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Classical 101

Who is Paul Robeson?

Robeson leading Moore Shipyard Oakland, California workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner, September 1942. Robeson, himself, was a shipyard worker in World War I.

If your answer to the question posed above was, "He was in Showboat," you have one part of the answer. Yes, Paul Robeson performed THE version of Old Man River by which all others must be measured. Whether you believe Robeson or William Warfield, or someone else sings it better is not so much the point as all of the turmoil and intrigue which surrounded Paul Robeson during his life.


Robeson had moved to London in the 1920's, where he and his family lived what was termed the high life. Both he and his wife Essie were politically active.  Robeson's father had been a plantation slave in North Carolina before escaping, eventually becoming a pastor, while his maternal great-grandfather was a founder of the Free African Society, the first mutual aid organization of African Americans, in 1787.  Robeson was a great athlete, playing football at Rutgers and a practicing attorney until racism within the company forced him out.  That is when he headed to the stage.

Around the time he performed in Showboat, Robeson's travels took him to the Soviet Union several times.  In the London newspaper The Independent, journalist and author Jessica Duchen quotes Robeson as saying, “Here I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life... I walk in full human dignity.”

Duchen reports that British filmmaker Steve McQueen, who produced the award-winning 12 Years a Slave,  is to direct a biopic about Paul Robeson, in which we learn about the man behind the iconic tune he sang.

Robeson got involved in civil rights campaigns in many countries, while dealing with MaCarthyism in his own backyard, something which would eventually destroy his career.  One has to wonder what he might have done beyond the film roles and recordings of spirituals had it not been for Joseph McCarthy.  As I write this, I am listening to a recording of O Isis und Osiris Sarastro's Aria from Act II of Mozart's Magic Flute, made in the later years of his life.  Even past his prime, his voice still can give you chills.


Maybe this look at Paul Robeson's life beyond stage and screen will give us a greater appreciation of his talent, while stirring us to be ever diligent in guarding against those who would silence those with whom they disagree.