he had heard in Dvořák’s music: not that anyone was going to speak for Fisher’s alleged disrespect for the Czech folk traditions in Dvořák’s music. Perhaps Robeson might have been out of joint with a Dvořák singularly interested in ‘his own traditions’: Robeson became the voice of the Popular Front in retelling the history of the United States from the perspective of its many peoples (‘What is America to Me?’) in the service of the world’s struggle against fascism. “The first to die in the struggle against fascism were the communists. I laid many wreaths upon the graves of communists”. That’s Robeson in his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956. 

That many of Robeson’s fans are strangely uncomfortable with his communism, as if they were retrospective members of HUAC, is slightly bizarre, given how much he suffered for his ideas, and given that he was willing to do so: they would make of him a black nationalist, which he most certainly wasn’t – and communists were the most consistent, if sometimes the most unreasonably optimistic, supporters of the right of nations to self-determination, as a prerequisite to the struggle for socialism, but they were unlikely to defend a völkisch view of that nation. Even when Comrade Stalin instumentalised Great Russian nationalism against the world and against the other nationalities of the Soviet Union, many foreign communists were unable to share in this enthusiasm.

It came to pass, then, that Antonín Dvořák, Bohemian composer, Czech romantic nationalist, and collector of folk tunes, upon arriving in the United States, sought out the folk traditions of his new host country; the New World Symphony contains his field notes. His student, William Arms Fisher, is best remembered today as an arranger of Negro spirituals, not a composer or lyricist of any of them: perhaps he was among the early compilers of other peoples’ folk traditions. The question arises, of course, whether a compiler of folk traditions has to be of the tradition; because the recovery of a tradition would hardly be necessary if it were already or still known, and the person responsible for the rediscovery might not be of the tradition without knowing it, before the tradition is recovered. Solidarity with others’ histories was once what human beings thought was at the heart of being human: Paul Robeson could sing an anthem of resistance inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto uprising – in Yiddish – without being Jewish, Polish or dead; he was no völkisch nationalist when he sang William Arms Fisher and Antonín Dvořák’s ‘Negro spiritual’.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of or its editorial team members. 

Images courtesy: Wikipedia


  1. This is the version from the famous Carnegie Hall concert in 1958, Paul Robeson’s return to public performance after a long ban: 

  3. Quoted in

Benjamin Zachariah works at the Georg Eckert Institute for Educational Media in Braunschweig, and with the project on the contemporary history of historiography at the University of Trier. He was trained in the discipline of history in the last decade of the previous century. After an uneventful beginning to a perfectly normal academic career, he began to take an interest in the importance of history outside the circle of professional historians, and the destruction of the profession by the profession. He is interested in the writing and teaching of history and the place of history in the public domain.

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