A new CD and a new play touring Britain in January and February recall the life of one of the finest basses of all time – the communist and fighter Paul Robeson…
The American singer Paul Robeson’s unique and beautiful bass voice is instantly recognisable. His version of Old Man River is an integral part of our musical history. Now a re-enactment of episodes from Robeson’s life is beginning an ambitious British tour, having become a hit at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Less well-known is that he also performed for British trade unionists at the May Day Rally in Glasgow’s Queen’s Park 50 years ago. This was part of a long association and affection for British workers
Audiences flocked to hear him in the knowledge that his US passport had been revoked following his and his wife Essie‘s “trial” by the House Un-American Activities Committee. She had been summoned before them in 1953 to explain her 1945 book African Journey and her comments like “the one hopeful light on the horizon…is the exciting and encouraging conditions in Soviet Russia…”.
His passport application had been denied following his acceptance of the 1952 Stalin Peace Prize, and even by late 1953 his career and health were badly affected by the stress caused by attacks in the press and cancellation of engagements abroad – including invitations to sing at the Eisteddfod in Wales and to take the lead in Othello on a British tour.
‘Danger of disorder’
At home, a concert in Brooklyn was cancelled for fear of “the danger of disorder” and at another in Hartford he was surrounded by 250 police while performing, facing press shouts of “why are you hurting your cause by allying yourself with the communists?” However, dozens of trade unionists at outdoor concerts showed their support by guarding him from his enemies.
The same type of organising spirit saw him sing to 40,000 by standing just inside the Canadian border, in 1952. He was at the same time distressed by antagonism he felt coming from organisations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); for example its threats to its Oberlin branch if it did not cancel his 1953 concert. When he learned of this several years later he commented: “Yes, those were the people who did the final hatchet job on me.” He later felt acutely the reluctance of the NAACP to share platforms with him.
But back in Britain, starting in 1954, a campaign grew over the next few years under the slogan “Let Robeson Sing”. Promoted by British workers, the Welsh miners and their choirs spearheaded this, and the Scottish Trades Union Congress passed a resolution demanding the restoration of his passport. Even Labour leader Aneurin Bevan was forced to lend tacit support.
In his biography of Robeson, Martin Duberman assesses that this campaign exerted considerable pressure on the US government to the extent that by 1959, his passport restored, he was able to take up the invitation to perform Othello at Stratford. Praised by London critic W. A. Darlington as being among best portrayals of the role he had ever seen, the production was by the up-and-coming director Tony Richardson, fresh from John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.
Paul Robeson singing at the May Day rally in Glasgow’s Queen’s Park in 1960.
Photo courtesy of Glasgow Trades Union Council archives
After a rapturous reception in Moscow, he was back in Britain for a singing tour that included the Glasgow May Day, where he told the crowd “You will need all the strength you have got to see that you who create the wealth of the country have a chance to enjoy it!” Most memorable were the times he spent with the choirs of the Welsh mining communities, singing with them and even addressing their meetings in Welsh. Inspired by their spirit of struggle he made a feature film (which also aided the anti-fascist war effort) in 1939-1940 entitled The Proud Valley. “The artist must take sides – elect to side with either slavery or freedom” and that it is “back to fascism or on to socialism”, he said. And when he performed songs extracted from musicals or the folk tradition, he often added his own words to inspire workers to struggle.
During the following decades Paul Robeson continued his performances, although singing less in the years leading to his death in 1976, but the vigour of his writing and speaking kept much of its power. Largely ignored in the USA till now, this inspirational character is again being remembered. The CD Paul Robeson: Songs of Struggle has been issued on the Dorset based Regis label; and the actor Tayo Aluko has embarked on a Britain-wide tour with a one-man play, Call Mr Robeson – a portrayal of a life of struggle and the stresses that inevitably went with that.
Accompanied by pianist Michael Conliffe, Aluko performs Robeson’s most famous songs, and re-enacts episodes from his life including the courtroom dramas of the 1950s McCarthy interrogations. This show has been honed over several years, including performances in Glasgow in 2006. Now following its 5 star reviews from the 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe (“Tayo Aluko has written and performs an outstanding tribute and reaffirmation of Robeson’s work and his place in human history“: “this piece has it all. It really is a hidden gem which deserves to be hidden from history no more”), it is beginning an ambitious British tour.
The tour begins in London at Theatro Technis, Crowndale Road NW1 1TT from 4 to 23 January ; then goes to Darlington Arts Centre (25 January), Bury (The Met, 26 January), Salford (The Lowry, 27 January), Derby (Guildhall Theatre, 28th), Goole (the Junction, 29 January), Peebles (Eastgate Arts Centre, 4 February) and Inverness at the Eden Court on 5 February. For more details see www.callmrrobeson.com.