AmericanA to Z: Paul Robeson

In any pantheon of American music there should be a space for the monumental figure of Paul Robeson.  Whole biographies have deservedly been dedicated to describing his kaleidoscopic talents and a life of commitment and spirit.   It makes little sense to listen to his music removed from context so the following is a short precis of a titanic cultural figure;  an abbreviation of a life that seems to gather up the themes of the 20th century into one person.

Born 1898, Robeson was an African-American who used the phrase before it was conventional; part of his life-long need to represent the legacy and dignity of black people.  A scholarship student, he was an excellent athlete, and took his law degree while playing in the American football national league. His energy couldn’t be contained in these fields and he also acted and sang in theatrical productions.  This creative drive led to him leaving a conventional legal career and working with figures such as the playwright Eugene O’Neill in the first production of “The Emperor Jones”.

He had a huge success in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Showboat” in 1928 with over 200 appearances in London.  His acting career included several films, and he also starred and toured in productions of Othello.  The clip below gives a feel for Robeson’s charm and includes an insight into the tensions associated with playing the part in the southern states of America.

Robeson lived with racism, met it with staggering talents and worked throughout his life to represent and fight for black people in his country.  However, this compassion extended further.  During studies in London he became involved with the causes of the ‘30s and the impact of the Great Depression on industrial workers.  ‘Joe Hill’ is one of his best-known songs; an anthem of a resistance that grows in strength from person to person.

He was a man who stood for causes but like many intellectual and cultural figures on the left in the 1930s he was seduced by the mirage of the Soviet Union.  As capitalism seemingly collapsed, it had to be the answer; it was the god that could not fail.  At Stalin’s death he published “To You, Beloved Comrade” a eulogy to the tyrant that refers to his “..deep humanity..” and “..wise understanding..”.

It was a purblind mistake made by many of his compatriots and there was a price to be paid in the America of the 1950s.  He was brought before the House Un-American Activities committee in 1956 and refused to comply.  Taunted with the accusation that he would be more comfortable in the Soviet Union, he replied with the magnificent “ father was a slave and my people died to build [the United States and], I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you and no fascist-minded people will drive me from it!.”.   He continued to work despite the consequent blacklisting, loss of income and stigmatisation.   He died on January 23rd, 1976 and lay in state in Harlem.

His musical legacy is that rolling, reverberating bass-baritone.  His recordings were made between a range of creative projects and come to 276 songs.  The styles vary and include the classical repertoire, folk songs, poetry and political songs.

Perhaps the best summary is found in the “Live at Carnegie Hall” album from 1958.  Robeson was a controversial figure, but you can hear the quiet respect from the audience.  The album consists of Robeson and piano accompaniment from Alan Booth. It includes the song that is forever associated with Robeson; `Old Man River’ from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Showboat”.  Robeson would change the well-known lines  “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’ / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An skeered of dyin” to the more positive “But I keeps laffin’ instead of cyrin’ / I must keep fightin’ / Until I’m dyin’….”.  The aim was to inspire in the struggle, but it feels like an artistic mistake.

The other songs include the spirituals and black folk songs Robeson was determined to reclaim.  `Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ is a perfect distillation of sadness.  `This is the Hammer’ and `Deliver Daniel’ are reminders of the life and spirit of the African-American spiritual tradition.  The album includes an excerpt from Othello.  The style can seem old-fashioned and declamatory, but it radiates the character’s physical power and emotional pain.

The set also includes `Joe Hill’; an audacious, courageous song to play to the New York middle classes. `Chassidic Melody’ sees Robeson deliver incantated traditional Jewish music with an implicit recognition of the historic repression of Jewish people.

Like all politically engaged figures, his legacy is still debated, but in all the related abundance of articles and books there is complete consensus on one thing: that overwhelming talent.


Robeson’s recording career started with a shellac mono release of ‘Where You There?‘ and `Steal Away’ in 1925 and he continued over the following decades.  Highlights include:

`Songs of Free Men’ (1943)
`Favourite Songs’ (1959)
`At Carnegie Hall’ (1960)
‘Paul Robeson sings Lider Aus Aller Welt’ (1960)
`Paul Robeson sings Negro Spirituals’ (1962
`Spirituals’ (1968)
`In Live Performance’ 1971

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