On October 5, 1942, Longacre Theatre on Broadway saw the the premiere of a small musical revue entitled „Let Freedom Sing“. It was a very ambitious undertaking, staged by a joint venture of very young artists, singers and dancers mostly in their teens and twens, who called themselves „The Youth Theatre Project“. Through their offensively patriotic musical, they tried to combine Broadway traditions to sociocritical themes, with a plot tackling topics of urban poverty caused by progessive industrialism and its harsh effects on the daily life of many, and of course, also racial segregation and discrimation as it was common in American society at the time. Needless to say, the world, and especially New York, wasn’t ready (yet) for such things – the reviews by the local critics were disastrous, and the show was cancelled after but 8 nights. Yet, that „bunch of kids“ within their show had inaugurated a song that would travel around the globe. It was called „The House I Live In (What’s America To Me)“
The song’s composer was Earl Hawley Robinson (1910-1991). Born in Seattle, he had studied music (violin, viola and piano) at Washington University and come to New York City around 1934, where he joined „Workers Laboratory Theatre“, an independent theatre group, and also took further lessons from Aaron Copland (1900-1990), one of the most prolific American composers of the time (whom Frank Sinatra later placed in the same league as George Gershwin, naming him one of his personal heroes), who played an important part in further shaping the composing skills of Robinson. (Robinson in 1946 would accompany Sinatra on a voice-guitar duet of „The House I Live In“ – more about that later).
Another important acquaintance for Robinson was Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), a German from Leipzig who had been forced to emigrate, being a member of the German communist party, after Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933. Eisler, one of Germany’s most prolific writers and composers of „working class songs“, inspired many of Robinson’s subsequent own compositions, including the famous „Ballad For Americans“ in 1939, that most ironically became the official theme song for both the Republican and the Communist party in the 1940 elections.
The latter made Robinson, like even people like Copland and (too many) others, subject to FBI investigations during the notorious McCarthy witchhunts in the late 40s. In spite of having been awarded an Oscar (along with FS) for „The House I Live In“, he was officially banned from working for almost two decades – it took until the mid-60s that he was allowed to work again and gather praise and due rewards for his professional work. Robinson stayed active as both musician and composer right to the very end, which came in 1991 by a fatal car accident.
The lyrics for „The House I Live In“, that contained very outspoken lines in favour of both racial and religious tolerance, basing them on what today is regarded as (but wasn’t at all back then) the democratic foundation of American Society and Western civilisation, had been written for the Youth Theatre Project by Lewis Allan (1903-1986). Allan, whose real name was Abel Meeropol, had enjoyed a broad education of highest order at Harvard University, and soon worked in a variety of fields, teaching English literature as well as writing texts, scripts and lyrics for theatre, radio and opera (in the latter field, he did a stand-out script for an English opera adaption of the famous German piece „Good Soldier Soldier Schwejk“).
His strong opposition towards the racial discrimination pre-dominant in conservative-white America soon paired him with Robinson when he came to New York in the 30s, and equally made him subject of McCarthyism in later years. But like Robinson, his reputation was more or less restored after the 60s. Allan also made the headlines when adopting the two children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after the couple was executed for being communist spies.
His probably most famous song lyrics remain „Strange Fruit“, a song that in 1939 took a strong stand against racism and was masterfully recorded by a young Billie Holiday. (The fascinating story of that recording, which would be too much to be mentioned here, was turned into a superb docu movie in 2002, check http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0350166/ and http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/s...ruit/film.html).
A third person involved with the origins of „The House I Live In“, however, is unfortunately almost always forgotten today – it’s the young singer who first introduced the song during that one week when „Let Freedom Sing“ was playing on Broadway: Mordecai Bauman (*1912), who is still living in New York City (at the time of research, June 2005 – BV.)
Bauman was classically trained as a vocalist and when starting out on various NYC stages in the 30s, he soon met with Robinson and Eisler. Especially Eisler became a close companion; the two of them produced a complete suite of songs about the Spanish Civil War that Bauman would intonate during their extended international concert tours of the late 30s and early 40s. Bauman also played an important part of introducing Marc Blitzstein’s first lyrics of German classics such as Bertold Brecht’s „Threepenny Opera“ to American audiences.
When the quasi-fascist hunt for „communists“ forced Eisler into emigration (for him it was the second time to be expelled from a country – first Hitler in 1933 from Germany, then McCarthy & Co. the late 40s from the U.S.), Bauman as a U.S. citizen was allowed to stay but was banned from performing for more than a decade (interrupted only by a two-month Broadway stunt in „Sandhog“ at Phoenix Theatre in late 1954), forcing him to take several jobs not connected to his musical profession and talent in order to make a living. His professional career somewhat never fully recovered from that, and today he seems to be remembered only by a very few for his connection to Eisler’s (now) celebrated musical works. The more so, his name, Mordecai Bauman, has to be revived here!!!
(Aside: I think he his a fascinating figure. Check out http://www.juilliard.edu/alumni/aspot_0402_Bauman.html – but even that portrait makes no mention of that now very famous song he introduced in 1942! -- BV. )
So, Bauman would have been „the man“ so to speak for perhaps introducing „The House I Live In“ to a wider audience through a commercial recording – but that wasn’t possible at the time: A long-term strike by the musician’s union AFM made it virtually impossible for vocalists to do any substantial recordings (famously, also Frank Sinatra suffered from that, when he signed to Columbia Records in 1943, he still wasn’t able to do any orchestrated recordings until November 1944 when the strike was over, issuing but a few a-capella recordings instead in 1943).
Still, in 1944, „The House I Live In“ became a bit more famous in America, when it was recorded by a vocal group called „Delta Rhythm Boys“, an ensemble that pursued the style of the legendary „Golden Gate Quartet“. The recording was featured in the Universal movie „Follow The Boys“, directed by Edward Sutherland. (And in fact, the Delta Boys‘ capture of the Golden Gate Quartet’s sounds seems to be so perfect that in many Sinatra-related reference books, including Will Friedwald’s volume on p. 323, that version of „The House I Live In“ gets erraneously credited to the GGQ instead of the Deltas.)