The Genius of Paul Robeson | As Told by Abbey Road's Cameron Colbeck

9th April 2021

One of the most famous artists of his time, Paul Robeson was an American bass-baritone singer active from the 1920s through to the 1950s. He lived an extraordinary life, and in this piece I will most comfortably use the word “genius” in reference to him. Not only does his musical talent warrant the term but so do his political accomplishments, his linguistic mastery and his performances on stage and screen, not to mention a fleeting yet legendary career as an American football player.

 
I regard him a true Renaissance man. Until recently, I knew very little of Paul Robeson. This is the unfortunate reality for many of my generation, particularly Americans, coming as a direct result of a racist, red-scared blacklisting by the U.S. State Department in the 1950s. The more I’ve studied and listened to Robeson, the more I am appalled that his legacy could be completely altered by such propaganda. I was thrilled to discover his associations with some of my favourite writers, Orwell and Hesse. I was surprised to learn from my 100-year old grandma that her mother, my great-grandma, was an acquaintance of his in London. I was inspired as I saw his love for all people, demonstrated over and over again. Though rarely credited, the results of Paul Robeson’s life and career are all around us— did you know that his version of 'Rockin’ Chair' was the first published recording out of Abbey Road Studios? Most importantly, through my research I developed an appreciation of folk music through Robeson’s immaculate vocal touch, as well as a deeper reckoning of the struggles of black people and all oppressed peoples of the world.

Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey in 1898 to Maria Louisa Bustill and Reverend William Drew Robeson. Bustill was a schoolteacher from an eminent Quaker family, and Robeson Sr. a former slave freed through Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad, later becoming pastor of Princeton’s Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. Both sides of Paul’s family represented important parts of African-American history. The Bustill family can be traced all the way back to 1776 when Paul’s great-great-grandfather Cyrus Bustill bought his own freedom, becoming a baker and making bread for George Washington’s Army as they defended against the British. Bustill later co-founded the Free African Society, which was the first African-American mutual aid society and a forerunner of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church [1]. From his father’s side, Paul discovered the rich history of African spirituals, which he later came to equate with other traditional folk music from around the world. When young Paul left his segregated school in Princeton to complete high school in nearby Somerville, he began to develop his talents of acting and singing. American football, however, was his main focus at the time. Leading him to a scholarship at Rutgers University and later, a short-lived professional career. At Rutgers, Robeson came to experience the effects of Jim Crow laws as he was blocked from living in the dormitories on campus. As the first black man to ever play on the football team he was targeted on and off the field. In one instance he was even intentionally injured by his own teammates. By all accounts, Paul handled these racist acts with calm and grace, but have no doubt, he was fully aware of the prejudices in the United States and he would bravely fight against them throughout his entire life. Academically, Paul also excelled. He ended up in the honour society at Rutgers for academic, athletic and artistic achievements and in 1922, finished a law degree at Columbia University.
 
 
During his time at Columbia, Robeson somehow found the time to perform in plays and concerts around New York. Word spread quickly of his distinct booming-yet-controlled voice and his renown grew in Harlem and around the city. He drew enough attention to warrant his first trip to England in 1922. Along with new wife and manager, Eslanda Goode— an actress, anthropologist, and activist in her own right— he sailed to London to appear in Mrs. Patrick Campbell's adaptation of the play Voodoo. His welcome to the arts scene of London marked a turning point in his life, despite football and a potential career in law, Robeson gravitated toward acting and singing as his main vocation. He came back to London in 1925 for a stage performance of The Emperor Jones, and finally settled in 1928 after portraying the role of “Joe” in a production of Showboat. During the latter, Robeson performed a song that was to become synonymous with his name (especially in Britain), one 'Ol’ Man River'. Legendary Broadway composer Jerome Kern recalled that “…it was hearing Robeson’s organ-like tones in a New York audition that inspired me to write Ol’ Man River for Robeson to sing.”[2] One of the organisers from that production of Showboat, which premiered at the Drury Lane Theatre, was composer and African spiritual aficionado, John Payne of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra (or SSO). Robeson must have become acquainted with this circle while in New York, because as early as his first stay in London he and Eslanda stayed with Payne and other SSO members, such as reed-playing virtuoso Sidney Bechet. This all-black orchestra, founded by Will Marion Cook, is of huge significance because they essentially brought jazz to Britain around 1919. They undertook a series of concerts around the country including a command performance for King George V and Queen Mary[3]. Subsequently, many of the musicians stayed on in London to further their careers. Various members of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra played profound roles in establishing Robeson’s career, not only providing him lifelong collaborators in the form of George Ruthland Clapham and Lawrence Brown, but also facilitating access to various social circles in London, leading him to begin a recording career in the new purpose-built recording studio in St. John’s Wood.
 
Pictured are the Southern Syncopated Orchestra

Pictured are the Southern Syncopated Orchestra

 
As it turned out, Robeson had been living in St. John’s Wood since 1928 when he first moved to London. So by a stroke of luck or fate, Abbey Road Studios (then EMI Recording Studios) popped up just down the road! A month before the studio’s official opening, Paul Robeson recorded several songs with Ray Noble and his Orchestra. One of them, a cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s 'Rockin’ Chair', went on to become the first published recording out of Abbey Road Studios. Upon discovering this, Edward Elgar’s famed opening ceremony has come to mean less to me. I now assert that it was Paul Robeson’s resounding voice which truly christened the building. Robeson recorded at the studios consistently throughout his 10-year stint in London, most often African spirituals along with friends and collaborators Clapham and Brown, backed by Ray Noble’s orchestra. Additionally, he recorded songs for British stage and film with world-renowned orchestras such as Walter Goehr’s, Eric Ansell’s, and Carroll Gibbons’ (for Porgy and Bess).
 
The recording session sheet for his first published song, 'Rockin Chair'.

The recording session sheet for his first published song, 'Rockin Chair'.

By all accounts, the overwhelming majority of the British public quickly came to adore Robeson, beginning with his and Lawrence Brown’s successful tour of spirituals through the country in 1930. Soon after, Robeson scored the role of Othello in a production starring Peggy Ashcroft, further cementing his celebrity status and breaking box-office records in the West End. His casting was at first deemed controversial, because even in Britain, “…very few dark-skinned actors had portrayed Othello… though Robeson thoughtfully pointed out that Othello had been portrayed as a dark-skinned African during Shakespeare’s time in the early 1600s.”[4] Paul overcame these obstacles in his typically graceful and intelligent manner and later went on to gain the respect of even the harshest Shakespearean critics when he reprised the role for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre’s 100th season. As the ‘30s progressed, Robeson took on several roles in feature films. The first of which, The Emperor Jones, is widely recognised as the first feature film headlined by an African-American actor [5]. He continued his film career in Britain, while trying to find more authentic, less caricatured portrayals of black characters.
 
Robeson with Peggy Ashcroft in *Othello*

Robeson with Peggy Ashcroft in Othello

Throughout the mid-to-late ‘30s he was a regular at Abbey Road Studios, recording not only 'Ol’ Man River' for Showboat, but also 'Sleepy River' and 'Lonely Road' in Studio One in May 1936 for the film Song of Freedom, 'Lazin’' in Studio Three in May 1937 for James Elder Wills’ film Big Fella, and 'Land Of My Fathers' in Studio Two in September 1939, engineered by legendary EMI producer Walter Legge for the film The Proud Valley.
 
Robeson with Geoff Love and Norman Newell at Abbey Road

Robeson with Geoff Love and Norman Newell at Abbey Road

Robeson at Abbey Road

Robeson at Abbey Road

 
While Robeson was refining his craft through acting and music, he was also developing his political understanding. In his own words, Robeson “discovered Africa” in London. He met and had discussions with various African societies and studied language at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. Thus resulting in Robeson’s firm anti-imperialist stance. Despite the views of some of the British elite throughout the ‘30s, there was also an important anti-fascist movement brewing in Britain, centred in the working class, with which Robeson also became passionately aligned. In 1937, after a speech at the Royal Albert Hall fundraiser for the Spanish Republican Army, (in which he correctly predicted the spread of fascism throughout Europe) Robeson traveled to the front lines of the civil war in Spain. Here he sang for Republican troops and the International Brigades to boost morale. A couple of years later, in what was to be his last British film, Robeson was forever changed while shooting The Proud Valley, a powerful story about a group of Welsh coal-miners in the Rhondda Valley. Here he began to understand economic oppression as it related to the working-classes of the world. It also cemented his belief that the pentatonic scale contained in many “folk songs” creates a universal link between oppressed peoples throughout history, correlating back to his own upbringing on African spirituals. After Robeson’s return to Harlem at the onset of World War II, he along with W.E.B. Du Bois headed the Council on African Affairs which did huge amounts of work for civil rights and African liberation through concerts and rallies across the United States. This work was an important precursor to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and a direct influence on activists like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The Council fell into disarray at the start of the Cold War because of several member’s association with the U.S. Communist Party.

Robeson first traveled to the Soviet Union in 1934 and was immediately struck by the lack of racial discrimination he found there. He felt the social conditions were so advanced that he and Eslanda decided to send their son, Paul Jr., there to study. Before and during the war, these sympathies were not so radical, but as World War II turned into the Cold War, the Soviet Union quickly went from allies to enemies in the eyes of the U.S. and Britain. I believe Robeson’s socialist sympathies lay solely in the domain of its racial and economic equalities. He in no way condoned the various atrocities which occurred in communist countries, and despite associations with Communist Party members, I would argue he was much more aligned with the Labour Party (though he had his criticisms of them as well). His political activities came to a head in 1949 at the Paris World Peace Council, when Robeson was widely reported in asserting that the black people in America would never fight against the Soviets because the civil liberties there were so far beyond those at home. Unfortunately this statement backfired in a big way as both black and white commentators labelled him unpatriotic. Shortly after, at a concert in Peekskill, New York with Pete Seeger, one of the worst riots in American history broke out, fuelled by both anti-communist and racist sentiments. Effigies of Robeson were burned, large rocks flew through Seeger’s car window as his kids crouched down inside, and a cross burned on the hill overlooking the venue. Allegedly the KKK sent Seeger’s management company a letter thanking them for 722 new applicants in the wake of the concert [6] So finally that dreaded word “communist” settled next to Paul Robeson’s name, resulting in the unjust revocation of his passport and his blacklisting by the U.S. State Department. They even went as far as to delete audio and video records of his life. After eight long years of appealing to the courts against this McCarthyism, the decision was finally overturned. Thanks to Paul and many other’s unrelenting efforts, those denied the right to travel were finally vindicated by the landmark Kent vs. Dulles decision, ruling that the right to travel was included in the First Amendment. Unfortunately for Robeson, the FBI never fully took their eyes off him for the rest of his life. The toll on his career, finances, health and lasting legacy was a hit he would never quite recover from.

In contrast to the United States, support of Robeson in Britain never really waned. British fans even organising several live performances via the transatlantic telephone cable. In the process Robeson was forced to set up his own home studio, recounted in his autobiography with hilariously familiar detail—such as a train rattling past on the last note of a perfect take. Not so different from some of our own current home-recording and virtual-performing predicaments! As the ‘50s came to a close, cries of outrage turned into worldwide campaigns such as Manchester’s “Let Robeson Sing”, calling for Robeson to be allowed back to perform. As soon as his passport was reinstated, that’s exactly what he did. Starting with the miners in Wales and reaching as far as the workers building the Sydney Opera House, Robeson put himself out to reach as many people as he could. To the best of my knowledge, the only time Paul Robeson returned to Abbey Road Studios was in 1960 to record An Evening with Paul Robeson with The Williams Singers and the Geoff Love Orchestra, produced by Norman Newell. A fitting compilation of spirituals and folk songs that sum up his legacy at the studios. Shortly after these sessions, he fell ill and headed back to the East Coast to retire from public life.
 
Peekskill, New York, 4 September, 1949

Peekskill, New York, 4 September, 1949

Robeson at the Glasgow Mayday, 1960

Robeson at the Glasgow Mayday, 1960

In the future, instead of some controversial communist sympathiser, I would love to see Paul Robeson remembered for his artistic genius and his immense bravery in standing up for his own rights and the rights of those oppressed. I’m sure there were many people advising him to stay quiet or to sign an affidavit branding himself a communist, but to Robeson it seemed his own persecution was transitory and much less important than doing the right thing. These are qualities which the artists of today would do well to remember. That through music they can reach far beyond personal wealth or success, to the good of the truth and the people. As Robeson observes, “It may well be that today, after many fascinating and rewarding digressions, we are flowing back into the mainstream of world music—which includes the music of Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas—with a future potential of immense musical wealth, all giving to and taking from each other through this wonderful world bank of music.”[7] I would argue that the ‘60s saw an early realisation of this prophecy. On the other hand, it is clear that we still have a long way to go before Robeson’s vision of equality is actualised. In my eyes Paul Robeson is one of the proudest parts of Abbey Road’s history—as proud as those working-class boys from Liverpool, and indeed they share much of the same outlook on life. So in that spirit I say power to the people, may we continue to move in the right direction and may music unite us all.
 
[1] Paul Robeson: A Life of Activism and Art by Lindsey R. Swindall, 2013, p.13
[2] Paul Robeson: A Watched Man by Jordan Goodman, 2013, p.6
[3] http://afrovoices.com/roland-hayes-biography/
http://afrovoices.com/lawrence-brown-biography/
[4] Paul Robeson: A Life of Activism and Art by Lindsey R. Swindall, 2013, p.60
[5] Ibid, p.65
[6] The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger by Alec Wilkinson, 2009, p. 22
[7] Here I Stand by Paul Robeson, 1958, p.117