by Irwin Silber
When the definitive history of music is finally written in some peaceful world of the future, one whole chapter will have to be devoted to the story of one concert -- the concert which was held near Peekskill, New York on September 4th, 1949.
A concert out-doors is unusual, but not unheard of. A concert audience of 25,000 is something out of the ordinary, but not world-shaking in itself. A concert featuring Paul Robeson is always exciting, but not necessarily charged with super-significance.
But on September 4th, 1949, all these elements were joined with one another -- the determined struggle of American workers, Negro and white, to guarantee that this concert be held.
The story of what happened at Peekskill that day is well-known. The newspapers throughout the world in banner headlines told of the organized fascist attempt to murder Paul Robeson and to thereby stifle the growing voice of the Negro people and their white allies for peace and freedom.
Despite the memories of flying glass, crushing rocks, and police-endorsed mob violence, one fact stands out -- the concert was held. Paul Robeson sang in the beautiful country near Peekskill to an audience of 25,000 people.
Now, Howard Fast has written a book about that concert and the events leading up to it -- "Peekskill, USA". He tells of the first scheduled concert -- sponsored by People's Artists -- which was violently stopped by the fascists and the police, and the week of terror and protest that followed. He tells the story of Paul Robeson, the great giant of a man who has become a symbol of hope throughout the world. He tells the story of the Negro people and their devotion to Robeson's struggle, their defiance of lynch terror, their indomitable courage, and their unity with the white workers. He tells the story of the concert that was held in terms of glowing tribute to the workers who made it possible.
Howard Fast, who has achieved a well-earned place in American letters for his books, and a well-earned place in American hearts for his devotion to the people's struggles, was in the middle of Peekskill. Chairman of the first concert, organizer of the physical defense of that concert, participant in the protest movement, chairman of the second concert, Fast is in the best position to tell the story of the historic events.
And tell the story he does, in a moving, exciting narrative which will help those who were at Peekskill to re-live the events clearly and which will give to those who were not there a picture and a feeling of what actually happened.
"Peekskill, USA" is an important book -- because its conclusions, based on fact, are inescapable. William L. Patterson, Executive Secretary of the Civil Rights Congress quotes from the Peekskill song ("Hold The Line" -- SING OUT Vol. 1, No. 1) in an introduction to the book -- "As we held the line at Peekskill, we will hold it everywhere." "This was the slogan that emerged from ... Peekskill," writes Patterson, and this is the slogan and feeling that emerges from Fast's book.
"Peekskill, USA" was too "hot" for a commercial publisher. The Civil Rights Congress, therefore, published the book itself. This too is a significant development for the progressive movement and one to be welcomed. The book appears in two editions, a paper-covered volume which sells for $1.00 and a cloth-bound edition for $3.00. Books may be ordered through the Civil Rights Congress, 23 West 26th St., New York, N.Y.