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Paul Robeson’s Songs of Free Men: The Cover Art of Alex Steinweiss as a Modern Emblem

The legacy of African-American cultural and political icon Paul Robeson (1898-1976), spanning theatre, musical performance and recording, film acting, public speaking, and activism, is both remarkable as a commanding voice for social justice and rich in interpretable content.1 Despite his status, an important yet considerably lesser known event that took place at the time of the record industry’s return to prominence, during the first half of the twentieth century,2 was the release of Songs of Free Men (1941, Columbia Records). The recording contains eight songs of Russian, Spanish, German and American provenance, performed by the singer and his accompanying pianist Lawrence Brown. Historically, many of the songs formed part of Robeson’s concert repertoire some time before the 1940s, though given the socio-historic context of their release on a pre-recorded format, it is conceivable that (then) contemporary audiences may have ascribed new culturally resonant meaning to them. That is to say, the particular social messaging evoked in the lyrics of what are largely folk songs, issuing from ordinary pockets of society and their quotidian struggles, are interpretable as a constructive response to the turmoil and devastation that war-time listening communities may have both witnessed and experienced.

Interestingly, Robeson was also operating at a time when the marketing strategies of the (chiefly Anglo-American) record industry were undergoing an artistic and creative revolution in the midst of an economic recovery after the Great Depression, a revolution primarily pioneered by New York born graphic designer Alex Steinweiss (1917-2011). Now widely regarded as the paternal spirit of the album cover as an artistic conceit, Steinweiss was appointed as Columbia’s first formal art director in 1939 at just twenty-one years of age. He is remembered for having made the case for a transformative progression from the insipid grey and tan-colored Kraft paper sleeves, whose main features comprised the name of the record company and occasionally the store at which the records were to be sold, bound with imitation leather and gold stamping on the spine, towards a more bespoke and eye-catching graphic arts approach that proved well attuned to the cultural air du temps.3 That is to say, Steinweiss’s career as a designer coincided with the unprecedented growth of a culture of consumerism and therefore one of the golden periods of propaganda and commercial art.

Among the multitude of sleeves that Steinweiss transformed into mass media canvases by applying his inventive visual-typographic strategies, introducing new reader-response dimensions to Columbia’s releases, was the cover art for Robeson’s Songs of Free Men. As such, this article seeks, first, to demonstrate the scope for formal analysis in such a classic piece of American popular culture as Steinweiss’s record cover for Robeson’s Songs of Free Men, with particular reference to questions of visual aesthetics, iconography and rhetorical structure. Therein emerges a wide range of intellectual threads, from the aesthetics of Russian Revolutionary art and the iconography of the militant fist, to the indirect revival of a mode of text/image rhetoric that was all-pervasive in the “Emblematic Age” of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Second, although each aspect of the record cover’s composition is addressed as a point of interest per se, this analysis also takes account of the artwork’s implications for, and connections with, Robeson’s identity as a performer and political activist.

Songs of Free Men and the Aesthetics of Russian Revolutionary Art

From the major shift in communications mindset of the 1940s emerged Steinweiss’s first cover art for the 78rpm record of Smash Song Hits by Rodgers & Hart (1940, Columbia Records), following the newly adopted principles of miniature poster design. Such an approach had, in part, its origins in the (then) contemporary western European school of communication design, particularly in the context of French and German poster fashions which centered on the use of symbolic forms and culturally resonant metaphors, the likes of which Steinweiss came to appropriate in his formative years. Notably, he attended Parsons School of Design, followed by an assistantship under the tutelage of Viennese poster designer Joseph Binder, whereupon, finally, just before the appointment at Columbia, he joined Robert Leslie’s The Composing Room. The initial success of Steinweiss’s vision was such that art director, critic, and leading biographer of Steinweiss’s life and work, Steven Heller, has retrospectively suggested that the designer “recognized a need and invented a genre that was as groundbreaking in its way as sound was to film and color was to television.”4

In some respects, the Songs of Free Men cover is characteristic of the overriding Steinweissian design logic, which can be incisively recapitulated in echoing the words of Peter Frank:

He [Steinweiss] sought to bring the experience of the music itself to the package, as if illustrating the liner notes or even the sounds themselves … His earlier cover designs were blocky, luminous, and vertiginously angled … lightly rendered, and studded with symbols and references that might not be picked up on at first … Steinweiss’ design genius lies not only in the self-possession of his innovative drive … but also in his ability to say so much about the music, its history, social resonance, and aural experience in an information-rich but visually uncomplicated manner.5

Alex Steinweiss, Songs of Free Men record cover art, New York, Columbia Records (1941)

However, aesthetically, with respect to coloration and geometry, it deviates noticeably from the rest of his cover designs. Steinweiss is seen here to adapt his visual language, of typically Art Deco or Bauhaus derivation, to a style that evokes the graphic artists of the Russian Revolution, and more broadly the Avant-Garde movement, which were propelled by the Leninist ‘Plan for Monumental Propaganda.’6 Of course, this aesthetic pairing makes sense in the knowledge that a performing artist such as Robeson publicly espoused and celebrated Communist values, as we shall see. Likewise, works serving as the basis for visual comparison are manifold; the historical period between the October Revolution, a coup led by the Bolshevik Party of Vladimir Lenin, and the death of Stalin saw the emergence of several thousands of political posters that, Victoria Bonnell has found, shared political art’s common function of transmitting official ideas and values, here with a view to create a new Homo sovieticus. 7 Furthermore, the role of these political posters in the symbolic representation of where power lies should not be underestimated, as Bonnell notes:

The critical issue facing the Bolsheviks in 1917 was not merely the seizure of power but the seizure of meaning … In the turbulent months following the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks attempted to gain control over the sphere of public discourse and to transform popular attitudes and beliefs by introducing new symbols, rituals, and visual imagery.8

If we accept that the Russian graphic art tradition of the modernist period is difficult to define in terms of a normative model, but that, broadly speaking, it might be reduceable to two key opposing sides of a wide spectrum, the stylists of the Mir iskusstva [World of Art] group and the cubofuturists, from which emerged various integrations of these two divergent movements, then the findings of Nicoletta Misler are particularly relevant. Misler comments specifically on the intersections of these movements and the resultant amalgam of practical techniques and artistic approaches of diverse origins:

But there were also various integrations of these two extremes, producing styles that acknowledged the importance of accurate craftsmanship, even of academic technique, and at the same time absorbed tendencies from cubism, futurism, and even suprematism. This amalgam was a characteristic component of the evolution of the Russian graphic arts in the 1910s and early 1920s, especially in St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad, and it is identifiable with an entire generation of important artists that included Boris Grigoriev, Alexandre Jacovleff, Vasilii Shukhaev – and Vladmir Vasilievich Lebedev (1891-1967).

Just as Lebedev becomes the key object of Misler’s critical attention, so his artistic work may offer particularly representative examples to which the visual aesthetics of Songs of Free Men’s cover can be compared. Though he also worked for the Russian Telegraph Agency and The Department of Agitation, specializing in propaganda posters, Lebedev is perhaps best known for having produced images to accompany Soviet writer Samuil Marshak’s children’s poetry. As the Soviet state accorded new primacy to children’s education and entertainment with a view to instill loyalty to the Communist project (Marshak being one of the better-known state-commissioned writers), visual identity was understood to play a central role in capturing the imagination of young minds. Together with illustrations of the main texts, Lebedev’s cover art for Marshak’s poems yesterday and today (1923) and luggage (1925) in particular seem an early Soviet anticipation of Steinweiss’s aesthetic approach to Songs of Free Men.

Luggage cover art by Vladmir Lebedev (1925)

Yesterday and Today cover art by Vladmir Lebedev (1923)

Iconography of the Raised Militant Fist

Just as the aesthetics of the Soviet propaganda art are apparent in Steinweiss cover design, so it may be unsurprising to find that the artwork suggests a link with a particular iconography that has historically become associated with liberation and social struggle, topics with which Robeson is frequently concerned in his body of work. One tradition with which the artwork seems to intersect most prominently, and therefore merits greater discussion, is the raised militant or worker’s fist.

The former has been explored in detail by Gottfried Korff, who noted in his landmark article “From Brotherly Handshake to Militant Clenched Fist: On Political Metaphors for the Worker’s Hand” that, in modern Western cultural production, the clenched fist “first became a spontaneous gesture of protest, discontent, and readiness to fight during the strike wave of the 1880s.”9 He goes on to explain that its widespread currency can be attributed to numerous reproductions of two paintings by German-born American artist, educator, and arts organiser Robert Köhler (1850-1917) entitled The Strike (1886) and The Socialist (1885). Both works are heavily rooted in issues of Atlantic labor revolts, particularly within a Germano-American context, and accorded new primacy to the worker’s struggle in the sphere of typically bourgeois-driven high culture.

Robert Köhler, The Strike (1886)

Both Christopher Phelps and James M. Dennis have engaged in considerable detail with Köhler’s work, with particular emphasis on The Strike, first shown at the Spring Exhibition of the New York’s National Academy of Design in 1886. Describing it as “a multivalent, powerful treatment of a labor uprising,”10 Phelps understands the painting essentially as a recreation of the American strike of 1877, “a nationwide convulsion sparked by railroad wage cuts – and particularly events in Pittsburgh, a center of iron and steel production where conflagration destroyed hundreds of train cars and buildings.”11 Specifically with respect to the iconographic tradition in question, Phelps notes the evocative raised, clenched fist of some of the conversing workers scattered across the yard under a dreary sky, having just appeared from the squat, dark factory.

Situating The Strike within its broader art historical context, Denis writes that while criticisms of the harsh conditions of factory labor and portrayals of unrest within the industrial working class before the The Strike were fairly rare,12 Köhler’s work emerged from a wider genre of socially conscious painting called Tendenzbilder (tendentious pictures). Denis proceeds to tell of the relationship between Tendenzbilder and the exposés of reporter-illustrators in the newly launched Illustrated London News, citing Johann Peter Hasenclever’s Workers Before the Magistrate (1848) as a key example of this form of cultural cross-pollination.

Robert Köhler, The Socialist (1885)

Likewise, Phelps touches upon the significance of The Socialist in his assertion that it may well have been the first painterly depiction of a ‘working-class political agitator’ produced in Köhler’s artistic field. Indeed, when The Socialist was first unveiled and exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1885, a year prior to The Strike, the New York Times was noted for having described it as “a capital piece of character done from the life,” a depiction of an “apostle of equality … who has the fixed look of a fanatic expounding damnation for somebody, if not everybody.”13 The title of the work itself is key to situating the painting within existing debates on workers’ rights and their exploitation within increasingly rigged corporate systems. However, to reconsider the broader context here would also be to acknowledge that while the clenched fist was swiftly and perhaps unsurprisingly integrated into the commonplace rhetoric of strikes and protests, it was not until circa 1917 that this generally threatening gesture was appropriated by the Industrial Workers of the World. Subsequently, it was transformed into a virtually universally recognized symbol of solidarity of workers from any and all backgrounds.14

As already briefly suggested, followers of Robeson may well recognize cultural intersections between the sentiments evoked by this iconographic tradition and the social background to Robeson’s artistic output. Indeed, one might make the connection with his early role and evolution within the Harlem Renaissance, where the increasing prominence of black grassroots activism contributed to an intellectual, social, and artistic awakening among local communities. Indeed, a key product of this Renaissance was a higher level of participation in political and cultural activities centered on addressing various manifestations of racial and social injustice. And while the snake-like creature on the cover design is doubtless more ambiguous on an iconographic level than the raised fist, the emblazonment of the swastika symbol on its impaled body drives home Robeson’s message of anti-fascism. On that basis, the coupling of Robeson and the kind of iconography that signals empowerment and social uprising is a particularly fitting one.

Songs of Free Men and Emblematic Rhetoric

The cross-cultural connections invited by questions of iconography and aesthetics lead us lastly to an issue raised by Steinweiss’s cover design which is more likely to elude scholars of popular musicology and contemporary visual culture. That is to say, on a rhetorical level, Songs of Free Men’s cover art bears a marked resemblance to a communicative mode that enjoyed considerable popularity and widespread dissemination in Early Modern cultural production, initially in Europe and then further afield. Here, I am referring to the principles of emblematic construction characterizing the notion of a so-called Aetas Emblematica (Emblematic Age), which serves to delineate a historical period of Western culture from which emerged the text/image form known as the emblem.

The terms “emblem” and “emblematic” may evoke in the minds of contemporary readers outside the field of study such artefacts as badges of schools and universities, crests, coats-of-arms and perhaps company logos. This reaction is justifiable insofar as these bimedial forms are essentially survivors of a rich and long-standing tradition of symbolic word-image relationships that were all-pervasive during the Early Modern period. Likewise, the convention of moralizing motto or maxim accompanied by a symbolic picture that we associate with school and university badges is not particularly far removed from the typical emblem conventions and structures. Another issue is that contemporary readers may well misinterpret the terms “emblem” and “emblematic” in a non-technical way as mere synonyms of “symbol” and “symbolic,” a point of confusion which emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

While the publication from which the genre takes its name is entitled Emblematum Liber, first appearing in 1531 from the printing presses of Augsburg, Germany,15 we cautiously accept the author, and by extension the father of the emblematic genre, to be jurist and humanist Andrea Alciato from Northern Italy. Emblematum Liber set the precedent for what was to become known as the canonical emblema triplex, the tripartite structure of inscriptio, pictura and subscriptio that combines word and image in a compact and engaging form. This can be seen in the second emblem of Alciato’s collection entitled “Foedera Italorum” (The Italians’ Alliances) which features an illustration of a lute. At first glance, it is unclear what relates the pictura to inscriptio. It is only in reading the epigrammatic text that we realize Alciato tells of the complexity of political negotiation amongst the Italian leaders by drawing a comparison with the intricacies of accurately tuning a lute to perform music. Just as when one string falls out of tune the entire song suffers for it, so agreements of peace and alliance are disturbed if one individual does not maintain their end of the bargain. While deviations from the normative threefold structure became increasingly common, a constant has proven to be the unification of the emblem’s text/image elements, and thus reader-viewer participation, as key to interpreting the encoded meaning.

Andrea Alciato, “Foedera Italorum” in Emblematum Liber, Augsburg: Heinrich Steyner (1531)

Echoes of Claude Paradin in Songs of Free Men’s Text/Image Interplay

As far as Steinweiss’s cover design is concerned, then, perhaps the most obvious emblematic analogy is a threefold structure composed of title “Songs of Free Men” as an interpretive inscriptio, central image as pictura, and accompanying liner notes that engage with the musical material as traditional subscriptio or commentatio. That said, a specific parallel form of emblematics that speaks not only to these issues of outer structure but also of visual rhetoric and the mutually supportive interaction of text and image may be found in the work of Claude Paradin, namely his 1557 edition of Devises Heroïques.

Claude Paradin, “Vel in ara,” Devises Heroïques, Lyons, Jean de Tournes and Guillaume Gazeau, 1557

The eighty-seventh entry sports a pictura that displays visual rhetoric comprising, incidentally, the motif of the raised militant fist, dagger in hand. Of course, it should be understood that the motif’s recurrence is convenient simply from an analytical and formal perspective; the comparison is in no way indicative of a diachronic, linear connection between the two visual themes. It is on this level of visual rhetoric that the formal linkage between Steinweiss’s cover art and Paradin’s devise partly operates, insofar as both key images express themselves through a comparable unnaturalistic or symbolical organization of fragmentary but imitative motifs. That the motifs come together to form an emphatically figurative type of imagery is what indicates a rhetorical purpose. In other words, both images are unmistakably fabricated, based on cross-cut engraving and graphic collage, so as to persuade the viewer of some idea or feeling in the broadest sense. Its meaning thus transcends what is portrayed literally. 16

Alongside the suggestion of analogous visual rhetoric, the linkage between these works can also be said to extend to the combination of title and image and the nature of their interrelationship. The inscriptio of Paradin’s devise reads “Vel in ara” (And that on the holy altar), which establishes an enigmatic and connotative relationship with the image, thus exploiting a wide range of cultural associations. It also serves as a clue to decoding the pictorial motifs in a way that moves beyond literal signifiant to emblematic significance, or signifié, as is typical in emblem structures. Responding to the pictorial enigma, the reader-viewer is therefore compelled to interact creatively with the work and think both figuratively and cross-referentially so as to negotiate a cohesive reading that bridges the communication gap.

Possible meanings of the inscriptio-pictura juxtaposition derive from the cultural knowledge and experience of the reader-viewer. Arguably, the relationship of inscriptio to woodcut image would already evoke some form of conceptual statement in the minds of most Western viewers. That is to say, the interpretive function of text and image opens up possible meanings in relation to divine intervention between the use of “holy” and “altar” in the title and the representation of clouds in the sky from which the abstracted, raised fist arises. Far from purveying a clear message, however, the inscriptio-pictura juxtaposition still leaves much to the reader’s imagination and interpretation.

Accordingly, the title/image relationship in Steinweiss’s front cover design may be interpreted from an emblematic perspective to the extent that “Songs of Free Men” has little bearing on the cover art’s literal signifiant and, functioning like Paradin’s enigmatic inscriptio, conveys a contextual signal to the reader-viewer towards a connoted meaning rather than literal description. In reader response terms, we are invited to re-orientate our reading through an emblematic form of associative thinking, to the extent that the work’s import and inner logic can only be arrived at by some form of figurative interpretation.

Beyond any literal meaning, “free men” can be taken as a markedly wide and ambiguous concept. Adapted to the iconographic context of the raised militant fist, broken fetters, and Robeson’s socio-culturally laden name, the interaction of text and image begin to reflect and play upon a range of discourses than span the purely abstract, such as notions of justice and retribution, as well as the socio-cultural. In the latter case, the interplay of text and image emphasize the cultural sentiments of political protest and social empowerment, but likewise connotes the slave’s hand which operates by extension as a metonym for the fight against racial oppression, particularly in view of the broken fetters and raised blade. Doubtless, a conceptual message of this type has considerable implications for an artist such as Robeson who came of age in an era when racial segregation was sanctioned at the highest levels of the American justice system, but, with the increased support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was also mobilized to join a younger generation of African-Americans in protesting more overtly against racial injustice.17

The component of Songs of Free Men’s cover art whose properties are almost exclusively verbal, the so-called liner notes, fulfill an expository function that likewise suggests a parallel with Claude Paradin’s work. It is still a commonplace to consider the textual subscriptio or commentatio as important to the direction of reader reception and, by consequence, the emblem’s overall meaning. If the combination of inscriptio and pictura are understood to produce layers of connoted meaning, there is an implicit expectation that the main body of text will, to some degree, fulfill a contextualizing purpose. Paradin’s “Vel in ara” serves as an instructive example of how a textual commentary may have considerable bearing on this emblematic system of self-referentiality and ultimately help to delineate the meaning of the pictorial motifs.

On the broadest level, the commentatio of “Vel in ara” can be said to interact with title and image in such a way as to straddle the boundary between description and interpretation. One way in which text and image interact is in relation to the broader historical story, that of the Duke of Milan’s misdeeds, the impact of his actions on the surrounding community, and the events leading to his death. In similar fashion, this interaction extends to an identificatory or descriptive mode insofar as the passage helps the reader-viewer to recognize the framed portrait of an otherwise anonymous historical figure as Duke Galeazzo Maria, and, by extension, the raised fist as that of the Milanese courtier Andrea Lampugnani.

Of greater interest from a rhetorical standpoint, however, is that in the last eight lines we find the most explicit verbal indicator that we should also understand the pictura as a visual metaphor, whereby a poetic passage renders the devise semantically complete in prompting reader-viewers to glean a particular conceptual message. The broad insinuation, complete with a reference to Latin poet Claudius Claudianus arguing for the protective power of faithful love, is that wrong-doers and transgressors of societies may succeed in roaming freely in the physical world, but one cannot escape the ultimate judgement of the divine Creator. From the interaction of text and image emerges, therefore, a play upon the motif of the raised fist, dagger in hand, arising from the clouds, to the extent that the communication gap is more or less closed and the composition more readily interpretable as an emblematic representation of divine intervention.

Paradin’s mode of bridging the communication gap by way of verbal contextualization runs parallel to the way in which Songs of Free Men’s liner notes and implied lyrical connections both reflect upon and, by extension, elucidate the symbolism of the cover art. It should be noted in broader terms that Columbia Masterworks tended in the early years to adorn their sleeves with informative liner notes that aim to provide the prospective listener with a sampling of the recording artist’s overriding social preoccupations and the artistic vision underpinning the musical material. On occasion these notes were signed by their author (incidentally, seldom the designer of the cover art),18 but Songs of Free Men’s text appears to be unattributed.

Nicholas Cook has commented on this kind of text found on the back or on the inner sleeves and attributed its origins to the nineteenth century tradition of the descriptive or analytical program note that would accompany concert-hall musical performance.19 Accordingly, my main concern here is the manner in which Songs of Free Men’s liner notes can be seen to align themselves with the interpretive process, oscillating between socio-historical, illustrative and symbolic modes of interaction with Steinweiss’s front cover art.

Unattributed, Songs of Free Men liner notes, New York, Columbia Records (1941)

Reflecting on the special significance and appropriateness of the record’s title, the commentary reminds us that Robeson’s collection of songs “express eloquently the faith of free men everywhere, and their determination that ideals of freedom and good-will shall prevail throughout the world at whatever cost.” Indeed, we read that the listeners of the time were presumed to grasp with greater clarity the importance of Robeson’s sentiments in his music given the particularly dark backdrop of the Second World War:

These records appear at an appropriate hour. The songs themselves have been a part – some of them, at least – of Mr. Robeson’s concert repertory for years past. Their significance will perhaps be clearer to many of us today than would have been the case not so long ago, when complacency blinded nations still enjoying a dubious peace to the fact that wars and revolutions occurring elsewhere were very much their concern, were, in fact, the first bloody trial engagements between the forces of aggression and oppression and those of freedom.

From the offset, this text is evidently in keeping with the cover’s visual themes and title. The prospective listener is then provided with a cursory introduction to each of the songs on the record, which implicitly extends to specific themes and references invoked in the lyrics. “From Border to Border” one of the most popular revolutionary songs of the Soviet Union, and “Oh, How Proud Our Quiet Don” are presented as excerpts from Ivan Dzerzhinsky’s opera Quiet Flows The Don (1935), which, in turn, was an adaption of Mikhail Alexandrovich Sholokhov’s novel And Quiet Flows The Don (1928?). Regarded as one of the canonical literary works of the post-revolutionary period in Russia, Sholokhov’s novel spans four volumes that retrace the fate and the struggles of the Don Cossacks during the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and Russian Civil War. Similarly, Dzerzhinsky’s Quiet Flows The Don is estimated to represent the peak of a broader trend to incorporate popular songs into Soviet operas and ballet. In common with Steinweiss’s choice of aesthetics, the lyrics undoubtedly evoke a strong sense of Soviet patriotism: “Arise triumphant, the laboring folk, the brave Russian folk. Yes, ready for sorrow, and ready to suffer, yes ready to fight ‘til death.”

We are also introduced to “The Purest Kind of Guy” by way of the role of its author, Marc Blitzstein, in the Depression years. As the commentary notes, his operas, The Cradle Will Rock and No for an Answer (the latter featuring the song in question) were “products of the awakening social consciousness that accompanied the Great Depression,” while “Shoe-string productions of both, under WPA [Works Progress Administration]20 auspices, were immensely successful and drew attention to Blitzstein’s remarkable talent and originality.” Set in the States, the opera deals with a club of Graeco-American workers who, after the working season, find themselves unemployed. Some of them succeed in finding new work in Atlantic City and Miami, but those who are forced to remain join the Diogenes Club. The opera throws light upon their camaraderie in the face of day-to-day struggles.

Specifically, “The Purest Kind of Guy” has the broad theme of what it means to be a principled citizen from a colloquial and popular perspective:

There’s the kind of man, when he passes by,
I can tell that man’s the purest kind of a guy.
Black or white or tan ain’t the reason why
I will know that man’s the purest kind of a guy.
Go on and ask me how I can be certain,
How I can pick him out in a shot.
And he will never upset my plot
By acting dirty or sly like the usual guy in a spot.
Well, I don’t know how I know that I know, but I know he will not!

For the initiated listener, the realism of No for an Answer, and “The Purest Kind of a Guy” in particular, both further justify the use of the raised militant fist iconography and speak to Robeson’s ideological position or the social angle from which he approached many of his performances.

“The Peat-Bog Soldiers” is described in terms of its powerful association with the Concentration Camps of Nazi Germany, with specific emphasis upon the defiant verse “Einmal verden froh wir sagen: Heimat, du bist wieder mein” (One day we will be happy to say: home you are mine again). Scholar of musical policies in Germany during the Third Reich and after the war, Élise Petit, has mapped the history and evolution of “The Peat-Bog Soldiers” or “Moorsoldatenlied,”21 tracing its genesis to the communist inmates at the camp of Börgermoor under Third Reich rule during the summer of 1933.

The important and complex role of musical practices in these concentration camps from 1933-37 has also been examined by folklorist and ethnomusicologist Guido Fackler, with particular reference to the disturbing tension between empowerment and exploitation of the inmates.22 Fackler notes that, until recently, music may have seemed irrelevant in the face of unimaginable atrocities and murder resultant from these camps, which stand essentially as symbols and incarnations of extreme crime. That said, there has been growing recognition of the importance of music to the running of these camps,23 and Fackler takes care to stress that “music has always been a constant and crucial component of the everyday life of the concentration camps, from their establishment in 1933 until the end in 1945.”24

First, Fackler records that prisoners of Börgermoor in 1933 were often “greeted” on arrival with songs of ridicule and mocking welcoming ceremonies, indicating that music was in fact weaponized by the camp authorities as a form of torture. Likewise, with a view to belittle and dehumanize, authorities reportedly ordered detainees to sing and perform under duress, for instance during rollcall or punishment actions. On the other extreme end of the spectrum, voluntary musical activities undertaken on the communist prisoners’ own initiative provided them with a means of psychological and spiritual resistance, in order to cope with extremely difficult camp life. Music making purely as a form of entertainment, Fackler points out, would have served to remind prisoners of the ethical, humane, artistic and aesthetic values beyond their life-threatening circumstances. From certain lyrical passages the listener gets a clear sense of strength and perseverance in the face of extreme adversity:

… Up and down the guards are marching,
No one, no one can get through.
Flight would mean a sure death facing,
Guns and barbed wired block our view …

But for us there is no complaining,
Winter will in time be past.
One day we shall rise rejoicing.
Homeland, dear, you’re mine at last.

With specific reference to “Moorsoldatenlied,” Petit remarks on its cultural pertinence among the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War between the years of 1936 and 1939.25 And, just as the knowing reader may well be aware of the key position of “The Peat-Bog Soldiers” in the political discourse of the loyalists during the Spanish Civil War, so they may recognize the relevancy of “The Four Insurgent Generals” (or “Los Cuatros Generales”) to the broader sentiments of social justice incorporated within the record and accompanying sleeve design. While the printed passage reminds us that the song “promises the hanging of the four insurgent generals who betrayed the Spanish people,” a broader knowledge of the reference is helpful. That is to say, there is perhaps an implicit expectation that the listener should be conscious of the song’s socio-historical associations with the libertarian socialists of the Spanish Republic.26 As such, it becomes clear that the four generals in question are the key representatives of the Nationalist faction: Emilio Mola, José Sanjurjo, Gonzalo Queipo de Llano and Francisco Franco.

The final two songs on the record, “Songs of the Plains” and “Native Land,” return to the prominent theme of Soviet Russia, both of which are said to “express that passionate love of their country that the Russians have so convincingly demonstrated during the past year and a half, in their relentless defense of it against Nazi invaders.” The music of “Songs of the Plains” was written by Soviet composer Lev Knipper with lyrics by Viktor Gusev. Interestingly, Knipper began a musical career characterized by his modernist leanings, a fascination with the grotesque, and the desire to experiment with genre and timbre which resulted in harmonically sophisticated and highly stylized compositions. It was not until the 1930s and the lead up to World War II that Knipper resigned from the Association of Contemporary music, shortly before it was disbanded by the Soviet government, and embraced an overtly patriotic and stylistically more conservative approach to music.27

“Polyshko-polye,” or “Songs of the Plain,” forms part of Knipper’s Poėma o boĭt ͡se-komsomol’t ͡se, or Poem of the Komsomol Fighter symphony (1933), and is not only the most important work of this period, but the work for which he is most celebrated in general. As such, the symphony is of socio-political significance in that it evokes a strong sense of Russian national identity and is an overt realization of the Russian symphonic tradition. It is notable that critics have gone as far as to brand Knipper the “Mahler of Soviet Russia.”28 Self-evidently, the sentiments of Knipper’s composition translate readily to the design aesthetic chosen by Steinweiss for Songs of Free Men.

The last song “Native Land” was originally composed by Isaac Dunaevsky with lyrics by Vasily Lebedev-Kumach and was, in fact, first featured in Grigori Aleksandrov’s Soviet melodramatic comedy, and second musical film, Tsirk or Circus (1936). One of the central characters, Marion Dixon, is an American star performing at the Moscow circus who falls in love with Russian performer Ivan Martynov, through whom Dixon is brought into contact with Soviet society. Tension arises from Dixon’s abusive manager’s attempt at disrupting the relationship by exposing the star’s secret that she has an illegitimate black child. Against the manager’s expectations, the child is welcomed without judgement, and Dixon remains in Soviet Russia with Martynov. The film can therefore be understood on some level as a celebration of tolerant Soviet attitudes to ethnic diversity and portrays their culture in a highly favorable light. The association of Dunaevsky’s “Native Land” to the story of Circus thus produces significant areas of intersection with Robeson’s cultural and artistic identity, insofar as he was both of African-American descent and a vocal proponent of Soviet Russia’s Communist project. Once again, the contextualizing function of this passage is readily apparent.

Before concluding, it is worth drawing attention to implications of Robeson’s self-reflective passage that accompanies his photographic portrait:

As one brought up on the songs of my own people, who expressed them in their sorrows, protests and hopes, I early felt closer to that music which comes directly from folk roots. The particular songs on this album have that folk quality and show in no uncertain way the common humanity of man. Beyond this, they issue from the present common struggle for a decent world, a struggle in which the artist must also play his part. These songs are a very important part of my concert programs, expressing much of what I deeply feel and believe.

The direct reference to Robeson’s “own people” appears as an invitation for the prospective listener to reflect further not only on those who share the singer’s ideals of social justice in the abstract, but also on the particular racial dimensions of his political messaging. Likewise, this passage seems to instigate the distinguishing cross-referential function initiated in emblematic discourse, one which we have seen in Paradin’s “Vel in ara,” whereby the subscriptio encourages the reader-viewer to follow up and interrogate further the cultural themes presented in the polysemous pictura. More specifically, it could be said that the overarching evocation of justice, the “struggle for a decent world, a struggle in which the artist must also play his part,” has the effect of reframing the cultural resonance of what might consequently seem analogous to the sword of justice motif, as depicted in Steinweiss’s cover art.


By way of a brief conclusion, then, the links that this article uncovers in Alex Steinweiss’s artwork for Paul Robeson’s Songs of Free Men record are within the purview of three areas of critical interest. These, as the title suggests, could be thought of as aesthetics, iconography and rhetoric. An awareness of Soviet propaganda art enables us to contextualize Steinweiss’s choice of coloration and shape in relation to Robeson’s known political leanings as a supporter of Communist ideals, an observation which finds echo in the implied iconography of the raised militant fist that has historically signified social and proletarian revolt. As we have seen, the raised fist and broken fetters also speaks implicitly to issues of race in relation to Robeson’s life-long commitment to and fight for social justice, which he transmitted through a wide range of cultural activities stemming in large part from his formative years in the Harlem Renaissance.

Perhaps the widest ranging point of interest addressed by this article is the rhetorical dimensions of Steinweiss’s art, which evoke a number of cross-temporal comparisons to the Early Modern “Emblematic Age.” The cover replicates the close interaction of text and image known to have been a salient feature of Renaissance and Baroque emblematics, a visual culture propelled by the growing influence of the printing presses. Above all, in connecting a broad spectrum of intellectual threads, the observations in this article contribute to the overriding perspective that popular culture artefacts can be just as rich in socio-cultural, historical and aesthetic content as any number of “texts” associated with the canon of high art and literature, and are thus worthy of intellectual examination.


Abraham, Gerald. Eight Soviet Composers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943.

Bonnell, Victoria E. Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters Under Lenin and Stalin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Cook, Nicholas. “The Domestic Gesamtkunstwerk, or Record Sleeves and Reception.” In Composition, Performance, Reception: Studies In The Creative Process In Music, ed. Wyndham Thomas, 105-117 (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Group, 1998).

De Ville, Nick. Album: Classic Sleeve Design: Style and Image in Sleeve Design. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003.

Fackler, Guido. “Cultural Behaviour and the Invention of Traditions: Music and Musical Practices in The Early Concentration Camps, 1933-6/7.” Journal of Contemporary History 45, no. 3 (July 2010): 601-627.

Frank, Peter. “Cover Song: A Brief History of Alex Steinweiss, the Inventor of Album Art.” Art on Paper 12, no. 5 (May/June 2008): 56-61

Gronow, Pekka and Saunio, Ippo. An International History of the Recording Industry. London: Cassell, 1999.

Heller, Steven. “The Incomparable Alex Steinweiss.” Affiche 12 (Winter 1994): 69-75.

Korff, Gotfried. “From Brotherly Handshake to Clenched Militant Fist: On Political Metaphors for the Worker’s Hand.” International Labour and Working-Class History 42, (Fall 1992): 70-81.

McCormick, Carlo. “An Interview with Alex Steinweiss.” In Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture, ed. Paul D. Miller, 223-234. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.

McKeown, Simon. The International Emblem: From Incubula to the Internet. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2010.

Osborne, Richard. Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Group, 2010.

Petit, Élise. “The Börgermoorlied: The Journey of a Resistance Song throughout Europe, 1933-45.” Comparativ 28, no. 1 (2018): 65-81.

Phelps, Christopher. “The Strike Imagined: The Atlantic and Interpretive Voyages of Robert Koehler’s Painting The Strike.” Journal of American History 93, no.3 (2011): 670-697.

Russell Daniel. “The Emblem and Authority.” Word & Image 4, no. 1 (1988): 81-86.

Swindall, Lindsey R. Paul Robeson: A Life of Activism and Art. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015.


\1941. Songs of Free Men, Paul Robeson. Columbia Masterworks, M 534.\


  1. Scholar in Afro-American Studies Lindsey R. Swindall conveys in no uncertain terms the scale of Robeson’s impact in describing him as a “complex and fascinating public figure whose life illustrated and was influenced by several of the most significant historical movements of the first half of the twentieth century.”; Lindsey R. Swindall, Paul Robeson: A Life of Activism And Art (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015), 2. ↩︎

  2. Historians of the material culture of popular music and the recording industry such as Pekka Gronow and Ippo Saunio have pointed to the decline and resurgence in record sales amidst the Wall Street crash in 1929 that precipitated economic disaster in the rest of the United States and several other industrialized countries outside of America. Gronow and Saunio note that records were something of a luxury at the time and that “in the good years, they had been found even in ordinary workmen’s homes, but it was easy to give them up when times were hard.” [An International History of the Recording Industry (London: Cassell, 1999), 57-83.]
    Sales of records suffered also because the gramophone’s two main competitors, radio (with the beginnings of broadcasting in 1920) and the gradual emergence of talking pictures, were more appealing in light of obvious financial constraints. In the mid ’30s, record sales began to recover which, ironically, was down a set of social conditions arising from the Depression. The end of prohibition in 1933 brought a stop to secretive speakeasy culture and instead led to the appearance of bars and taverns in which commercially successful jukeboxes were installed. ↩︎

  3. There exists an (albeit somewhat limited) body of academic literature on the cultural and artistic aspects of Steinweiss’s life and work. See for instance Peter Frank, “Cover Song: A Brief History of Alex Steinweiss, the Inventor of Album Art,” Art on Paper 12, no. 5, (May/June 2008): 56-61; Steven Heller “The Incomparable Alex Steinweiss.” Affiche 12 (Winter 1994), 69-75; Nick de Ville, Album: Classic Sleeve Design: Style and Image in Sleeve Design (London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003), 26-42; Carlo McCormick, “An Interview with Alex Steinweiss” in Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture, ed. Paul D. Miller (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 223-234; Richard Osborne, “The Sleeve” in Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Group, 2010). ↩︎

  4. Heller, “The Incomparable Alex Steinweiss.” ↩︎

  5. Frank, “Cover Song,” 58-60. ↩︎

  6. For a detailed analysis of this initiative that proposed the removal of monuments in honor of the Tsars and their servants ,as well as the erection of symbolic statuary in praise of Socialist Revolution, see Leah Dickerman, “Monumental Propaganda,” October, 165 (2018), 178-191. (↩︎

  7. Victoria E Bonnell, Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters Under Lenin and Stalin (Berkele: University of California Press, 1999). ↩︎

  8. Bonnell, Iconography of Power, 1. ↩︎

  9. Gottfried Korff, “From Brotherly Handshake To Militant Clenched Fist: On Political Metaphors For The Worker’s Hand,” International Labour and Working-Class History 42, (Fall 1992): 70-81. ↩︎

  10. Christopher Phelps, “The Strike Imagined: The Atlantic and Interpretive Voyages of Robert Koehler’s Painting The Strike.” Journal of American History 93, no.3 (2011): 670. ↩︎

  11. Phelps, “The Strike Imagined,” 680. ↩︎

  12. For examples that predate The Strike, see Bass Otis’s Interior of a Smithy (c. 1815), John Ferguson Weir’s The Gun Foundry and Forging the Shaft (1866) and Adolph Menzel’s Eisenwalzwerk [Iron Rolling Mill] (1872). ↩︎

  13. Phelps, “The Strike Imagined,” 680. ↩︎

  14. Korff, “From Brotherly Handshake To Militant Clenched Fist,” 70-81. ↩︎

  15. Andrea Alciato, Emblematum Liber, Augsburg: Heinrich Steyner, 1531. ↩︎

  16. The emblematic mode of constructing “speaking images” is well known to scholars. See Pedro Leal “Belles Lettres: Hieroglyphs, Emblems, and the Philosophy of Images” in The International Emblem: From Incubula to the Internet ed. Simon McKeown (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2010), 97-112. ↩︎

  17. Swindall, Paul Robeson, 1-7. ↩︎

  18. See Daniel Russell’s redeployment of the structuralist term “bricolage” to refer to the enigmatic status of the producers of an emblem. They are in fact “bricoleurs,” each contributing differently to a homogenizing whole. (Daniel Russell, “The Emblem and Authority,” Word & Image 4, no. 1 (1988), 81-86. ↩︎

  19. Nicholas Cook, “The Domestic Gesamtkunstwerk, or Record Sleeves and Reception” in Composition, Performance, Reception: Studies In The Creative Process In Music, ed. Wyndham Thomas (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Group, 1998), 105-117. ↩︎

  20. For a comprehensive account of this program’s activities and output, see Harry L Hopkins, Inventory: An Appraisal Of The Results Of The Works Progress Administration (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1938). ↩︎

  21. Élise Petit, “The Börgermoorlied: The Journey of a Resistance Song throughout Europe, 1933-45.” Comparativ 28, no. 1 (2018): 65-81. ↩︎

  22. Guido Fackler, “Cultural Behaviour and the Invention of Traditions: Music and Musical Practices in The Early Concentration Camps, 1933-6/7,” Journal of Contemporary History 45, no. 3 (July 2010): 601-627. ↩︎

  23. Fackler, “Cultural Behaviour and the Invention of Traditions.” ↩︎

  24. Fackler, “Cultural Behaviour and the Invention of Traditions,” 606. ↩︎

  25. Petit, “The Börgermoorlied.” ↩︎

  26. Petit, “The Börgermoorlied.” ↩︎

  27. Alex Wilstrand “Lev Konstantinovich Knipper’s Concerto for Bassoon and String Orchestra: Introduction and Critical Performing Edition.” (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008). doi:10.17077/etd.hrub7lpe ↩︎

  28. Gerald Abraham, “Lev Knipper,” in Eight Soviet Composers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943), 53. ↩︎

About the Author: 

Christopher Vezza is a doctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow and core member of the prestigious Stirling Maxwell Centre for the Study of Text/Image Cultures. His research activities are focussed on trans-historical explorations and comparisons of text/image modes of communication in a wide variety of cultural contexts, from emblematic composition of the Renaissance and Baroque Eras, to the visual paratexts of Twentieth Century music records.

Volume 5, Issue 2

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