Paul Robeson: The baritone of the oppressed

On that 14th of June in 1949, the audience present at the Tchaikovsky Hall had thoroughly enjoyed the concert. The powerful baritone voice of the American singer resonated inside the hall. The predominantly Russian audience, traditionally enamoured with the bass voice found the performance extremely pleasing. However, the concert was fast coming to an end and the audience was getting restless. It was then that the singer spoke from the stage, in near perfect Russian. He spoke about his warm friendship with Soviet Jews like Solomon Mikhoels and Yitzhak Feffer. He spoke of the enduring ties between the Soviet and American Jewish communities and the vitality of Yiddish language. He then announced that he would sing a song in memory of the Jewish partisans who fought the Fascist aggression of the Second World War.

The audience was stunned. There was absolute silence in the Tchaikovsky Hall. The Soviet Union was then in the grip of an anti-Semitic wave. The Jewish identity was being questioned and Soviet Jews were accused of being 'rootless cosmopolitans' who lacked allegiance to the ideals of Soviet socialism. The actor Solomon Mikhoels had died the previous year; officially as the result of an automobile accident. He was buried with full state honours. The rumor was that he was assassinated by the Soviet secret police of the time- the MGB1. The other friend that the American singer had mentioned- Yitzhak Feffer was missing and was presumed to be in MGB custody. The Yiddish language was linked to the Jewish identity and was actively being suppressed. At a time such as this, to sing a Yiddish song was unthinkable; even suicidal.

As the song would be sung in Yiddish, the singer proceeded to translate the first stanza into Russian so that his audience may connect with the spirit of the song.

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The audience still sat shocked, stunned and silent. Then a young girl stood up and clapped. Slowly, others joined in and the applause grew. Finally when the applause died off, the singer started with the song. It had an immediate effect. The barriers that had been erected between man and man, collapsed. There were no Jews, no Russians, no MGB, no suspects in the audience; just human beings. People broke down in tears while their neighbours comforted them. A simple Yiddish song had reminded them of the fragility of human lives and the preciousness of freedom. In a nation that had lost over 20 million people to the fascist aggression, virtually everyone in the audience had someone to remember that night. The crowd moved towards the stage and some tried to get atop the stage to shake hands with the singer while others called out to him- “Pavel Vasilyevich”. That was how Paul Robeson had asked to be called while in the USSR.

Zog nit keyn mol: The inmates of Warsaw ghetto, in April of 1943, resisted Nazi efforts to shift the population into the Treblinka concentration camp. Although poorly armed, they resisted the Nazis for over a month. Nearly 13,000 inmates made the supreme sacrifice and their resistance inspired other people to resist the Nazi war machine. Zog nit keyn mol is a Yiddish song written by the Jewish partisan poet Hirsch Glick while he was an inmate of the Vilna ghetto which was threatened with the same fate as the Warsaw ghetto. The song was inspired by the events of the uprising of 1943 and was set to the music of the Odessa March by the famous Soviet composers – Dmitri Pokrass and Daniel Pokrass. This recording is from the 1949 Tchaikovsky Hall performance.

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Early Life

Paul Robeson was born on April 9 1898, as the sixth child of Maria Louisa Bustill and William Drew Robeson. His mother came from a prominent Quaker family and his father was a former slave who fought in the Union Army. The two met at the Lincoln University, where William studied theology. The parents owing to their backgrounds, clearly understood the role of education in social liberation. William Robeson became a minister of the Presbyterian Church in 1881, but had had to resign as the predominantly Caucasian financiers of the nearly all African-American congregation found his preaching 'socially unacceptable'. Left without a means of income, the family moved to the attic of a store in New Jersey. Tragedy struck when Paul was 6; Maria succumbed to the burns inflicted as the result of a kitchen accident. William Robeson eventually found job as a minister in 1910 and by 1912, Paul Robeson could attend high school.

In school, Paul Robeson acted in Shakespearean plays, sang in the chorus and excelled in sports and eventually won a scholarship to Rutgers University. Robeson joined the University rugby team. There was at least one instance when an opposing team refused to play as the Rutgers team had an African-American. Acceptance inside the team was also hard to come for Paul Robeson, despite his exceptional skills. He would finish university with four annual and over 12 varsity letters (award for excellence in University activities) in four sports (football, basketball, baseball and tennis). Robeson then attended the Columbia Law School while simultaneously pursuing his interests in music and sports. Robeson played in the National Football League, the highest level of professional American rugby, in this period. In 1921, he married Eslanda Goode and started his career as a lawyer; but soon found the prevalent racism unacceptable. He then turned to plays as a source of income and his roles were well received. One of the most noted was the role of Jim in Eugene O' Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings. The inter-racial love story contained scenes showing African-American and Caucasian children playing together and was unacceptable to the conservatives who asked for it to be banned. The play was a theatrical success with hundreds of screenings. It was during this period that Paul Robeson started singing spirituals for the benefits of charities and as an additional source of income.

Let my people go!: Let my people go! is an African-American spiritual song. The song is based on the events described in the Old Testament, where god orders Moses to liberate the Israelites from Egypt's oppression. The song refers to 'going down' in Egypt as in the Old Testament, Egypt is perceived to be the southernmost land. Similarly, it was the southern states of the USA where racial tensions were high. The song attained importance during the civil rights movement where activists tried drawing parallels between the biblical Israelite oppression in Egypt to the modern oppression of African-Americans in the USA. This was aimed at the Americans of Caucasian origin, many of whom prided themselves as devout Christians. To many people of the time, the booming voice of Paul Robeson became the voice of god.

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In 1925, Paul Robeson travelled to London to act as Brutus Jones in Emperor Jones. The play, written by Eugene O' Neill, told the story of an African-American man who commits a murder in USA and escapes to a Carribean island to declare himself an emperor. In London, Robeson met the exiled American anarchist Emma Goldman and got introduced to radicals Gertrude Stein and Max Eastman. He was by then already a vocal activist of civil rights. He toured Europe and the performances included one of Othello in Germany, in 1930. Germany at the time was slowly gravitating towards Nazism and the play which featured the African-American Paul Robeson, as Othello kissing the Caucasian Peggy Ashcroft, who played Desdemona considerably discomforted the racial bigots of the time. Off the stage, a romance did blossom between Paul Robeson and Peggy Ashcroft and it nearly ended his marriage with Eslanda.

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Theater and Political Activism

Paul Robeson, for his part considered his theatrical presence as political activism. He believed that it was more important to show what African-American men such as himself could achieve rather than write speeches. The 1930s saw Paul Robeson become a recognised theatre personality. The musical Show Boat was particularly well received by the critics and the audiences. The musical was also performed in Britain, where it remains one of the most successful ventures in terms of revenue. Paul Robeson initially believed that race related bigotry was less in England when compared to the United States. While in Britain, he was once refused service at the famous Savoy Grill restaurant. He took up this case with the then British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. The lukewarm response he received convinced him that conditions in Britain were no better either. In 1934, Paul Robeson decided to study Swahili, Igbo and Zulu in order to get in touch with his African ancestry. This brought him closer to anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist movements of the time. On an invitation from Sergei Eisenstein, Paul Robeson visited the USSR in December 1934. During their stopover in Nazi Germany, he and his wife were nearly attacked by Nazi brown shirts, on account of their skin colour. This was in contrast to the treatment he received in the USSR where a reception was hosted in his honour, attended by Soviet artists, government officials and the residents of Moscow. For the first time in his life, his race did not matter. Paul Robeson, at this point did not consider himself as a communist, but nonetheless decided to send his son to school in the USSR in order to protect the boy from racist attitudes.

Old Man River: The song Old Man River is closely linked to the status od the African American community in the United States. The song was written for the 1927 musical Show Boat. Originally written by Oscar Hammerstein and set to music by Jerome Kern, the song stands out because of the relatively rare pentatonic scale used and the bass solo that is still rarer in musicals. The song talks of the Mississippi river that flows on, unaffected by the plight of the African Americans who work on its shores. Paul Robeson sang the song when the musical was made into a movie in 1936. The lyrics of the song were revised numerous times as the status of the African-Americans changed in American society. Paul Robeson altered the song, originally sang as a song of despair into a song of resistance. After 1938, Paul Robeson refused to sing the original lyrics anymore. The song has inspired numerous other works and parodies, including Bhupen Hazarika's Ye Ganga behti ho kyun? This recording is from the 1949 Tchaikovsky Hall performance.

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The Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War was a wakeup call for many intellectuals in the west. In July 1936, General Fransico Franco rejected the election results that had elected a republican coalition to power and launched a war against the state. The International Brigade was raised to support the Republican cause and consisted of nearly 30,000 combatant and 10,000 non-combatant volunteers from over 50 nations. The struggle of the Spanish Republic against the fascist falange united the progressive minds of the time. Socialists, anarchists, various communist groups and liberals united against the looming fascist threat.

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The Soviet Union provided aircraft, tanks and artillery equipments. Special ships with false decks were built, in which the weapons were shipped to Spain. The USSR also sent in over 2000 military advisers that controversially included intelligence operatives from the NKVD 2. Mexico for her part supplied the Republican cause with nearly USD 2 million worth of material assistance. Furthermore, Spanish diplomats supported the Republican cause in international fora and arranged refuge for Spanish intellectuals and orphaned children of Republican families. Other nations, including the European democracies and the USA adopted a non-interventionist policy. Paul Robeson refused to be neutral and supported the Spanish Republicans openly. He visited the warfront and went about holding performances boosting the morale of the soldiers fighting for the Republican cause.

The Four Insurgent Generals : This is a Spanish Republican song popularised during the Siege of Madrid. The lyric has varied over time and is unclear who penned the original. The "four generals" in question were Fransico Franco, Emilio Mola, José Enrique Varela Iglesia, and Gonzalo Queipo de Llano. Each was in command of one of the four columns advancing on Madrid, in 1936. Madrid was defended by the International Brigades led by General José Miaja Menant. Madrid would fall to the Fascists eventually; but only after 3 years of heroic resistance to the combined aggression of the Spanish, Italian and German fascists.

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Second World War and the McCarthyist Era

When the Second World War broke out, Paul Robeson found life in the USA difficult due to his race and due to his political stances. Hotels were often unwilling to accomodate him on account of his skin colour. And the documentary that he narrated- Native Land was termed as 'communist propaganda' by the FBI. Roles that were offered to him in films were very often demeaning and Paul Robeson decided that he would not act in films any further. Paul Robeson was by now an advocate of independence for the colonies and counted amongst his friends the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru. Paul Robeson stood unshaken in his beliefs; he supported his friend Benjamin J. Davis Jr. when the latter was arrested on account of being a communist.

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Robeson was targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) because of his stand that trade unionism is crucial to the civil rights movement. The fact that Robeson played on the Rutgers team was conveniently deleted from publications of the time. The FBI during the period arranged for at least one article (Paul Robeson- The Lost Shepherd) in order to malign the image of Paul Robeson and discredit his political stances. On December 17, 1951 Paul Robeson presented the United Nations with an anti-lynching petition which charged the US Government, on account of its failure to act against lynching of its own citizens, guilty of genocide. In 1952, the Soviet Union awarded Paul Robeson the International Stalin Prize. Unable to travel to Moscow to receive the prize, Robeson accepted the award in New York. On Joseph Stalin's death in 1953, Paul Robeson penned an article- To you my beloved comrade in his memory.

The Hymn of the Soviet Union: This version of the Soviet National Anthem is Paul Robeson's translation of the Stalin era version of the Hymn of the Soviet Union. After the wave of de-Stalinization in the USSR, all references to Stalin were removed from the anthem.

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Trade Unions in US and Canada organised a concert at the Peace Arch, situated on the Canada-United States border. The park surrounding the monument is considered an international park and visitors do not require visas to go to any part of the park, as long as they stay within the park boundaries. Unwilling to yield to the pressure exerted on him, Robeson refused to sign an affidavit declaring that he was not a communist. A trained barrister, Robeson invoked the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution and refused to reveal his political views. The United States Department denied Paul Robeson a passport to travel abroad. Paul Robeson responded by singing to audiences in places like London over telephone. The United States government removed his films and recordings from public distribution.

On June 16, 1958 in the Kent vs. Dulles case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the passport restrictions imposed on Rockwell Kent by the then US Secretary of state, John Foster Dulles was unconstitutional. Rockwell Kent himself was suspected of being a communist by the US government. This judgment resulted in Paul Robeson's own passport being returned to him. Robeson travelled again to the USSR where he sang both Russian and American songs at the Lenin Stadium. Robeson and his wife were invited by the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to rest at the Soviet Crimean resort of Yalta. While in the Soviet Union, a heart condition was diagnosed. He then embarked on a tour of Australia and New Zealand. Ever the champion of human dignity, he was pained by the conditions of Australia's Aborigine population and spoke in favour of granting them equal rights. In New Zealand, Robeson openly spoke out in support of Marxism.


I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night : This song was composed the British playwright Alfred Hayes. Paul Robeson is rumored to have set the lyrics to music in under 40 minutes. The Joe Hill referred to in the lyrics is Joseph Hillström who was a popular song writer, cartoonist and trade union activist in the USA. Joe Hill was framed on a murder charge and executed by a firing squad in November 19, 1915. He was 36. His will started with the lines “My will is easy to decide..” 3

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Chinese National Anthem: Composed by the revolutionary poet Tian Han in 1934 and set to music by the young musician Nie Er, the March of the Volunteers was originally written for a play. It was written in vernacular Chinese. By the time of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, the song had attained the status of an anthem. Paul Robeson's friendship with the Chinese people dates from the Second World War and he is believed to be the first foreigner to have sung the song, in 1941. After the Communist Revolution of 1949, the song would go on to become the official anthem of the People's Republic of China.

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Paul Robeson wished to return to the United States and actively participate in the Civil Rights Movement. While on a stopover in Moscow, Paul Robeson suffered from a bout of depression and attempted suicide by slitting his wrists. He was rushed to a Moscow hospital and his life was saved. His family believes that his paranoia and depression were drug induced. They suspected the involvement of the CIA and MI5 behind this move. It was accused that doctors treating Robeson were on a CIA contract. Soviet doctors advised Paul Robeson to stay over at the Barvikha Sanatorium for recuperating. In September, Paul Robeson left Barvikha for London where his depression re-emerged and was admitted to hospital. During his treatment, Robeson was under MI5 supervision. FBI memos of the time advocated denying Robeson a passport denial so as to jeopardize his fragile health. Surprisingly the doctors in London opted for a mixture of electroconvulsive therapy and administering of heavy doses of drugs for nearly two years.

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In 1963, alarmed at an open attempt to eliminate Paul Robeson, his friends had him moved to the Buch Clinic in East Berlin. The East German doctors found that Robeson was administered excessive levels of barbiturates and ECT. Paul Robeson's health rapidly improved and Robeson returned to the United States. Robeson was told that he could participate in the mainstream Civil Rights Movement if he denounced communism and the USSR. Robeson declined. After the death of his wife Essie in 1965, Robeson moved in with his sister. On January 23, 1976 Paul Robeson died following a stroke. He was interred in the Ferncliff Cemetery in New York.

Warszawianka: This is a Polish march song written sometime in the 1880s by the Polish socialist Wacław Święcicki. It became the anthem of Polish workers who demonstrated on May Day , in support of the Polish Revolution of 1905. The song attained great popularity, with slightly modified lyrics, and was called the Varshavianka in the USSR. Paul Robeson created the English version and it seems to be closer in spirit to the Russian lyrics.

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Singer who lent his voice for the oppressed

Paul Robeson was a man who marched ahead of his times. He was an actor who outlived the temptation to pawn his talent for economic comfort, a singer who lent his voice for the oppressed, a relentless champion of social equality in an unjust society, an activist who refused to buckle to the pressures of capitalist oppression, an American who was openly pro-Soviet during the cold war and a determined fighter to the very end. Understandably, acceptance for Robeson is still difficult in his homeland. For Robeson to appear on a stamp in his homeland, it would take nearly three decades; that too, after numerous petitions from the various progressive groups; that too on a stamp celebrating 'Black Heritage'. It seems that the collective psyche of the American people needs more time to accept Paul Robeson for what he was. The best eulogy that Paul Robeson can be offered is perhaps to renew our oath to him, in the words of Robeson's close friend, Lewis Allan:

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Tovarishch Pavel Vasilyevich, za mir, protivye racizma!5

  • 1. MGB-Ministerstvo Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti- The Ministry of State Security was the Soviet secret police organisation of the time (1946-1953).
  • 2. NKVD-Narodny Komissariyat Vnutrenikh Dyel- The People's Commisariat for Internal Affairs was the Soviet secret police organisation of the time.
  • 3. My will is easy to decide,
    For there is nothing to divide.
    My kin don't need to fuss and moan,
    "Moss does not cling to a rolling stone."

    My body? Oh, if I could choose
    I would to ashes it reduce,
    And let the merry breezes blow,
    My dust to where some flowers grow.

    Perhaps some fading flower then
    Would come to life and bloom again.
    This is my Last and final Will.
    Good Luck to All of you,

    The will of Joe Hill

  • 4. Oh, this is the banner of the whole mankind,
    The sacred call, the song of resurrection,
    It's the triumph of labor and justice,
    It's the dawn of the brotherhood of all peoples!
    Forward, Warsaw!
    To the bloody fight!
    Sacred and righteous!
    March, march, Warsaw!
  • 5. Translation - Comrade Paul Robeson, for peace, against racism!