Paul Robeson

I was listening to some Paul Robeson today (“everyone’s favorite black communist opera singer,” as my friend Mary describes him). I was reading more about his life—what a remarkable person! (Most of this summarized from Wikipedia.)

He’s best known for his powerful bass voice singing “Old Man River” in Showboat (which otherwise has aged pretty badly). This is his adaptation of the original lyrics, as he sang it in later years:

Paul Robeson was born in 1898. Robeson’s father escaped from slavery at the age of 15 and became a minister in New Jersey. His mother was a Quaker teacher of African, European, and American Indian ancestry. Paul won an academic scholarship to Rutgers and was elected valedictorian when he graduated in 1919. When he tried out for the Rutgers football team, the all-white team were so rough that they broke his nose and dislocated his shoulder during the try-out. He was accepted to the team and won All-American twice (I had to look up what this meant, but I guess it’s a pretty big deal in football). He played for two different NFL teams while simultaneous in Columbia law school. He was also performing in off-Broadway shows during law school. (I can only assume that all three of these occupations were less cut-throat and all-consuming than they are today, but still!)

After graduating, he practiced law briefly before quitting in protest after a stenographer refused to take dictation from a black man. He turned his focus to the theater. In the 1920s, he helped popularize black spirituals during the Harlem Renaissance. His vocal style is interesting because he’s coming very directly from the folk tradition of these songs, growing up in the African Methodist Episcopal church and as the son of a slave. But there’s a lot of formal vocal training evident as well:

He acted in 13 films and was acclaimed for his Othello on Broadway and in London, where he was the first black actor to play the role in a major production since the 1860s.

in 1934 he first visited the Soviet Union, where he said, “Here I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life.” (Of course, it helps when the government wants you to be a cultural ambassador.) He advocated for the anti-fascists during the Spanish Civil War and for Nehru during India’s move toward independence. He founded the American Crusade Against Lynching in 1946. When the Senate Committee on the Judiciary questioned him about his affiliation with the Communist Party, he refused to answer, saying: “Some of the most brilliant and distinguished Americans are about to go to jail for the failure to answer that question, and I am going to join them, if necessary.”

One ironic part of his story is his failure to decry the injustices of the Soviet Union as he did in the United States. The State Department cancelled his passport in 1950, explaining that “his frequent criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States should not be aired in foreign countries.”

But shortly before, he had visited Soviet Jewish poet Itzhak Feffer, whom he had originally met in New York at an event hosted by Albert Einstein. David Horowitz writes:

In America, the question ‘What happened to Itzhak Feffer?’entered the currency of political debate. There was talk in intellectual circles that Jews were being killed in a new Soviet purge and that Feffer was one of them. It was to quell such rumors that Robeson asked to see his old friend, but he was told by Soviet officials that he would have to wait. Eventually, he was informed that the poet was vacationing in the Crimea and would see him as soon as he returned. The reality was that Feffer had already been in prison for three years, and his Soviet captors did not want to bring him to Robeson immediately because he had become emaciated from lack of food. While Robeson waited in Moscow, Stalin’s police brought Feffer out of prison, put him the care of doctors, and began fattening him up for the interview. When he looked sufficiently healthy, he was brought to Moscow. The two men met in a room that was under secret surveillance. Feffer knew he could not speak freely. When Robeson asked how he was, he drew his finger nervously across his throat and motioned with his eyes and lips to his American comrade. They’re going to kill us, he said. When you return to America you must speak out and save us.

But Robeson failed to speak. Unwilling to defame the USSR, he denied the existence of persecution there. Feffer was executed with twelve other Jewish intellectuals at Lubyanka Prison a few years later.

Robeson continued performing into the 1960s, when he suffered a physical and mental breakdown brought on either by nefarious action by the CIA (as his son believed) or just from the stress of being tracked by the CIA and M15 (which is certainly true). He died in 1976 after complications from a stroke.

My favorite Robeson recording is the labor ballad Joe Hill. John McCutcheon tells a story about performing in Australia and getting a request for the song. He protested that he didn’t know it particularly well, but the man persisted, saying it meant a lot to him ever since he had heard it in 1960 when he was a construction worker helping to build the Sydney Opera House. A black singer (Robeson, who was touring Australia both as a singer and advocating for Aboriginal rights) had stopped at the site and told them he wanted to be the first to give a concert there. He sang this song, a tribute to an American labor organizer:


2 thoughts on “Paul Robeson

  1. Oliver Mayor

    This is more about Paul Robeson than I knew before, especially some of the political stuff. Here in NJ we mostly know him from all the streets and buildings named in his honor, particularly around Rutgers. I hadn’t heard his adaptation of Old Man River–amazing.



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