Review: Paul Robeson

13Sep07

I downloaded from Emusic last night, some Paul Robeson songs. A theater down the street from me in Clinton Hill is named after him, and a recent blogger from my hood writes about it briefly. I’ve never been inside, but Clintonhillblog.com has pictures of the inside of the historic church turned theather. I had never heard of him before, but seeing his name, I decided to look him up. Before I could though, I saw his music online and decided to download it.Despite the digital download, the songs crackle and pop with the sound of the original vinyl recordings. Together with Robeson’s voice, which is a deep baritone, I instantly felt transported to another time. It seemed so familiar listening to it that I can’t believe I never knew his music before. Robeson who was, according to Wikipedia a “a multi-lingual American actor, athlete, bass-baritone concert singer, writer, civil rights activist, Fellow traveler, Spingarn Medal winner, and Stalin Peace Prize laureate,” was an interesting and inspiring guy. Please read his biography on Wikipedia.

Robeson was way ahead of his time. As a student at Rutgers he was only the third black admitted, and at that time, the only one on campus. Around 1917, he tried out for the football team. They beat him viciously and pulled out his fingernails, but he perservered, going on to be an All-American player. He studied at Columbia Law School, and after graduating was hired by a downtown law firm, but quit when a secretary refused to take notes from a black man. From here though, he embarked on an increasingly close relationship with communism and Stalin, accepting an invitation to the USSR. He even wrote a eulogy for Stalin after his death.

It’s easy in hindsight to see those on the wrong side of history and criticize their actions, but for me he’s a very sympathetic figure. At the time I imagine him upset with the disgusting racism of the US and frustrated by the slow pace of social and political change, so he went abroad to the Soviet Union and Europe, where revolution was happening. There he was in awe of the possibilities and was seduced by communism. He publicly complained about the US government, and rightfully, about the US treatment of blacks. In 1950, the US State Department withheld his passport so he could not travel. In 1956, he was hauled in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the height of McCarthyism and questioned about his beliefs. After acting stints in London and elsewhere, he returned to the US in 1963 where he remained until his death in 1976.

It is clear he came too early to enjoy the benefits of the civil rights movement, and it is a tragedy to see someone like Robeson with so much talent and potential, rightfully disillusioned by a racist society and turn against it. If only he had been born a generation later, his life may have been very different.

One odd note, Wikipedia says that, “In 1961, Robeson attempted suicide in a Moscow hotel room. His son claimed this was precipitated by a CIA agent who placed some synthetic hallucinogens into his drink under a covert program called MK Ultra.[25]

Listening to “Mammy” by Paul Robeson.

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