The old man's gray high-top sneakers bounced up and down as he sang to children in the Salt Lake airport's lounge. "I choose wilderness, my Utah wilderness, wandering this grand land takes hold of my soul . . . ."
Earl Robinson was on his way back to Seattle, having just visited southern Utah's desert, where the songwriter was moved to compose a paean to the wilderness. (For privacy, Delta Airlines provided a room where a singing interview could take place.)At 80, he is used to writing songs for great causes, the labor movement to civil-rights anthems to celebrations of the history of the American people.
About 55 years ago, during the Depression, Robinson was in a camp where the workers sang songs around the campfire many nights. A man named Alfred Hayes asked him if he could write music to a poem he had composed.
It started, "I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you or me . . . " and ended, "`I never died,' says he." It is the story of Hill, a labor leader who was executed at Sugarhouse Prison in 1915 on a murder conviction.
Hill was one of the leaders of the radical group, the Industrial Workers of the World. He is especially important to Robinson, because he wrote songs himself. The "Little Red Song Book" - with Hill songs like "Casey Jones, the Union Scab" and "Workers of the World, Awaken!" - was as close to a hymnal as the IWW ever got.
At the camp, "we decided to do a program of Joe Hill songs." Hayes gave him the lyrics, and Robinson went into his tent. He emerged in about 40 minutes with the music, and they sang it that night.
Robinson remembers that there wasn't much applause at the song's first performance. But next morning, some of the people asked for copies. Before the end of the summer of 1937, the song was being sung at labor demonstrations and strikes across the country. It helped boost the spirits of the American Lincoln Brigade in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.
That song has been recorded by Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan (the Dylan variant begins, "I dreamed I saw St. Augustine,") and rendered by practically every other folk singer who ever strummed a guitar.
Robinson has met many of the great songwriters and folk singers of the past five decades. "Bob Dylan's an original," he said.
"Woody was a great man, and irascible" he said of another of his old buddies, Woody Guthrie. "When he felt good, he'd be the greatest performer in the world. When he felt bad about himself or his audience, he was poor."
While in the state, the Utah publisher and author Gibbs Smith took Robinson to Little Wild Horse Canyon in the San Rafael Reef. At sunset, they visited Upper Muley Twist at Capitol Reef National Park. The result of the visit to the wilds was the new song, "I Choose Wilderness."
"It's so vital and real, you know," Robinson said of the southern Utah desert. "Just really extraordinarily beautiful."
After their trip to Utah's Dixie, the pair spoke about Joe Hill at Weber State University, Ogden.
Smith, who recently stepped down as chairman of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club after five years, thinks the new song might help advance the wilderness cause. "I think the Sierra Club should have Earl go back to Congress and sing a song."
If Robinson goes, he might have to put on a necktie. He hasn't worn one since 1942. He didn't have much choice that time: It was somewhat of a command performance at a White House dinner given by Eleanor Roosevelt.
Other songs by Robinson have gained national fame, such as "The House I Live In," which Frank Sinatra sang; "Black and White," recorded by Three Dog Night in the 1960s, a song celebrating racial integration in schools; "Hurry Sundown," recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary.
He was sidetracked during the witch-hunting days of Sen. Joseph was McCarthy. "That was kind of tough. I working in Hollywood in the '40s, and I did the scores for several films . . . I got on what I called a `graylist.' The jobs dried up. I stopped getting calls."
The dry spell lasted through the '50s.
"I kept writing, but I wasn't popular as I was in the '40s," he said.
Nowadays, he's not so hung up on the class struggle. His interest has turned to nature and bringing people together.
He is writing a cycle of songs with the general heading, "Ballad for Mother Earth," and the new piece about Utah wilderness fits in fine.
"Well, this is a real part of people, and just deserves to be saved and preserved and not polluted," Robinson said of the wilderness.
So one of these days, when the debates are going hot and furious, a smiling elderly man just may sooth tempers in Congress, singing about peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and "the juniper woodland, the fragrant pinyon."