Friday, December 1, 2006
Michael Henderson

Any history of Initiatives of Change might have a chapter dedicated to to three American brothers, the Colwells. Their contribution to this work for reconciliation is unknown to today’s generation but they once played a vital, inspiring and often taken-for-granted role.

IN MY last column I pay tribute to three American brothers whom I first met in a Hollywood theatre more than 50 years ago. Any history of Initiatives of Change might have one chapter headed ‘the Colwell years’. Their contribution to this work for reconciliation is unknown to today’s generation but they once played a vital, inspiring and often taken-for-granted role. It was a time when theatre and music was central to the way MRA, as it then was, communicated its message. They were star performers.

Theirs was much more than the fashionable celebrity role of today. They modelled a commitment and selflessness that comes to the fore in a fine new portrait of their lives by Frank McGee—A Song for the World (ISBN: 0-9787948-1-8): ‘They literally walked away from their childhoods, comfort, careers and loved ones. They put it all on the line for something they believed.’

Colwell brothers with Sing Out

Paul, Steve and Ralph Colwell with the cast of 'Up with People'

Even in their pre-teens in California, Paul, Ralph and Steve Colwell were skilled Western singers with guitars, banjo, mandolin and bass, and were probably the youngest-ever trio with a major label, Columbia Records. They were on their way to stardom with national radio audiences when in 1951 they attended a performance of MRA’s Jotham Valley, a musical based on a true story about reconciliation in the Western United States. They were intrigued, Paul remembers, by the sense of purpose they met in the cast. ‘Something in me responded to helping in a programme that was bigger than my small world,’ says Steve.

Two years later they arrived at MRA’s conference centre in Caux, Switzerland, and the rapturous response to their performances on Swiss national day proved their potential to inspire a universal response. It was also the beginning of a life-long collaboration with another American musical prodigy, Herbie Allen, also featured in the book.

The Colwell’s first song in a language other than their own was written for the visit to Caux that summer of French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman. They would go on to sing in 37 languages. Their biographer writes, ‘They made it look easy to write songs on the road, rehearse them on the fly, and sing them in dialects and languages they had barely heard before. They never complained, though it took sacrifice, determination, and, most of all, courage.’ They overcame health problems, in Paul’s case asthma.

Their lyrics were cheerful, humorous and often challenging: opening people’s hearts to new perspectives on the world and to rethinking their own attitudes and behaviour. One song that comes to mind is their tonguein- cheek Isn’t it terribly sad that I’m so good and the world’s so bad.

Frank Buchman, MRA’s initiator, invited them to accompany him and a party through Asia where they sang to dignatories ranging from the Governor General of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to the King of the Maori people of New Zealand, from the Prime Ministers of Japan, Thailand, and Burma to the President of the Philippines. Chapters in the book include their hours with the Indian philosopher and land reformer, Vinoba Bhave, and the notable part played in dangerous days in the Congo where they did more than 400 radio broadcasts and sang at the Independence celebrations in 1960.

After more than a decade singing in Asia and Africa they returned to the US in 1964. Here they were ready for another challenging development, the launching of Up With People which became one of the world’s longestrunning musical productions, giving thousands of young people an unforgettable grounding in life.

To learn more about them, about Herbie Allen, about their remarkable wives and faithful parents, you’ll have to read the book: ‘Through it all, the Colwell Brothers and Herb Allen relentlessly pursued the purpose of humanity. Their dedication and dreams touched the heart of a planet, set it beating to the rhythm of their music, and started its people marching to a greater vision of possibility. Such is the power of their music.’

Indian academic Rajmohan Gandhi writes, ‘When inspired genius is willing to renounce ease and glory for the sake of something greater, the impact is huge. This is the lesson of the incredible Colwell/Allen story. I thank God for them, and I thank them for adding memorably to my stock of faith and hope.’

Michael Henderson is the author of ‘Forgiveness: breaking the chain of hate’, Grosvenor Books, 2002, ISBN 1-85239-031-X