Earl Robinson

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About Earl Robinson

Earl Hawley Robinson was a central player in the early recognition and development of American folk music. He was born on July 2, 1910 in Seattle, Washington. From an early age his mother made sure that he, along with his two siblings, received a serious musical education. Between the three children, they played piano, guitar, flute, viola, violin, saxophone, and clarinet. By the age of six, Robinson was improvising on the piano, so it was little surprise that he decided to major in music when he enrolled in the University of Seattle in 1928. After graduation in 1933, he traveled to China and worked his way back to the United States by hiring himself as a pianist on an ocean liner. In 1934, he arrived in New York City, eager to involve himself in left-=wing activity including the Young Communist League and the Workers Laboratory Theater (later known as the Theater of Action). During the summer of 1936 he worked as the musical director at Camp Unity, and it was there he composed "Joe Hill." While continuing his activity at summer camps, he also began composing for the Federal Theater Project in the late 1930s, and led the People's Chorus at the International Workers Order. Robinson reached an early career peak in 1939 when he wrote "Ballad for Americans" with John Latouche for the end of the play, Sing for Your Supper. When the Works Progress Administration (a federal government program) shut down, CBS rescued "Ballad for Americans" for its Pursuit of Happiness radio program in the latter part of 1939. In the epic song, the singer paints a mythical portrait of the American people throughout history. Performed by actor-singer Paul Robeson, the program was a smashing success, leading to a recording of the song backed by Robinson's American Peoples Chorus. Surprisingly, even the conservative Readers Digest praised it as worthy propaganda. The success of "Ballad for Americans" also helped Robinson receive a Guggenheim fellowship to create a musical version of Carl Sandburg's The People, Yes. His skill as a writer also impressed Eleanor Roosevelt, who invited the signer to perform at her political functions. During the 1940s, Robinson moved to Hollywood where he wrote for television, films, theater, and radio. He wrote songs for Romance of Rosie Ridge and California, and composed a musical score for the documentary The Roosevelt Story. In the 1950s, he composed a folk opera, Sandhog, and scored the music for the General Motors film, Giants in the Land. Robinson worked as the musical director at the Elisabeth Irwin High School from 1957 to 1966 in New York City, and conducted the Extension Chorus at the University of California from 1967 to 1969. After 1969, he composed the music for a number of television shows including The Great Man's Whiskers and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Robinson returned to his home in Seattle in 1989 where he continued to compose abstract compositions until his death from an automobile accident in 1991. ~ Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

Seattle, WA, United States
July 2, 1910

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