October 2015 - Paul Robeson concert programme, 1949
‘As an artist I come to sing, but as a citizen, I will always speak for peace, and no one can silence me in this.’ Paul Robeson was no ordinary singer. He was an actor, athlete, a trained lawyer, he could perform in more than 25 different languages, and importantly, he was an activist who stood up for the civil rights of people all around the world.
To celebrate Black History Month, October’s Object of the Month is this programme from Robeson’s UK recital tour in Spring 1949 where he performed in cities including Belfast, Newcastle, Manchester, Blackpool and London. During the tour, Robeson was supported by acclaimed jazz trombonist Lawrence Brown and South African pianist Lionel Bowman. The image below shows the set list for the concert, and includes the spiritual song Swing low, sweet chariot, a song which experienced resurgence in the 1960s with the civil rights struggle and folk revival.
The programme also includes a short biography of Robeson’s life up to 1949, charting his birth in 1898, the son of a former slave turned preacher, his acceptance into Rutgers College where he excelled in both scholastic and athletic fields and his career in the arts beyond this. At Rutgers College, Robeson arguably experienced racism from his American football team mates at a time during which his nose was broken and shoulder dislocated as a result of ‘excessive play’. Overcoming this, he went on to play in the National Football League (NFL), then gaining his degree in law, as well as singing and acting in off-campus productions. After graduating, Robeson broke into acting, his title roles including playing Othello on the London and American stage, and ‘Joe’ in Showboat.
But arguably more interesting is Robeson’s involvement in the fight for civil rights in the first half of the 20th century as a champion of working people who regularly spoke out against racism and injustice during countless rallies and demonstrations. He supported international co-operation and travelled to the front during the Spanish Civil War, where he performed for the Republicans and took part in anti-Nazi demonstrations, performing for Allied troops during World War II.
Through socialist friends in London, Robeson travelled to Moscow in the 1930s where he experienced an affinity with Russia’s culture and ideas. However, this connection led him to be easily vilified by the American government. Fearing the outspoken way Robeson denounced racism, often taking on government officials to do so, the House Un-American Activities Committee accused Robeson of being a communist and retracted his passport in 1950, just months after the UK tour for which this programme was produced. Virtually ending his international career, Robeson was banned from leaving the United States and blacklisted in concert venues and film studios across America. He was able to reach some audiences by singing over the phone to over 5,000 people in London and by recording radio programmes for supporters but it wasn’t until eight years later that he won back his passport and right to perform.
Throughout this time, Robeson continued to denounce racism and speak out for his political beliefs, even in the face of such adversity – something which makes him a more than worthy addition to our list of 100 Radicals. After embarking again on another world tour and receiving numerous accolades for his work, Robeson declined in health and suffered depression. He passed away in 1976 and his legacy as a defender of rights, as well as his great talents in the arts, is still remembered today.
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Sent out approximately every two months.