Performance: The House I Live In
by Ruth Horowitz
When I was a little girl, my mother encouraged my brother and me to perform for casual company. With great intensity and aplomb, David recited his two poems, “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” and “The Highwayman.” I followed with, “In Dublin’s fair city, where girls are so pretty, I first set my eyes on Sweet Molly Malone, etc.” Since I cannot remember a second song, I have to think I was so visibly unnerved by performing the first one, that I was let off the hook for a second. In the years that followed, I suffered through many a piano and dance recital. When I was about 10, I was chosen to be the lead in a children’s cantata written by Earl Robinson. I do not know how that happened but can only think my mother was more driven than even I knew.
Earl Robinson was a composer and folk singer-songwriter. He wrote two acclaimed cantatas: “The Lonesome Train,” about Abraham Lincoln, and "Ballad for Americans," and songs such as "Joe Hill" and the 1960s Three Dog Night song, “The ink is black, the page is white, etc.” I remember Earl as a kind adult human being in my life. According to Wikipedia, he was a member of the Communist Party from the 1930s to the 1950s. And during our day, he lived on 44th Street in Sunnyside Gardens.
In the cantata, “When We Grow Up,” I played Johnny who cannot decide what he wants to be when he grows up. We learn that he and his friends are afraid they won’t get to grow up, and are asking the adults in their world to work out their problems peaceably - without bombs - so they can grow up. In the 1950s, the threat of nuclear war was real. In school, we were issued standard army dog tags, hid under desks during Civil Defense alerts, and worried.
“The House I Live in,” one of Earl’s more well-known songs, was sung by Paul Robeson in my household, and by Frank Sinatra in a 1945 documentary to combat anti-Semitism after the war, but also by Mahalia Jackson, Patti LaBelle, and Neil Diamond on youtube.
Everybody sings a slightly different version but the sentiment is the same - that of the promise of America. It speaks to what I learned in my home and at PS 150, and it expresses the collective idealism that glued our generation together. I dedicate this brief version to my parents, to Earl, and to Abe Meeropol who wrote the lyrics – and I sing it for all us idealists.
THE HOUSE I LIVE IN
What is America to me? A name, a map, the flag I see, a certain word, "Democracy"! What is America to me?
The house I live in, the goodness everywhere,
A land of wealth and beauty with enough for all to share,
The children in the playground, the faces that I see;
All races, all religions, that’s America to me.
The words of Old Abe Lincoln, of Jefferson and Paine,
Of Washington and Jackson, and the tasks that still remain,
The little bridge at Concord, where Freedom’s fight began,
Our Gettysburg and Midway, and the story of Bataan.
The house I live in, my neighbors, white and black,
The people who just came here, or from generations back,
The "howdy" and the handshake, the air of feeling free,
But especially the people, that’s America to me.
Especially the people, that’s America to me.
Ruth Horowitz grew up on 44th and 46th Streets in the Gardens, attended PS 150, JHS 125 and WC Bryant HS. She went on to City College, became a New York City Social Welfare Investigator for ten years, two of which were spent at Columbia University School of Social work where she earned a masters degree. Having fulfilled her commitment to the City, she left to pursue her dream of living in the country where she's been ever since.