In memory of Paul Robeson, the man whose voice they tried to silence



Robeson, born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, was the son of a formerly enslaved father who became a minister, and a mother who died tragically in a fire when he was just 6 years old. Robeson would grow up to attend Rutgers University, where he was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. He was also a star athlete in four sports, and voted All-American in football. He also earned a law degree from Columbia Law School, though he ultimately left law to star on both stage and screen as an actor, and to sing folk songs and Negro spirituals to packed audiences around the globe.

My late friend and filmmaker St. Clair Bourne directed Paul Robeson: Here I Stand, a two-hour documentary for PBS’ American Masters in 1999.

During the 1940s, Robeson’s black nationalist and anti-colonialist activities brought him to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Despite his contributions as an entertainer to the Allied forces during World War II, Robeson was singled out as a major threat to American democracy. Every attempt was made to silence and discredit him, and in 1950 the persecution reached a climax when his passport was revoked. He could no longer travel abroad to perform, and his career was stifled. Of this time, Lloyd Brown, a writer and long-time colleague of Robeson, states: “Paul Robeson was the most persecuted, the most ostracized, the most condemned black man in America, then or ever.”

It was eight years before his passport was reinstated. A weary and triumphant Robeson began again to travel and give concerts in England and Australia. But the years of hardship had taken their toll. After several bouts of depression, he was admitted to a hospital in London, where he was administered continued shock treatments. When Robeson returned to the United States in 1963, he was misdiagnosed several times and treated for a variety of physical and psychological problems. Realizing that he was no longer the powerful singer or agile orator of his prime, he decided to step out of the public eye. He retired to Philadelphia and lived in self-imposed seclusion until his death in 1976.

 It’s a must-watch.

Robeson’s rich bass baritone was unforgettable. He once sang “Happy Birthday To You” to me when I was a child; even though I had no idea he was a famous person, I never forgot that voice. It vibrated in me, down to my tiny toes.

The song that propelled Robeson to vocal fame was “Ol’ Man River,” a tune that James Ferguson explored in 2020 for the Financial Times’ series, Life of a Song.

Composer Jerome Kern met lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II in 1925, and after a successful Broadway collaboration on Sunny they set about translating Edna Ferber’s sprawling 1926 novel Show Boat for the stage. The story of life on a Mississippi pleasure boat during the Jim Crow era, involving alcoholism, gambling, so-called miscegenation and racism, looked like grim fare for a Broadway musical. They pitched it to producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr, of the famous Follies, who was  impressed enough to climb aboard. The show was a success, and has never wavered in popularity. As well as “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Make Believe”, it contained the imperishable “Ol’ Man River”.

Kern and Hammerstein had bass singer Paul Robeson in mind when they wrote “Ol’ Man River”. He had become the first black movie star in The Emperor Jones in 1925 — but he was unavailable in 1926 for the stage show of Show Boat. A movie was made in 1929, at Universal Studios, but it was a silent — not a good idea! The studio remade the film in 1936 — with sound — directed by James Whale, fresh from the successes of Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933). This time Robeson was available, and he duly delivered the definitive performance of the song. It’s big, it’s noble, it’s magnificent. It can give you goosepimples, damp eyes and a constricted throat.

Have a listen.

Robeson wasn’t much of a fan of the 1936 performance, as James McCarthy from the Eastman School of Music writes.

Most people identify Showboat as the defining show for American musical theater because it was one of the first musicals to fully integrate the plot of the show into the songs, which created a whole new form of storytelling. Although working in this play essentially made Robeson a sensation among American audiences, he saw his character Joe, a black dockworker singing about his troubles to the Mississippi River, as well as the hit song “Ol’ Man River” a bit demeaning to his pursuit of highlighting African American progression.

Understandably, Robeson didn’t appreciate the original lyrics that included the N-word to describe the type of workers working along the Mississippi nor did he appreciate the presentation of African Americans in this play as second class citizens. So, in an attempt to bring light to his feelings on the equal rights of black U.S. citizens, Robeson began in 1938 to rewrite the lyrics of this song in recitals. Similar to the pro tolerance writings put into the star-spangled banner, Robeson added text to “Ol’ Man River” that promoted African American freedom and strength. The famous line “There’s an old man called the Mississippi, that’s the old man that I’d like to be” was changed to “There’s an old man called the Mississippi, that’s the old man I don’t like to be” and the ending of the stanza “I get weary and sick of trying, I’m tired of living and scared of dying” was changed to “But I keep laughing instead of crying and I’ll keep fighting until I’m dying.”

Though we’re focusing on Robeson’s music, those who want to dig deeper into Robeson’s history might enjoy these other stories from the Daily Kos Community: 

“You are the Un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves,” by JekyllnHyde; “Remembering Paul Robeson: Advocate for racial justice and world peace, incomparable bass-baritone,” by Bill Berkowitz; and a previous installment of this series: “From coal mines to chain gangs and more: Black music tells the tales of Black workers.”

But back to the music. This lovely 1946 collection of Robeson singing spirituals with accompanist and pianist Lawrence Benjamin Brown is delicate and poignant. 

Robeson often sang in churches, though he did not fulfill his father’s wish for him to become a minister.  

One of my favorite clips of Robeson singing is from his international travels.

This clip was posted to YouTube by London’s BFI Southbank cinema venue, which notes:

Extract from Mining Review 2nd Year No. 11 (1949)

The highlight of this 1949 issue is the visit of American actor and singer Paul Robeson to Woolmet Colliery near Edinburgh. Robeson was also a renowned (and often persecuted) left-wing political activist and he made several visits to British mining communities. On this occasion he sings “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” for miners in the canteen, a song about an American trade unionist who was allegedly framed on a murder charge and executed in 1915. Robeson had long been something of a hero to the British mining community, ever since he starred in the film Proud Valley (d. Pen Tennyson, 1940) as an American sailor stranded in Cardiff who finds work in a Welsh colliery (the newsreel opens with a short clip from the film).

Last but certainly not least is an amazing event that took place in Wisconsin, documented by Paula Becker at HistoryLink.

On May 18, 1952, singer, actor, athlete, scholar, and political activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976) performs an outdoor concert for more than 25,000 people (estimates range as high as 45,000) gathered on both sides of the United States/Canadian border at Peace Arch Park in Blaine.  An outspoken supporter of civil rights worldwide and an admirer of the Soviet Union, where he perceives there to be no racism, Robeson has been increasingly persecuted for his political views since the late 1940s.  His passport has been confiscated by the State Department, denying his right to travel and perform outside of the United States, and he has recently even been prevented from crossing the border to Canada, which at the time does not require United States citizens to show a passport

The weather was unseasonably warm for mid-May in the Pacific Northwest.  The previous day’s high temperature in Seattle was reported as having been a record-setting 81 degrees. The crowd at the Peace Arch was variously estimated at 25,000 to 30,000 to as high as 45,000 people.  Border officials briefly closed the crossing in attempt to clear through some of the backlogged cars.  About three-fourths of the crowd gathered on Canadian soil and one-fourth on the United States side of the border.  The crowd sang “O Canada” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”  The Canadian B.C. District News (a publication of the Union Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers) described the scene:

“Long before the announced opening the grass of the park was flowered with gay summer dresses of the women and children, and cars were parked for miles back along the highway and on all the cross-roads adjacent to the border.  How many autos turned back out of the traffic jam, discouraged at the slowness of progress from 1:30 p.m. onwards, will never be known, but they reached the hundreds.  When Robeson arrived at 2:30, fully 30,000 had assembled…the great singer’s vibrant voice betrayed his emotion when he told his audience, ‘I can’t tell you how moved I am today to see that nothing can keep me from my friends in Canada!’ … He sang in English, songs of peace in Russian and Chinese, songs of liberty in a tongue of the African villages, where his own people are now struggling to cast off the heel of their white exploiters” (“Paul Robeson Enthralled …”).  

Here are his introductory remarks from that day.

In his introduction to “No More Auction Block,” Robeson notes that “this song could have been sung by my father.”

The song was also known as “Many Thousands Gone.” 

This song was first published in Slave Songs of the United States in 1867 and belongs to a classification of slave songs known as “protest songs” or “corn songs.”

As the text indicates, it has been suggested that this song was first sung when slaves were taken from the islands by the Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard to “build the fortifications at Hilton Head and Bay Point” (Slave Songs, p. 48).  This description may refer to the building of Fort Walker initiated in July, 1861, which was designed to prevent Union ships from entering Port Royal Sound.  That was before the Emancipation Proclamation;  this song was sung with a different spirit once the slaves were all freed

Here’s an audio version of the performance.


No more auction block for me
No more, no more
No more auction block for me
Many thousands gone
No more pint of salt for me
No more, no more
No more pint of salt for me
Many thousands gone

No more driver’s lash for me
No more, no more
No more driver’s lash for me
Many thousands gone

Robeson inspired many other singers who picked up the mantle of musical calls for justice: Leon Bibb, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Sweet Honey in the Rock among them. Join me in the comments for some of their music and much more Robeson.

He may have passed on, but the power of his voice still breaks the silence.


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