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Robeson developed a commitment to being a “people’s artist” during his time in Britain in the late 1930s. Returning to the U.S., he used his extraordinary voice to support the strikes and demonstrations of a number of unions which shared his left political perspective. He became an honorary member of a number of CIO unions, starting with the National Maritime Union in 1941.

The NMU made a name for itself demanding equal rights. It had a significant black membership (including the secretary-treasurer, Ferdinand Smith, originally from Jamaica). Robeson addressed a very enthusiastic audience at the 1941 convention, singing ten songs, some of them requests (we don't know which).

“Water Boy” was one of Robeson’s signature songs, described by his son Paul Robeson, Jr., as one for which he had “an intuitive affinity.” This recording features esteemed black folk artists Sonny Terry (harmonica) and Brownie McGhee (guitar).

Paul Robeson leading shipyard workers in singing the “ The Star Spangled Banner” in Oakland, California, 1942.

Paul Robeson receiving an honorary NMU membership book from NMU president Joseph Curan at the 1941 convention. ~ NMU Pilot, July 18, 1941. Courtesy of Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, Tamiment Library, New York University.

Robeson addressing the July 1941 NMU Convention in Cleveland, Ohio:

…brothers: I needn’t say how happy I am to be here, because I am here. I don’t come as a singer of importance or anything like that. I come today because I feel very close to the maritime unions…

I know the whole background of your Union, and I would like you to know that among the colored people of this country your Union stands among the foremost for giving complete equality and for the advancement of the colored people…

The printed convention proceedings describe Robeson’s reception: “The delegates rose to their feet and thunderously applauded and cheered Mr. Robeson. It was some time before the demonstration ceased.”

Water Boy

(Avery Robinson)

Water boy
Where are you hiding
If you don’t come
I’m gonna tell your daddy

There ain’t no hammer
That's on a this mountain
That a rings-a like mine boy
That a rings-a like mine

I’m gonna bust this rock boy
From here to Macon
All the way to the jail boy
Yes a-back to the jail

You jack o’ diamond
Now you jack o’ diamond
Well I know you of old boy
Yes I know you of old

You rob my pocket
Yes you rob-a my pocket
You done rob-a my pocket
Of a-silver and gold

Water boy
Where are you hiding
If you don’t come
I’m gonna tell your daddy

Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
Water boy

Recording from “The Odyssey of Paul Robeson,” with Sonny Terry on harmonica, Brownie McGhee on guitar, Lawrence Brown on piano.
© Copyright Labor Arts Inc.