Paul Robeson was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century, but has been almost written out of recent American history due to his fearless advocacy of the principles of civil rights, equality and democratic freedom. He was an athlete, a qualified lawyer, a professional singer and actor, but above all he was a campaigner for human rights the world over. A giant of a man in all respects, perhaps his most notable single attribute was his fine bass voice, and that quality can now be enjoyed and appreciated again through this new CD of some of his best known songs, including many of the songs reflecting his political allegiances.
Robeson saw his singing and his acting as part of his political campaigning after a visit to Germany and the USSR in 1934. Two factors combined on that trip – his hatred of Nazi fascism, and his admiration for the Soviet Union’s legislation for racial equality.
In 1937, he sang in Spain for the loyalists fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. The following year he came to Wales to film The Proud Valley , a film which meant more to him than any other, and which introduced him to the miners of the Rhondda Valley, and they struck up a friendship which lasted for the rest of his life.
Returning to America, his fame grew with the nationwide broadcast of “Ballad For Americans” in November, 1939, a song which was at once a declaration of loyalty for America and a strong demand for equality. He travelled the country enthralling audiences with his songs and speeches, refusing to perform to segregated audiences, and encouraging black support for the war effort to defeat fascism which “would make slaves of us all”. As America entered World War II, Robeson achieved massive success playing Othello on Broadway and nationwide, from 1942 to 1944, and redoubled his political campaigning against fascism, racism and colonialism, espousing the right of black people to full equality, the right of African peoples to self-government, and the progressive labour movement.
His support for the war effort shielded him from criticism at first, but after the war, his views regarding the Soviet Union and African independence brought him into conflict with President Truman’s policy of containment, and it also became evident that Truman was not going to move on human rights. A growing number of Americans were also turning against him, and attempts were made to curtail his public peformances. In 1947, in total disgust at such attitudes, he announced he would take two years away from the theatre and concert stage, in order to “talk up and down the nation against race hatred and prejudice. It seems that I must raise my voice, but not by singing pretty songs”.
In late 1947, he recorded his famous version of Langston Hughes’ poem Freedom Train, against The American Heritage Foundation’s travelling exhibition about the Declaration of Independence, on a train operating a policy of segregation. In 1949 he made his most controversial speech at the World Peace Conference in Paris, in which he decried the concept of American Blacks’ participation in foreign wars on behalf of a government which treated them as second class citizens. He returned to an America which was rapidly turning against him, the FBI held an ongoing investigation into his alleged “communist ties”, anti-communists and racists began rioting outside his concerts, and all this culminated in the revoking of his passport in 1950.
This attempt to silence Paul Robeson started a period of political resistance using songs as his weapons which is unparallelled in modern history. In 1952, Canadian union leaders organized a series of concerts at the Peace Arch Park on the US-Canadian border, and invitations flowed offering Professorships and performances of Othello at Stratford. He was also invited by the workers he had befriended during the filming of The Proud Valley in 1938 to sing at the South Wales Miners’ Eisteddfod, about which Robeson said : “I just couldn’t receive an invitation that could mean more to me”. In 1957, with the laying of the transatlantic telephone cable, Robeson gave his first “Transatlantic Concert” to an audience in Manchester in May, and the second in October to the Grand Pavilion at Porthcawl. That historic exchange with the South Wales Miners’ Eisteddfod is heard in full on this CD.
In his autobiography Here I Stand, Robeson said of this experience:
“I cannot say how deeply I was moved on this occasion, for here was an audience that had adopted me as kin and though they were unseen by me, I never felt closer to them”.
His passport was returned to him in 1958, and Wales was one of his first destinations, where he appeared and spoke at both the National Eisteddfod at Ebbw Vale, and the South Wales Miners’ Eisteddfod at Porthcawl. He spent the last years of his performing life abroad, but returned to the US when ill-health led to his retirement in 1963.
He lived the final years of his life in seclusion in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and died there on January 23rd, 1976.
- ODE TO JOY
- GREETINGS FROM NEW YORK
- CRIMSON PETAL
- OL' MAN RIVER
- WHAT IS AMERICA TO ME?
- SONG OF THE WARSAW GHETTO
- THERE'S A MAN GOING ROUND TAKIN' NAMES
- LAND OF MY FATHERS
- JOHN BROWN'S BODY