Parallel Lives III: Paul Robeson

Who was he?
The great black American bass Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey on 9 April 1898, his father having been a runaway slave who became a senior Quaker. Paul was both a magnificent physical specimen and also highly intelligent and he won a scholarship to Rutgers University. He became the second black all-American player, went on to Columbia Law School, and took up acting.

What did he become?
He discovered he had a fine singing voice, as many others have, by being required to sing in a play, in 1922. Since racial feeling against blacks being lawyers was so strong, he became a professional actor-singer, starring in two famous dramas of Eugene O’Neill’s, All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones. Shortly after, in 1925, he began to make records of spirituals and Negro songs.

Why the cult? The music…
Robeson became a hugely popular interpreter of Negro spirituals and music theatre – his singing of ‘Ol’ Man River’ from Jerome Kern’s Show Boat is firmly engrained in popular culture. His interpretation of that great bass song has become definitive. But perhaps more importantly, it was his political role or symbolism which has made him such a cult.

…and the man
Paul Robeson gradually assumed the role of a major symbol of anti-racism and his whole career was as much a matter of asserting the dignity of a downtrodden people as of being a major artist. It is hard for us to judge to what extent he is that; the only visual documentation we have of him is a series of not very satisfactory films, which he himself came to realise were lending credence to the racial stereotypes which he was intent on undermining. In that inevitable dialectic in which radical protesters get trapped, the harder he attempted to establish the validity of a way of living with the dignity traditionally denied to black people, the more he enabled liberals to patronise his race and reactionaries to continue their policies.

Why is he in the news?
It may seem surprising that in the Russian Revelation series of discs, which began appearing last year, and which document certain performances given during the post-World War 2 period in the Soviet Union, there should be one of a concert given by Paul Robeson. The concert took place in Moscow in 1949, during the period when the Cold War was really gathering momentum, so that Robeson was regarded with the gravest suspicion in the United States for his communist sympathies. In the concert he sings freedom-fighting folk songs and spirituals from America and Asia. He can also be heard introducing each song.

Reputation verdict
His innocence on the political front meant that he was wholly unaware of the racism which also infected the Soviet Union, and which meant that the concert recorded in 1949 was an explosive event. The next year his passport was confiscated by the American authorities for its subversiveness. What we are left with is the reputation of an heroic believer in freedom and equality, and recordings of an extraordinary rich bass voice, which had passed its best by the time this concert was given. Alas, there is now virtually no other available evidence of his vocal prowess.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

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