Paul Robeson

TrackLP / CD
Deep RiverA Lonesome Road (1984)
Water BoyA Lonesome Road (1984)
ShenandoahThe Complete EMI Sessions 1928-1939
Joshua Fit The Battle Of JerichoSpirituals
Balm In GileadSongs Of Free Men
Joe HillThe Legendary Moscow Concert
Ol' Man RiverThe Legendary Moscow Concert
The Four Insurgent GeneralsThe Legendary Moscow Concert
No More Auction BlockOn My Journey (2007)
Jacob's LadderAt Carnegie Hall
Bonus Track
Song Of The Warsaw Ghetto RebellionThe Legendary Moscow Concert

Paul Robeson photo 1

 

 

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Paul Robeson playlist

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

Robeson … lives overwhelmingly in the hearts and minds of the people whom he touched, the people for whom he was an example, the people who gained from him the power to perceive and the courage to resist. It is not a sentimental question. He lived in our times, we live in his… It is a matter of bearing witness to that force which moved among us. James Baldwin

Why don’t you write the story of a young man, the son of a serf, a former shop boy, chorister, schoolboy and student, brought up on deferring to rank, on kissing priests’ hands, submitting to others’ ideas, thankful for every crust, thrashed many times … write about this young man squeezing drop by drop the slave out of himself and waking one fine morning feeling that real human blood, not a slave’s, is flowing in his veins. Anton Chekhov

Notwithstanding his brilliance as a singer, Paul Robeson’s significance goes far beyond his career as a musician. He was a genuine renaissance man combining a brilliant early spell as a sportsman with a later brief stint as a lawyer. He then went on to become one of the leading singers and actors of his generation. Over time he also became more and more immersed in political affairs, gradually becoming an activist for greater civil rights within America itself. He also began to identify himself with the movements for colonial independence then springing up in the remaining imperial outposts around the world. To quote his biographer, Martin Duberman, Robeson was strongly committed “to improve the lot of people of colour around the world. Here was an important black artist who viewed his gifts and his worldly success not as ends in themselves, but as instruments for helping his fellow blacks.”

Along with this, he was also a gifted linguist who eventually spoke more than twenty languages. He also recorded songs in many of them. Furthermore, he was a talented amateur musicologist who studied the linkages between the folk music of many different countries long before the idea of ‘world music’ became fashionable. To add to this, he was also a brilliantly charismatic speaker who had been a prize debater in his youth. And to add to this list of achievements, Robeson had built up this list of impressive accomplishments against the backdrop of the racial divisions which scarred the United States of America for most of his life.

An indication of the struggles he faced throughout his life was the fact that his own father, William Drew Robeson, had been born a slave on a plantation in Martin County, North Carolina. He had escaped from there at the age of 15. After studying at Lincoln University, one of the first black colleges in the US, William Drew Robeson became a pastor at the Witherspoon Church in Princeton, New Jersey. He had been there almost twenty years when Paul Robeson was born on 9th April 1898. Growing up in such a strongly religious environment, Robeson later remembered hearing his “people” sing “in the glow of the parlor coal-stove and summer porches sweet with lilac air, from the choir-loft and Sunday morning pews” and his “soul was filled with their harmonies.” He also heard ‘those songs in the very sermons of my father, for in the Negro speech there is much of the phrasing and rhythm of the folk song.”

Although a committed churchman, Robeson’s father was also a hard taskmaster. He demanded and expected the highest standards from his sons and daughter. His stern perfectionism played a major role in Paul’s determination to excel at everything he did. This resolve was reflected in his excellent performance at school, both academically and on the sports field. His academic achievements eventually led to his winning a scholarship to Rutgers University, then one of the most prestigious colleges in America.

Paul Robeson photo 2

In his early days there, he experienced regular incidents of both covert and overt racism. This changed in some respects – not all by any means – when he began to demonstrate his outstanding abilities as an American footballer. He eventually proved himself to be one of the best student players of his generation. He also excelled both in his studies and as a debater. He sang with the College glee club, albeit with the stipulations that he could not travel with them to other campuses and that he could not take part in the social activities that followed their performances.

After leaving Rutgers, Robeson went on to study law at New York University and later at Columbia University. While there, he also became involved in the rich cultural life which surrounded the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ as it became known. During this period, there was a major movement of black Americans from the south of the country to the larger cities in the north. Among those who were part of that ‘great migration’ were writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, actors and playwrights including artists and photographers such as Aaron Douglas and James Van Der Zee and musicians of the calibre of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Many of these artists either lived in Harlem itself or visited there regularly. Their talents also led many progressive white artists to pay a new attention to the artistic scene there. One of those who did so was the great playwright, Eugene O’Neill, who was to play a very important part in Robeson’s career. With this new entrée into a world of artistic creativity and innovation, Paul Robeson began to make his first forays into amateur theatre. He also made occasional appearances as a singer.

Paul Robeson poster

However, it still appeared as if Robeson was unsure as to whether he should continue as a professional lawyer or concentrate on a career in the arts. There were two major turning points in the early 1920s which eventually decided his course. The first of these was his casting in the title role of O’Neill’s play Emperor Jones in 1924. Although never perhaps a technically brilliant actor, Robeson had a very commanding presence on stage. He also had a superbly resonant speaking voice, which he used to great effect in those parts which particularly suited him. The second major turning point was meeting the supremely gifted pianist Lawrence Brown in 1925. This marked the beginning of a musical partnership which continued for over twenty years.

A large part of Brown’s appeal to Robeson lay in his beautifully sensitive arrangements of those spirituals with which he had grown up. At this time, such music had fallen out of fashion with some middle-class blacks, due to its close association with slavery and poverty. Both men were, however, determined to revive it both for its own intrinsic merits and as a vital expression of the black experience in America. To achieve this objective, they held a concert at the Greenwich Village Theatre in April 1925 made up exclusively of what they described as “Negro spirituals and secular songs also known as slave or plantation music.” The reception of that concert was so enthusiastic that soon afterwards they embarked on a series of similar concerts. They also started to record together. My first choice, Deep River, is their version of a classic spiritual which was recorded two years later in 1927. Like many such songs, it expresses a deep longing for freedom and an end to oppression. As always, Robeson sings it with an immense natural dignity which gives it an added power

By contrast, the next, Water Boy, is a prisoner’s song, which probably developed from what has been described as a ‘call song’ (that is one based on a convict calling to the ‘Water Boy’ to fetch some water). In my opinion , this is one of Paul Robeson’s finest early vocal performances.

During this early part of his singing career, Robeson recorded many songs which by today’s standards appear unworthy of his talent. Many of these were ‘plantation’ songs which expressed a rose-coloured and often deeply patronising view of life under slavery. These included songs like Carry Me Back To Old Virginia, Old Folks At Home and Stephen Foster’s My Old Kentucky Home. In retrospect these songs seem deeply problematic but at the time they were among the most popular ones in his repertoire. He also sang some which were more or less straight up pop songs. My favourite of these, which I would have included if I had more selections available, is My Curly Headed Baby. Robeson sang this with a lovely lightness of touch which was not always apparent in his later work.

He also recorded many American folk songs from across the tradition. One of my favourites of these is his superb version of Shenandoah. Its beautiful melody means that it has been covered by a wide variety of artists, including ones of the stature of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Bruce Springsteen. It is a testament to Robeson’s excellence as a singer that his version bears comparison with the very best of these. His magnificently rich bass voice works to fine effect here and Lawrence’s Brown’s arrangement is also one of his very finest.

The next selection, Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho, is another testament to the strength of the musical partnership that existed between the two men. Brown’s light tenor voice serves as an ideal counterpoint to Robeson’s far deeper one. Like many of the great spirituals, it also celebrated a historical triumph over adversity which had a deep resonance for those who were living as slaves.

By the early 1930s, Robeson had achieved remarkable commercial success as a singer. His acting career was also given a new impetus when he was cast as Othello in a London production in 1930. The production also featured a young Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona. Historically, this was an important staging of the play as Robeson was one of the few black men ever to play the part (Ira Aldridge had previously played it in the United States in 1820). Apart from that isolated occasion, it had generally been played by white actors who ‘blacked-up’ for the role. Robeson’s performance in the part was generally praised and it served as a stepping-stone for many black actors who came after him (he can be seen discussing the part here).

After that performance, he began to spend a good deal of time in Europe. While there, he developed a new interest in exploring other cultures and began to mix with a group of predominantly left-wing intellectuals, including the brilliant Trinidadian writer and historian, C.L.R. James and the Irish-born playwright, George Bernard Shaw. During this period, Robeson underwent a period of rapid politicisation which culminated in his growing support for anti-colonial and anti-Fascist causes. He particularly identified with the struggle of the anti-Francoist forces in Spain, visiting the country in 1938 and singing for the International Brigade’s men there. More broadly speaking, his politics shifted strongly to the left; a development which had serious repercussions for him later in his musical career.

In these years, Paul Robeson also extended his repertoire beyond American music. He recorded folk songs from many different countries and expanded his range into works by classical composers like Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Mussorgsky. Among the Irish songs he recorded were ‘rebel’ songs like Kevin Barry and Thomas Moore’s The Minstrel Boy. He also popularised many of the great American spirituals by singing them in concerts all over Europe. Indeed, a recent debate about the singing of Swing Low Sweet Chariot at English rugby matches highlighted the fact that many people seemed unaware of the role Robeson had played in making it so well-known.

It was also in this period that Robeson developed a special relationship with many people in the British working class, most particularly in Wales. This came about largely by chance when, in 1929, Robeson met a group of Welsh miners who had come to London to protest against their living and working conditions. He had initially been impressed by the quality of their singing. After hearing their stories, however, he decided spontaneously to join their march. He subsequently helped to pay for the miners’ return home. Later he donated concert fees he received in Wales to a miners’ relief fund. In 1939, he made a film, The Proud Valley, set in Port Talbot and the Rhondda Valley. Robeson later described it as a favourite movie for its positive portrayal of working-class community life. Here is a clip from The Proud Valley with Paul singing Lord God Of Abraham.

This strong relationship with the Welsh miners was to be of considerable significance for Robeson later in his life.

Soon after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Robeson returned to live in the United States. Given its emphasis on creating a sense of national unity, he was a natural choice to appear on the patriotic live radio broadcast, The Pursuit Of Happiness, which took place on 5th November 1939. Having a black singer of Robeson’s stature perform the song The Ballad Of Uncle Sam (retitled as Ballad For Americans) – which was designed as a celebration of American life albeit with an undercurrent of criticism of the country’s record on race – gave it a credibility which it might not otherwise have possessed. Both the broadcast itself and the subsequent version proved massively popular with audiences across the country. Indeed, this probably marked the high point of Robeson’s commercial appeal as a singer in his native country. Also, at the time, few people knew of the extent of Robeson’s political awakening during his years away from the country.

My next selection, Balm In Gilead, was recorded in 1942 and is one of Paul Robeson’s finest versions of a spiritual. It’s striking for its combination of a tone of dignified restraint with a steely determination to continue to resist oppression.

For me at least, it also has an inspirational message for the times we live in, where political struggle can often appear largely futile and unavailing (sometimes I feel discouraged/ and think my work’s in vain/ but then the Holy Spirit/ revives my soul again). Although Robeson was not an especially religious person later in life, he always retained a deep respect for the depth of feeling and the yearning for emancipation which was implicit in so many ‘spiritual’ songs.

Joe Hill, my next choice, is a song which is indelibly associated with Robeson. This is despite the fact that it has subsequently been recorded by artists of the calibre of Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Luke Kelly. This great newsreel footage was taken on the visit of Paul Robeson to Woolmet Colliery near Edinburgh in 1949, where he sings I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night for the miners in the canteen.

Reflecting Paul Robeson’s increasingly left-wing politics, the song was a celebration of the great syndicalist songwriter of that name. In 1914, Joe Hill had been executed on allegedly trumped up charges, with many on the left seeing both his trial and conviction being, largely, politically motivated. According to one contemporary, Hill’s last words were “don’t mourn, organise” and it was around this phrase that the song was constructed. The version I have chosen for inclusion is a live one, recorded during Robeson’s famous concert in Moscow in 1949. As always, he imbues the song with an enormous dignity and with a restrained, but clearly apparent, political passion.

This passion is even more evident in my next choice from The Legendary Moscow Concert, the Anti-Francoist Spanish song, The Four Insurgent Generals.

My last pick from The Legendary Moscow Concert is Ol’ Man River, a song Paul Robeson had been associated with since very early in his career. Indeed, he had first appeared in Showboat, the musical in which it appears, in a London production in 1928. He had always sung it magnificently but over time had become disillusioned with the politically quiescent tone of the lyric. In this version he alters the song to give it a far more defiant tone – you show a little grit/ and you lands in jail rather than you get a little drunk/ and you lands in jail and I must keep fighting/ until I’m dying not I’m tired of living/ and scared of dying.

I will discuss another song he performed in that 1949 concert in Moscow when I get to my bonus selection.

Paul Robeson’s decision to perform in Moscow reflected his generally friendly attitude towards the Soviet Union later in his life. As we shall see later in this piece, this did not mean that he was unaware or uncritical of the flaws in the regime there. To a large extent, his stance in that respect was driven by his anti-colonial views and support for working class rights more globally. During his time in London, Robeson had developed friendships with many African anti-colonial campaigners who were either studying or living in exile there. These included people like Jomo Kenyatta from Kenya and Kwame Nkrumah from Ghana and Nnamdi Azikiwe from Nigeria. Several of these men looked to the Soviet Union as an ally in their anti-colonial struggles and their attitudes undoubtedly influenced Robeson’s approach. On his visits there, Robeson was also treated with a courtesy and deference which had not always been extended to him in the United States.

In the USA itself, Robeson also saw some of the leading members there as valuable allies in the struggle against racism. Nevertheless, when considering his political attitudes, it is important to bear in mind his son, Paul Junior’s, statement that he “was never a Communist” nor “did he ever seriously contemplate joining the Communist Party.”

While Robeson’s generally supportive attitude towards the USSR was not a problem for him in the war years, by the late 1940s it had begun to alarm the staunchly anti-Communist element then active in American political life. As a result of growing pressure from such circles, his sources of work began gradually to dry up. This ‘blacklisting’ was reinforced when his passport was cancelled in 1949, following a speech he gave at a Peace Congress in Paris, In it, he had questioned whether American blacks and working class whites would be willing to take part in a war against the Soviet Union. This was seen as deeply offensive by many people in the US and it led many people – including some fellow civil rights activists – to distance themselves from Robeson.

What followed was the most difficult part of Paul Robeson’s career, when he became one of the most reviled people in America. This wave of critical commentary eventually led to his celebrated appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in June 1956. When asked there why he did not go to live in the Soviet Union, he responded that he remained in the US because his father “was a slave” and his people had died “to build this country”. He was going to stay there “and have a part of it just like you”. (His courageous testimony is re-enacted by James Earl Jones in the clip below.) Robeson’s combative stance drew a reluctant admiration from some people and helped to drive the overseas protest movement against his treatment in the US.

During the ‘blacklist’, Robeson had little option but to go underground. Unable to perform in large concert halls, he sang at those black churches which would accept him. He also made a number of records for the independent label, Othello Records, set up by his son, Paul Jr. By this stage, Robeson had acquired a new accompanist, Alan Booth. While not perhaps of the same calibre as Lawrence Brown, Booth was nonetheless a fine musician in his own right. I have chosen their version of No More Auction Block for inclusion. This is one of the very greatest anti-slavery songs (it has been claimed that Bob Dylan based the melody of Blowing In The Wind on it) and Robeson sings it with a power and authority which few other versions have matched. The fact that his father was born a slave gives the song an even greater resonance.

In 1957, Robeson’s loyalty to the Welsh miners was repaid when he took part in a miners’ eisteddfod at Porthcawl via a telephone line. This was part of the broader ‘Let Robeson Sing’ movement in the UK (on which the great Manic Street Preachers song is based – see video at the foot of this post) which sought to obtain the return of Robeson’s passport. A part of his performance on that occasion can be heard here. This movement – and pressure from Robeson’s many international admirers – eventually led to a gradual easing of the restrictions on him. In June 1958, after a protracted legal battle, his passport and the right to free travel was finally restored to him.

In the same year, Robeson gave a triumphant concert – At Carnegie Hall. From it, I have included his version of Jacob’s Ladder. The moment here when the audience joins in with him is, in my opinion, one of those most genuinely moving moments in music. Sadly, however, Robeson’s long struggle against political ostracisation took a severe toll on his mental and physical health. By the mid-1960s, when many of the causes he championed had become far more mainstream ones, he had largely retired from the public scene. He died on 23rd January 1976, his death bringing a close to the career of one of the most multi-talented and inspiring artists of the twentieth century. In a sense, he was a vital trailblazer, who opened doors through which many subsequent black artists were to pass.

 

Bonus track

This account of the background behind Paul Robeson singing Song Of The Warsaw Ghetto Rebellion at the 1949 Moscow Concert is taken from this interview with his son, Paul Jr. The historical context was that Robeson’s performance took place at a time when Stalin was carrying out a campaign of repression against Russian Jews.

Before the concert, he states that Paul Snr “began asking to see his Jewish friends. [He was told] well, so and so’s on vacation, and unfortunately a very good friend of his, a great playwright named Solomon Mikhoels had died. They said, well he died of a heart attack and so on and when dad asked around, people just sort of clammed up. So he suspected it might not have been a heart attack. In any case, he demanded to see a very dear friend of his, who he had met over here during the War, in the United States, by the name of Yitzhak Pfeffer, a famous Jewish poet, Jewish-Soviet poet. And they said, well Pfeffer’s on vacation somewhere in Leningrad … [After touring the country Robeson returned to Moscow and again asked to see] Pfeffer and he was absolutely adamant … So they said, all right, he’ll come see you tomorrow. And sure enough, Pfeffer showed up at the hotel, knocked on the door and as dad greeted him, he made sign motions, indicating that the suite was bugged. They carried on two conversations, one normal for the listeners in Russian – my dad spoke Russian fluently – and another with sign language and brief little notes that they wrote back and forth … [ It turned out] that Pfeffer had [been] disappeared, nobody knew where he was. He had been arrested; he was sitting in the Lubyanka Prison at the time. They gathered him up, sent him home, dressed him up, gave him a meal and turned him loose in the lobby of the hotel … That was the background. So when they parted, finally, a very emotional parting, because they probably wouldn’t see each other again”, Pfeffer indicated to Robeson that he too was likely to be killed.

That night in his concert – breaking with the intended programme – Robeson instead added The Warsaw Ghetto Song (or Zog Nit Keyn Mol to give it its original title). It was written by the Jewish poet, Hirsh Glick, in response to the uprising within the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw against the occupying troops. It later came to be seen as one of the chief anthems of the survivors of the Holocaust. Given its background, Robeson’s singing of the song was as close to a condemnation of the Stalinist regime as he could make in the circumstances. Here is a translated version which makes the political implications even more apparent:

His performance of the song also makes it clear that Robeson was not the uncritical supporter of the USSR which some of his detractors later suggested he was.

 

 

Footnote

For those wanting to find out more about Robeson’s career, the classic “Paul Robeson: A Biography” by Martin Duberman is essential reading. Paul Robeson Jr’s two volumes of biography, “The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey 1898-1939” and “The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: Quest For Freedom 1939-1976”, are also mines of information.

This Guardian article is excellent on Robeson’s special relationship with Wales.

The 1999 documentary Here I Stand made for the PBS series American Masters is also well worth watching (see below).

 

 

 

Paul Robeson sings Ol’ Man River in the 1936 movie “Showboat”

 

Paul Robeson sings for the workers at Sydney Opera House, 1960. He was the first professional singer to perform there – singing on the concrete foundations of what would become the Concert Hall.

 

No passport ’til 1958
McCarthy poisoned through with hate
Liberty lost still buried today
Beneath the lie of the USA

A voice so pure, a vision so clear
I’ve got to learn to live like you
Learn to sing like you

Let Robeson Sing by Manic Street Preachers from “Know Your Enemy”

 

Paul Robeson (1898–1976)

 

Paul Robeson blue plaque

Plaque erected by English Heritage at The Chestnuts, Hampstead (2002)

 

Paul Robeson Foundation

Paul Robeson House & Museum

Paul Robeson Discography (Stefan Wirz)

Paul Robeson Discography (Norton McColl)

“The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: Quest for Freedom 1939-1976”
by Paul Robeson Jr. (Wiley, 2009)

“Paul Robeson: A Biography”
by Martin Duberman (Random House, 1989)

Paul Robeson biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

TopperPost #909

5 Comments

  1. David Wilcox
    Oct 9, 2020

    My parents were very keen on Paul and as a result he is an important part of my life’s musical background. I saw him at the Albert Hall in 1958 when I was nearly 9. This is a brilliant account of his life and work. Thank you.

  2. Peter Viney
    Oct 11, 2020

    I wish I’d read this before I saw Nicholas Wright’s play about Robeson “8 Hotels” in 2019. My review is linked … the play adds quite a bit to the story, especially José Ferrer and The House Un-American Activities Committee. I mention it in the review, but Robeson’s pet hate was being asked to sing Ol’ Man River, which he was asked on a daily basis.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Oct 11, 2020

    David and Peter, thanks for the kind words.
    Thanks also for the review. The play sounds fascinating – there is quite a lot about the triangular relationship between Ferrer, Hagen and Paul in the Duberman book. Hagen also talks about Paul in the ‘Here I Stand’ documentary. Thought this book might interest you as well. Haven’t got around to reading it yet but it looks very interesting.

  4. David Lewis
    Oct 13, 2020

    Although Paul’s is the superior version, I find it notable that Frank Sinatra’s version of ‘Ol’ Man River’ borrows heavily from Paul’s interpretation. Sinatra was not one to pay tribute lightly, so it’s clear he (rightly) held Paul in appropriate esteem.

  5. Andrew Shields
    Oct 14, 2020

    Thanks for this David. Sinatra’s version is a very fine one, indeed. By the way, this podcast about Sinatra and the blacklist is very interesting –
    http://www.youmustrememberthispodcast.com/episodes/2016/6/13/frank-sinatra-and-albert-maltz-breaking-the-blacklist-part-1

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