Kenneth Anderson keeps alive the spirit of Paul Robeson

Recently, the city of Peekskill, N.Y., hosted an event in commemoration of the 1949 Paul Robeson concert which had erupted into an infamous riot when attacked by a mob of neo-fascists. While many unionists, progressives and at least a few Communists were in attendance at this anniversary event, none felt the need to form a protective line around the stage area as their counterparts did sixty years before. Instead, the crowd which gathered did so in honor of the man whom our own government attempted to disappear so long ago. The event featured artists from all walks of musical life, but the one who actually carried the spirit of Robeson into the hall was vocalist Kenneth Anderson.

“I was very excited to be a part of that important occasion,” said Kenneth Anderson, the octogenarian bass-baritone whose voice bears an uncanny resemblance to Robeson’s. “Paul was a giant. He was a Renaissance man. An artist, a statesman. He spoke truth to power and was unafraid.”

When asked about his connection to Robeson’s greater cause of social change he immediately spoke about the People’s World. “Years ago when I was home sick, a friend of mine never forgot to bring me a copy of your newspaper and I am so glad to have had the chance to read it. Now when I go to sing in nursing homes I see these poor folks sitting back in recliners, propped up in front of the TV with Fox News on all day long. It’s terrible. They are prisoners.”

Anderson added that this is why he continues to perform in such venues and always is certain to sing the music of Paul Robeson at each visit-the music of human rights, peace and progressive activism.

In discussing the original Peekskill Riot, Anderson also drew an important parallel between the neo-fascism of the early Cold War years and what seems to be its resurgence right now. “These right-wing attacks on health care reform, the vicious lies of the conservative media, the red-baiting. It’s all the same. When was the last time you heard about a man being able to carry a loaded gun into a meeting the president spoke at? We are in for some serious struggles,” he warned.

And Anderson should know. In the past, he has served the greater good as a community organizer with the New York State Human Rights Commission, where he focused on housing and health care issues, and he also found himself thrust into a very personal sort of civil rights struggle-along with a wealth of song to perform along the way.

Anderson traces his musical background to his boyhood in Wilmington, Del., where he regularly heard European classical music at home, but he also had an aunt who was a church pianist; from the start he held a keen appreciation for both African American and European traditions. Anderson began singing as a child and performed for events including for the local Grand Army of the Republic, a society which traces family ancestries back to the Civil War Union Army. During these years he began to develop a fascination for spirituals.

“Negro Spirituals are sadly overlooked, but this music is the original American folksong. The oppressors wanted to use religion so that they could ‘civilize’ whom they thought of as savages and they did this through religion. They did not want us to sing at first but it became a deep part of our tradition.”

While he may have begun this foray into music as a boy soprano, Anderson would experience a seismic shift in his vocal range at puberty. By high school, “Ol’ Man River” had become a staple of his repertoire.

In 1951 he entered the army and was quickly transferred into the Special Services division, performing R&B and doo-wop with a vocal quartet stationed in Germany. The director recognized Anderson’s talent and encouraged him to perform solo pieces as well, and he sang Robeson standards over the armed services airwaves to great response. After returning to civilian life, Anderson and the rest of the quartet had some aspirations of turning professional and though singer Eddie Fisher was interested in producing them, the group fell apart. Anderson moved on. “I realized that I needed to have a career, so I went to school to study nursing at Long Island University in Brooklyn, intent on becoming a nurse anesthetist.” During his studies, he also sang at Manhattan’s noted Riverside Church on Sundays.

Following graduation, Anderson found work in an unlikely place, Port Jefferson in Long Island, N.Y., then a segregated white area with strongly conservative views.

“It was 1963, the heart of the civil rights era. The town was very racist and I could not find a place to live. I came to realize that racism was virulent in both the North and the South. Port Jefferson was my Mississippi, so I took action. I got involved with the local NAACP chapter. Later I became that organization’s regional director for all of Long Island and served in that capacity for some years. I brought Saul Alinsky to speak at one of our meetings back then. I have never forgotten that he told us to ‘comfort the afflicted but afflict the comfortable’.”

In the 1970s Anderson began working on the faculty of Stony Brook University’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences, in Port Jefferson. He was deeply concerned that no Black students were enrolled in the program, nor was there any other faculty member of color to be found on campus. There he developed a core of activism and became a strong voice to recruit African American students into the school. He established outreach to the community around Port Jefferson and slowly saw important change occur. By the late ’70s, he was proudly attending Black History Month celebrations there at the college. Around this time, he also came into contact with noted pianist Sylvia Olden Lee, an African American musician who introduced Anderson to the performers of New York City’s classical scene, but particularly to those involved in the National Association of Negro Musicians. Ms. Lee guided him toward the singing of spirituals again and he began to perform whole concerts of this repertoire by 1989. But Anderson quickly came to realize that it was Robeson’s versions of these songs that resonated most with him.

A year later he performed the first of many Paul Robeson tribute concerts, for which he would receive invitations to sing at colleges around the nation. By 1996, Anderson was invited back to Stony Brook to present an evening of Robeson material in a special concert. And a year later, the college inducted him into Phi Beta Kappa, an academic honor society-this after suffering the indignity of being ostracized in the area in 1963. The moment stays with Anderson as but one victory to reflect on.

It was in 1998 that Anderson first came to know Pete Seeger, who’d been a great friend of Robeson’s. His first performance with the folk legend was at the Church of St. Mark’s in the Bowery in New York City and he has since been called on by Seeger on many occasions. Seeger has said that Anderson’s voice is as close as one can get to that of the late, great vocalist’s. Watching Ken’s performances on YouTube one can easily see why these selections have been viewed nearly 4,000 times.

When asked about the highlight of his years as a Robeson tribute artist, Anderson immediately spoke of a 2006 presentation with labor luminary Henry Foner in Beacon N.Y., and of the centenary concerts celebrating Robeson’s birth anniversary in 1998. Anderson performed at several of the centenary events and in each case he sang “Ballad for Americans,” a noted work of radical composer Earl Robinson and lyricist John LaTouche, premiered by Robeson in 1939. The significance of this piece was never lost on Robeson: it spoke volumes about the ideals of the United States-equality and brotherhood-in a time of great racial divide and discrimination.

It is not lost on Anderson either. While performing this song he is acutely aware of the powerful message within-and how much work is yet to be done. And it is this combination of great musicality with social commentary that makes Paul Robeson such a towering, historic figure, one who stands as a model for today’s cultural workers.

“When I do a Robeson tribute presentation I am always torn about how much time to spend on Robeson the man, the intellectual, or to spend on Robeson the activist. You can dedicate hours on either as they were both so present.”

These days it is the lasting legacy of Paul Robeson that stays with us-his message, his example, his evocative and empowering music. And in a series of thoughtfully organized presentations in colleges, theatres or community centers, his spirit is called upon to keep us strong through the voice of one Kenneth Anderson.