Celebrating an historic moment

Ol’ man river
That ol’ man river
He don’t say nothing
But he must know something
Cause he just keeps rolling

On 9 November about 50 unionists gathered on the steps of the Sydney Opera House to honour the 60th anniversary of the very first performance at the now world famous venue.

Acclaimed African American bass baritone and civil rights activist Paul Robeson sang Ol’ Man River for workers on the construction site. It was 1960, and Robeson had only just obtained a passport after it was denied in 1958 in the US’s McCarthy era.

IEU Organiser Tina Smith joined representatives from the CFMEU (who organised the event), the MUA, the South Coast Labour Council and the Teachers’ Federation as opera singer Rachel Bate, daughter of an Illawarra coal miner, sang the same two songs Robeson sang in 1960: Ol’ Man River (from the musical Show Boat) and union anthem Joe Hill, about an American labour leader.

Spied in the audience in 1960 was a 16-year-old Paul Keating, then employed by Sydney City Council, who had come down to the building site on a double decker bus with a friend.