Remembering Paul Robeson’s musical activism

By - Monday 28th October, 2013

Local historian Sean Creighton takes a look at the musical impact of Paul Robeson and his lasting legacy

Photo by Hans Thijs
Image used under Creative Commons license

Call Mr Robeson was the last show at Croydon’s Warehouse Theatre before it was forced to close in May 2012. This powerful one man performance by Tayo Aluko is a tribute to the African American actor, singer and political activist Paul Robeson. Having made Britain his base for much of the 1920s and 1930s, he remained popular until his retirement to the United States in 1963, retaining a fan base here ever since. There is growing interest in him as someone who was not only a talented actor and singer, but who campaigned for civil rights, colonial freedom, world peace and against fascism. He so angered the US government that his passport was taken away in 1950. It was only returned in 1958 after the Supreme Court ruled it was against the Constitution to deny someone their passport.

Aluko has toured Call Mr Robeson around Britain several times and also the US and Canada since 2009. I have seen it three times in London and Canada. It has just finished its run at the Tristan Bates Theatre, as the bedrock for ‘The Paul Robeson Art is a Weapon Festival’.

I was an infant when I ‘met’ Robeson at an event my father organised. I was a fan of his singing as a child and teenager. My two favourites remain Ol’ Man River and Joe Hill, so he has been part of the soundscape of my life and a person I have admired throughout my life. I had the privilege of giving a talk about him in the UK at the 100th birthday anniversary event organised by the School of African and & Oriental Studies and the Black & Asian Studies Association in 1998. I have just published a version of this talk as Politics and Culture, Paul Robeson in the UK under my publishing imprint History & Social Action Publications. In 2007 my essay Paul Robeson’s British Journey was published in Cross The Water Blues,  a collection of papers developed from talks at a conference organised by the University of Gloucestershire and the European Blues Association in 2004.

The actor David Harewood, who has starred in Robin Hood and Homeland, is currently filming Robeson’s life story

Robeson performed in Croydon at least twice during his tours in Britain firstly in 1930 and then in 1958  after his passport was returned.  He performed at the Croydon Empire, The Croydon Advertiser of 25 July 1958 chose to box feature in ‘A welcome back for Paul Robeson’ by O. W. reviewing new records. “Paul Robeson is back with us again. For the first time since the Iron Curtain was allowed to obscure the world’s vision – shortly after his 60th birthday – the owner of what has been described as ‘the finest musical instrument of our time’ has been allowed to travel beyond his native shores.”

The interest in Robeson is growing as people re-discover his contribution. A read of Harry Belafonte’s book My Song reveals much about his importance. Back in 2001 The Manic Street Preachers included the song Let Robeson Sing on their Know Your Enemy CD. The actor David Harewood, who has starred in Robin Hood and Homeland, is currently filming Robeson’s life story.

His records already show signs of being timeless. As if to welcome him, Philips are marketing a group of three EPs (NBE 11071-3) of numbers that Robeson made famous. They are doubtless transfers from 78s, but the change has been accomplished superbly. Only those of the orchestral accompaniment, by Emanuel Balaban and his orchestra, seem to be dated by the orchestration. The others with a piano, and sometimes also tenor, accompaniment by Lawrence Brown have the warmth and intimacy of rich velvet. A tete-a-tete sincerity that now in retrospect leaves no mystery about this man’s integrity.

Each in its own minor way is a work of art, finished by the subtle flexibility of this bass-baritone voice and inspired by its owner’s profound humanity

Here are some of the spirituals that Robeson taught to the ‘civilised’ world – By an’ By and Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child – sung in that remarkably modulated voice that is best described by the title of one of the spirituals Balm in Gilead. On these three records are 15 songs, as different in mood as the cheeky twinkling conceit of I Still Suits Me. Or the stoic courage of Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen. Each in its own minor way is a work of art, finished by the subtle flexibility of this bass-baritone voice and inspired by its owner’s profound humanity.

With the lamented exception of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, the Robeson repertoire is nicely epitomised: My Curley-Headed Babby and Lindy Lou are here, together with that over-popular number to which only Robeson can give any freshness Ol’ Man River. The Tin Pan Alley assembly line has produced it so often that its bitterness has become insipid – unless it can be heard anew against the background of the life’s work of this artist, actor, athlete, scholar.

Politics & Culture: Paul Robeson in the UK. Sean Creighton. History & Social Action Publications. 2013.

Cross the Water Blues. African American Music In England (ed. Neil A. Wynn. University Press of Mississippi. 2007)

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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