Episode 70. Paul Robeson: Ballad of an American

Episode 70. Paul Robeson: Ballad of an American



January 23 is the 45th anniversary of the death of Paul Robeson, who remains one of the most celebrated, and controversial, of all artists. A man of fierce intelligence and convictions, he was naturally gifted in a number of different media. Today I will focus on his accomplishments as a singer, but within the context of his political activism and activities on behalf of oppressed people the world over. He was vilified and hunted as much (if not more) than he was revered and celebrated. In this episode I remember some of his most famous performances and recordings, focusing on his performances of African American spirituals and protest songs, folk songs from around the world, including Russia and China, and works that celebrated the brand of left-wing populism that was in vogue in the 1930s and 1940s, focusing in particular on his recording of the hybrid work, Ballad for Americans, by composer Earl Robinson and lyricist John LaTouche. As the United States faces the potential of a better future that could be offset by violence and divisiveness, let us remember the life and career of a truly great American who paid an enormous price for his convictions, but created the potential context for a better, more just world and country.

Previous episodes that included music by Paul Robeson:

Episode 37 (No More Slavery Chains). www.countermelodypodcast.com/episode-37-no-more-slavery-chains

Episode 55 (Season Two Teaser): www.countermelodypodcast.com/episode-55-season-two-teaser

Episode 65 (The Year 1935): www.countermelodypodcast.com/episode-65-1935-hb2u-mommie-dearest


Paul Robeson as Joe in the 1936 film version of Show Boat

Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, Paul Robeson (revised words): Old Man River (Show Boat). Paul Robeson; Alan Booth [live Carnegie Hall 9 May 1958]

Paul Robeson and Elisabeth Welch

Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II: I Still Suits Me (Show Boat – 1936 film). Paul Robeson, Elisabeth Welch; Clifford Greenwood, New Mayfair Orchestra [1936]

Nathaniel Shilkret (1889-1982)

Nathaniel Shilkret, Gene Austin: Lonesome Road (used in Show Boat – 1929 film). Paul Robeson; Ray Noble, New Mayfair Orchestra [1929]

Paul Robeson and Nina Mae McKinney in Sanders of the River (1935)

Mischa Spoliansky, Arthur Wimperis: Congo Lullaby (Sanders of the River). Paul Robeson; Muir Matheson, New Mayfair Orchestra [1935]

George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, Ira Gershwin: It Ain’t Necessarily So (Porgy and Bess). Paul Robeson [1939]

Paul Robeson with his son, 1943. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

Roy Henderson, Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown: Little Pal. Paul Robeson; Ray Noble, New Mayfair Orchestra [1929]

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

Duke Ellington, Barney Bigard, Irving Mills: Mood Indigo. Paul Robeson [1937]

Rezső Seress (1899-1968)

Rezső Seress, Desmond Carter: Gloomy Sunday. Paul Robeson [1936]

Paul Robeson on the defintions of Fascism and Communism [Senate testimony, 31 May 1948]

Earl Robinson, John LaTouche: Ballad for Americans. Paul Robeson; Nathaniel Shilkret, Victor Symphony Orchestra, American Peoples Chorus [1940]

Earl Robinson (1910-1991) and Paul Robeson

Earl Robinson, Allen Lewis: The House I Live In. Paul Robeson; Emanuel Balaban, Columbia Concert Orchestra [1947]

Lawrence Brown (1893-1972)

Marc Blitzstein: The Purest Kind of Guy (No for an Answer). Paul Robeson; Lawrence Brown [1942]

Paul Robeson and Alan Booth (1925-1996)

Yiddish Folk Song: Shlof, mein Kind. Paul Robeson; Alan Booth [1956]

The Peekskill Riot (4 September 1949)

Traditional Spiritual, arr. H.T. Burleigh: Scandalize My Name. Paul Robeson; Alan Booth [1957]

Traditional Spiritual: Weepin’ Mary. Paul Robeson; Lawrence Brown [1929]

Paul Robeson and Lawrence Brown

Traditional Spiritual, arr. H.T. Burleigh: By an’ By. Paul Robeson; Lawrence Brown [1945]

Spiritual, arr Lawrence Brown: Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel. Paul Robeson; Alan Booth [live Carnegie Hall 9 May 1958]

Paul Robeson at the World Peace Conference in Paris, 20 April 1949

Traditional American: Takin’ Names. Paul Robeson; Alan Booth [1957]

Lawrence Brown and Paul Robeson

Traditional American, arr. H.T. Burleigh: John Henry. Paul Robeson; Lawrence Brown [1945]

Paul Robeson in the film The Proud Valley (1940)

Traditional American, arr. Avery Robinson: Water Boy. Paul Robeson; Lawrence Brown [1945]

Traditional American, John Newton: Amazing Grace. Paul Robeson; Alan Booth [1956]

Traditional Scottish, arr. Walter Goehr. Loch Lomond. Paul Robeson [1938]

Selim Palmgren (1878-1951)

Traditional Finnish, arr. Selim Palmgren: Wanderer. Paul Robeson; Alan Booth [1957]

Traditional Chinese: Riding the Dragon [Children’s Song]. Paul Robeson [1941]

Pierre-Jean Garat (1764-1823)

Pierre-Jean Garat: Dans le printemps de mes annéees. Paul Robeson; Alan Booth [1958]

Fedor Chaliapin (1873-1938) was an enormous influence on Robeson

Alexander Alexandrov: O Thou Silent Night. Paul Robeson; Alan Booth [live Carnegie Hall 9 May 1958]

Traditional Russian: Volga Boat Song. Paul Robeson; Alan Booth [live Carnegie Hall 9 May 1958]

Alexander Gretchaninov: Cradle Song [sung in Russian]. Paul Robeson; Lawrence Brown [1942]

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Modest Mussorgsky: Within Four Walls [sung in Russian] (Sunless, No. 1). Paul Robeson; Lawrence Brown [1942]

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)

Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Pushkin: Monologue (Boris Godunov). Paul Robeson; Alan Booth [live Carnegie Hall 9 May 1958]

Paul Robeson with Chinese opera singer Mei Lan-fang and opera singer and producer Wang Shiao-lou,
London 1930s.

Traditional Chinese: Chinese Army Song. Paul Robeson [1941]

Kevin Barry (1902-1920)

Traditional Irish: Kevin Barry. Paul Robeson; Alan Booth [1956]

Hanns Eisler (1898-1962)

Anonymous, arr. Hanns Eisler: The Peat Bog Soldiers [sung in English and German]. Paul Robeson; Lawrence Brown [1942]

Paul Robeson in Spain with the pro-democracy insurgents (1938)

Traditional Spanish: The Four Insurgent Generals [sung in English and Spanish]. Paul Robeson; Lawrence Brown [1942]

Hirsch Glick: Zot nit keynmol [Song of the Warsaw Ghetto]. Paul Robeson; Alan Booth [1956]

Joe Hill [né Joel Emmanuel Hägglund] (1879-1915)

Earl Robinson, Alfred Hayes: Joe Hill. Paul Robeson; Alan Booth [live Carnegie Hall 9 May 1958]

William Shakespeare: A word or two before you go (Othello). Paul Robeson [live Carnegie Hall 9 May 1958]

Paul Robeson and Eslanda Goode Robeson (1895-1965)

Traditional Spiritual: No More Auction Block for Me. Paul Robeson; Alan Booth [1956]

Paul Robeson photographed by Yousuf Karsh (1941)

2 thoughts on “Episode 70. Paul Robeson: Ballad of an American”

  1. Thanks, Daniel, for this beautiful tribute to Paul Robeson, whose life and legacy have so many lessons for today.
    “All that Paul Robeson stood for had enormous impact on American and global history. The combination of his art, intellect and humanity was rarely paralleled. The cruelties visited upon him by the power of the State stands as a great blemish on the pages of American history. But despite the attempt to wipe him from memory, he has endured and continues to influence. It speaks to our most strategic interests that African American children be instructed about the truth of his existence. Indeed, it would be in the best interest of all Americans to know what this great patriot offered this nation.” –Harry Belafonte, on the occasion of Robeson’s 110th birthday, April 9, 2008

    1. Dear Bonnie, I am so glad that you enjoyed the episode. I wanted to pay tribute to a great American and I hope that I was able to do so in a meaningful way. How appropriate the Harry Belafonte tribute, another Freedom Fighter who made an immeasurable contribution! I got chills reading the quote that you shared. Best, Daniel

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