Paul Robeson Biography

9 April 1898, Princeton, New Jersey, USA, d. 23 January 1976, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Robeson’s father was born into slavery, but he escaped at the age of 15 and eventually studied theology and became a preacher. His mother was a teacher, but she died in 1904. Education was of paramount importance to the Robeson family, one son became a physician, and the daughter was a teacher. Of all the family, Paul Robeson was by far the most gifted. In 1911 he was one of only two black students at Somerville High School in New Jersey, yet maintained a potentially dangerous high profile. He played the title role in Othello, sang in the glee club and also played football. He graduated with honours and won a scholarship to Rutgers University. A formidable athlete, he played football at All-American level and achieved scholastic success. In the early 20s, while studying law at Columbia University, he took part in theatrical productions and sang. In 1922 he visited England where he toured in the play Taboo with the noted actress Mrs Patrick Campbell. During this visit he also met pianist Lawrence Brown, with whom he was to have a close professional relationship for the rest of Brown’s life. In 1923 Robeson was in the chorus of Lew Leslie’s Plantation Revue, which starred Florence Mills, and the following year made his first film, Body And Soul, for Oscar Micheaux, one of the earliest black film-makers. He appeared in prestigious stage productions, including All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924) and The Emperor Jones (1925).

In 1924 Robeson had his first brush with the Ku Klux Klan over a scene in All God’s Chillun in which he was required to kiss the hand of a white woman. In 1925 he made his first concert appearance as a singer. The impact of this concert, which awakened Americans to the beauty of his rich bass-baritone voice, was such that he was invited to tour Europe, appearing in London in 1928 in Show Boat with Alberta Hunter. Also in 1928 he played the title role of Porgy in the play by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward which formed the basis of George Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess. In 1930 he was again in London, where he took the leading role in Othello, playing opposite Peggy Ashcroft and Sybil Thorndike. During the 30s Robeson made a number of films including, The Emperor Jones (1933) and several in the UK, among them Sanders Of The River (1935) and The Proud Valley (1940) and in 1936 he made the screen version of Show Boat. As in the stage production, his part was small but his rendition of ‘Ol’ Man River’ was one of the outstanding features. The 30s also saw his first visit to Russia and he travelled to Spain to sing for the loyalist troops. He also developed an amazing facility with languages, eventually becoming fluent in 25, including Chinese and Arabic. He incorporated folk songs of many nations in his repertoire, singing them in the appropriate language.

This same period saw Robeson’s political awareness develop and he extended his studies into political philosophy and wrote on many topics. In 1939 he again played Othello in England, this time at Stratford-upon-Avon, and also played the role in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and on Broadway in 1943. In the 40s Robeson’s politicization developed, during another visit to Russia he embraced communism, although he was not blind to the regime’s imperfections and spoke out against the anti-Semitism he found there. Reaction in his home country to his espousal of communism was hostile and a speech he delivered in Paris in 1949, in which he stated that although he loved America he loved Russia more than he loved those elements of America which discriminated against him because of his colour, was predictably misunderstood and widely misquoted. Also in 1949, Robeson led protests in London against the racist policies of the government of South Africa.

The FBI began to take an interest in Robeson’s activities and conflict with right-wing elements and racists, especially during a rally at Peekskill in upstate New York, which drew the attention of the media away from his artistic work. An appearance before the Un-American Activities Committee in 1946 drew even more attention to his already high political profile. In 1950 his passport was withdrawn because the State Department considered that his ‘travel abroad at this time would be contrary to the best interests of the United States’. Ill health in the mid-50s allied to the withdrawal of his passport, severely damaged his career when he was in his vocal prime. He continued to address rallies, write extensively on political matters and make occasional concert performances by singing over telephone links to gatherings overseas. Repeated high-level efforts by other governments eventually caused the US State Department to reconsider and during his first New York concert in a decade, to a sell-out audience at Carnegie Hall, he was able to announce that his passport had been returned. This was in May 1958 and later that year he appeared on stage and television in the UK and in Russia. His comeback was triumphant and he made several successful tours of Europe and beyond. He was away for five years, returning to the USA in 1963 for more concerts and political rallies. However, pressures continued to build up and he suffered nervous exhaustion and depression. His wife of 44 years died in 1965. Another comeback, in the late 60s, was greeted with considerable enthusiasm, but the power and quality of Robeson’s voice had begun to fade. During the final years of his life Robeson toured, wrote and spoke, but his health was deteriorating rapidly and he died on 23 January 1976.

Although Robeson possessed only a limited vocal range, the rich coloration of his tone and the unusual flexibility of his voice made his work especially moving. He brought to the ‘Negro spiritual’ an understanding and a tenderness that overcame their sometimes mawkish sentimentality, and the strength and integrity of his delivery gave them a quality no other male singer has equalled. His extensive repertoire of folk songs from many lands was remarkable and brought to his concert performances a much wider scope than that of almost any regular folk singer.

Although beyond the scope of this work, Robeson’s career as actor, writer and political activist cannot be ignored. His independence and outspokenness against discrimination and political injustice resulted in him suffering severely at the hands of his own government. Indeed, those close to him have intimated a belief that his final illness was brought about by the deliberate covert action of government agents. Perhaps as a side-effect of this, he is frequently omitted from reference works originating in his own country, even those which purport to be black histories. For all the dismissiveness of his own government, Robeson was highly regarded by his own people and by audiences in many lands. His massive intellect, his powerful personality and astonishing charisma, when added to his abilities as a singer and actor, helped to make him one of the outstanding Americans of the twentieth century.

In 1995, the Missouri Repertory Company in Missouri, Kansas, presented a play ‘illustrating the extent of the man’s talent and life of controversy’, entitled Paul Robeson, which starred Don Marshall in the title role. Three years later, to mark the centenary of his birth, Robeson received a posthumous Grammy Award for lifetime achievement, and the UK National Film Theatre mounted a retrospective season, focusing on some his rarely seen British films and television programmes.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.