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Earl Hawley Robinson (July 2, 1910 – July 20, 1991) was a folk music singer-songwriter and composer from Seattle, Washington. Robinson is remembered for his music, including the songs "Joe Hill", "Black and White", and the cantata "Ballad for Americans," which expressed his left-leaning political views. He was a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s. In addition, he wrote many popular songs and music for Hollywood films.
The jazz clarinettist Perry Robinson is his son.
Career in music
He studied violin, viola and piano as a child, and studied composition at the University of Washington, receiving a BM and teaching certificate in 1933. In 1934 he moved to New York City where he studied with Hanns Eisler and Aaron Copland. He was also involved with the depression-era WPA Federal Theater Project, and was actively involved in the anti-fascist movement and was the musical director at the Communist-run Camp Unity in upstate New York. In the 1940s he worked on film scores in Hollywood until he was blacklisted for being a Communist. Unable to work in Hollywood, he moved back to New York, where he headed the music program at Elisabeth Irwin High School, directing the orchestra and chorus.
Robinson's musical influences included Paul Robeson, Lead Belly, and American folk music. He composed "Ballad for Americans" (lyrics by John La Touche) which became a signature song for Robeson. It was also recorded by Bing Crosby. He wrote the music for and sang in the short documentary film Muscle Beach (1948), directed by Joseph Strick and Irving Lerner.
Other songs written by Robinson include "The House I Live In" (a 1945 hit recorded by Frank Sinatra), "Joe Hill" (a setting of a poem by Alfred Hayes, which was later recorded by Joan Baez and used in the film of the same name), the ongoing ballad that accompanied the film A Walk in the Sun that was sung by Kenneth Spencer. In 1942, Robinson wrote the music for a cantata (or "ballad opera") on the life and death of Abraham Lincoln entitled The Lonesome Train (text by Millard Lampell). It was recorded in 1944 by Burl Ives, and performed live in 2009 for the first time since the spring of 1974, when it was performed publicly at Mesabi Community College in Virginia, Minnesota as the headliner for the Mesabi Creative Arts Festival. The 2009 performance was in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. Robinson co-wrote the folk musical Sandhog with blacklisted screenwriter Waldo Salt. It is based on "St. Columbia and the River," a story by Theodore Dreiser about the tunnel workers, known as "sandhogs," who built the first tunnel under the Hudson River. The musical debuted at the Phoenix Theater in New York on November 23, 1954. Robinson also wrote "Black and White", with David I. Arkin, the late father of actor Alan Arkin, a celebration of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which has been also recorded by Pete Seeger, Three Dog Night, Jamaican reggae band The Maytones, UK reggae band Greyhound and Sammy Davis Jr.
His late works included a concerto for banjo, as well as a piano concerto entitled The New Human. His cantata based on the preamble to the constitution of the United Nations was premiered in New York with the Elisabeth Irwin High School Chorus and the Greenwich Village Orchestra in 1962 or 1963.
He was killed at the age of 81 in a car accident in his hometown of Seattle in 1991.
- Mari Jo Buhle (et al.) (1998) Encyclopedia of the American Left, Oxford University Press (NY)
- Don Michael Randel (1996) Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music, Belknap Press
- Steven E. Gilbert. "Earl Robinson", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed January 30, 2006), grovemusic.com (subscription access).
- R.S. Denisoff (1973) Great Day Coming: Folk Music and the American Left, Baltimore, Maryland
- Robinson, Earl (1998). Ballad of an American: The Autobiography of Earl Robinson. with Eric A. Gordon. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0810834332.