Wednesday, April 09, 2008

In memoriam: Paul Robeson



Artists should, as I said a propos of Charlton Heston earlier this week, be judged on the quality of their art, and not on their political beliefs. Sadly, that didn't apply to the great American singer Paul Robeson, born 110 years ago today. It was acceptable for Robeson to sing an English version of the Soviet anthem in 1943, when the Soviet Union was a war-time ally of the US, but Robeson carried on praising the Soviet Union after the war had ended, and in the era of McCarthyism and 'reds under the beds', that meant career death. Robeson, one of the greatest singers the world has ever seen, paid a high professional price for his political beliefs. But he wasn't the first artist to do so, and sadly he won't be the last.
Above you can hear Robeson singing the wonderful 'Ol Man River' from 'Showboat'. Enjoy.

8 comments:

Martin Meenagh said...

I have a cd of Robeson's radical songs and 'chee lai', the Chinese anthem he sang is also done very well. Harlem from the 30s to the 60s was a very radical, intellectually burning place. Imagine hearing Robeson, seeing the young Malcolm X, noting William Meeks (the future Deputy CIA Director) selling insurance...amazing. Hitchcock had it absolutely right when they set that thrilling scene in Topaz there.
Anyway, couldn't agree more about Robeson. Thanks for the video, and the memorial!

Texas Griffin said...

Thanks for remembering a Truly Great American.

jolies-couleurs said...

A great singer unjustly persecuted - though 'lucky' he was persecuted in McCarthyite America rather than, say, Stalin's Russia?

Neil Clark said...

Thanks, Martin.
jolies: agreed. The fact that Robeson would have faced harsher treatment if he had held the 'wrong' views in Stalin's Russia doesn't exonerate McCarthy or make McCarthyism acceptable. It's wrong for artists to be persecuted for their political beliefs, whether their beliefs are pro- or anti-communist.

Jock McTrousers said...

Do you know that you can't get the version of Showboat with Robeson in it on dvd for love or money? Weird!

jolies-couleurs said...

Agreed that all persecution is wrong but 'facing harsher treatment' in the Soviet Union is something an understatement since many of his fellow artists wound up dead!

Roland Hulme said...

African American male in pre-civil rights America or worker-chattle of the Soviet Bloc?

I have to admit, I can see why Robeson leant that way.

jolies-couleurs said...

Ronald, you mean living in a country (America) that was giving birth to a civil rights movement was less preferable than living in a country (Russia) where organised dissent was impossible and millions of people were arbitarily being imprisoned, worked to death or executed. What perculiar kind of masochism is that?