Paul ROBESON: The complete HMV recordings

At last ! Gone the days of collecting all kind of Robeson LP’s and later on CD’s, looking for a few items not to be found on other re-issues. An album of 7 CD’s, in Europe at least for almost no money, is a bargain indeed. As I was in contact with some Robeson people I possessed a complete discography and I was always angry with record firms which duplicated the same songs over and over again. So it feels good to have so many recordings which up to now could only be found in junk markets, on auctions or in less than pristine condition on cassettes or CD-R’s made by other collectors. Of course even this tremendous album is only part of Robeson’s heritage. Lacking for instance are his legendary first Victor Recordings of 1926 and 1927; the result of that even more legendary first recital of his career on April the 19th 1925. Lacking too is his famous Ballad for Americans, so hugely popular during the second world war. Sony brought out a magnificent CD with some though not all of his Columbia-recordings made in the forties. And some later Vanguard and CBS-records still need a transfer but let’s not grumble too much. This EMI album offers us the best known and surely the most popular Robeson songs at the time when the voice was in full bloom and the political activist was less busy than the singer.

These are the records that show us one of the most amazing bass voices ever to have appeared in public. Mind you the Robeson legend and his struggles with the American government have given us a somewhat false picture of the singer. One still can read how racism denied opera one of the greatest voices of all time. This is utter nonsense. As magnificent as the voice is, it is also a short one: one and a half octave and so there is half an octave lacking that an opera singer needs. Even in his early records, at a time when he was announced as a bass-baritone, one hears his limitations in the upper register where he is pushing the sound. He knew his voice well enough never to try any operatic role. A few arias he recorded later in his career and that was it. Then there was the personality of the singer as well. His wife once wrote him a devastating note: “Paul, you’re just another lazy, cheating nigger” and an amateur he surely remained. He never learnt to read music and when Gershwin approached him to create Porgy in his opera he shuddered at the thought of learning so many notes, declined and immediately escaped to London for a series of Show Boat; just one song (this was before the movie version where Kern added ‘I still suits me’ for him) and that was ideal. One sometimes notes the voice nicely rolling along in some of these recordings and that’s all about it. That mostly means he had just learned the song by rote as he didn’t like to prepare himself thoroughly and when the ditty was not in his concert repertory he trusted his voice without trying to phrase or use some of the magnificent diminuendi. 

As with so many artists there was a huge abyss between the man and the performer. For decades his ‘Ma curly-headed baby’, ‘Mammy’ and other lullabies were classics and proof of parental love and devotion. The man who so meltingly sang “All that I’ve got on the whole plantation is a fat little baby with his mammy’s eyes” totally neglected his own son Paul jr for years, put him in a Soviet school and hardly spoke to him until his child was an adult and , more important to Robeson, as extreme left in politics.  Robeson always had a mouth full on the great African-American heritage and he declared , as is to be found in the interesting notes with this album: “I shall continue to do all within my power on behalf of independence of colonial peoples in Africa.” Fine words but when several African countries became independent and handed out invitations, Robeson stayed in either Western comfort or preferred the red carpet treatment he got in communist countries. He never set foot in Africa and it is somewhat strange to note that this fierce fighter for “negro dignity” became world famous while acting in movies where he always played the good negro  assisting his white boss against those black African primitives so that the boss got the girl. Of course he had to sing a nice ditty now and then and they are all to be found in the album.

Though he never gave up his popular songs and ballads he took on in later life a few more art songs or political statements in music. In his HMV days he limited his recordings most to spirituals and popular songs for which his voice was ideal. Though it was not a big voice (he used in mikes in bigger halls) it is directly recognizable and noble and his legato his impressive. There is warmth in the voice and an almost unstoppable flow of charm “The gentle giant” was very much a ladies man; especially white ladies and his marriage after a few years was only a matter of convenience; often he did not meet with his official black wife for months. He can sing pianissimi as good as the best tenore di grazia and he is not shy to use it. He is one of those singers one can listen to for many a record and he always succeeds in ennobling the melody he is currently interpreting. Only when another singer picks up a Robeson song one notes the difference: in the hands of lesser gods the music becomes more trivial and somewhat boring.

On the last CD’s one finds a few songs by Russian composers as well: a result from his travels to the Soviet Union. The notes are very discreet on this aspect of his life, giving us the impression Robeson was persecuted in his own country for purely racial reasons. The word communist is not to be found though Robeson undoubtedly was one and this was not communism of the house-and-kitchen variety but the murderous ideology that killed five-six times the amount of people destroyed by Hitler and his thugs. Of course up to a part Robeson’s political activities can be understood. Even though hugely popular in his own country due to those HMV recordings and his many very well paid concerts (most blacks couldn’t afford a ticket) he was often relegated to a small domestic’s room in a hotel afterwards where most people refused to serve him dinner. He vigorously denounced lynching and only got help from the American communist party as both Republicans and Democrats refused to take action in the pre-war days. When Robeson travelled to the Soviet Union for the first time he had to go by train and one can imagine the treatment he got for part of his trip as trains always passed through Nazi Germany. The contrast with the reception he got in the SU couldn’t be greater. He got a hero’s reception and he immediately stated that the Soviet Union had given coloured people all human rights in one generation (implying the US hadn’t). For a man who prided himself on his reading this was strong self delusion indeed. By that time almost 10 million people had been murdered in the Soviet Union and those crimes were already widely documented. And non-Russians were actively discriminated against. From that time on Robeson followed the dictates of Stalin and his murderers. When the Soviet Union attacked small Finland in 1939 Robeson called Finnish defenders fascists. He declared that Hitler’s attack on Western Europe was just a clash between imperialists but couldn’t speak loud enough and ask for US intervention when Hitler invaded Russia. And he kept up the good works. When in 1956 the Soviet army smashed down the Hungarian bid for freedom Robeson was one of the few Western men to denounce the Hungarians as reactionaries and admire the gangsters in the Kremlin. Some of his bitterness is understandable as in retaliation to his many statements the US government had withdrawn his passport in 1950 and protesters made it almost impossible for him to concertize any further. His income declined to one twentieth of his former earnings. Still there is no denying that he would gladly have collaborated as a Quisling if there ever had been an armed conflict between the US and the Soviet Union. The magnificent biography by Martin Duberman (leftist historian who enraged Paul jr by refusing to write a hagiography) leaves no doubt that Robeson intimately knew the many crimes by his communist brethren. Officially he never was a member of the party as the leaders always and openly refused his application as they thought him to have more influence as a fellow-traveller. But it is highly probable he was one of the very few members whose membership was never put on paper. He never spoke out in favour of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 for the sad reason that by that time he had lost most of his wits. Even Duberman has not succeeded in totally unravelling the reasons of Robeson’s early dementia but he doesn’t believe in Paul jr’s conspiracy theories. The most simple reason seems to be wrong medication by some Eastern German quacks. This makes nonsense of the statement in the album’s notes that “Paul Robeson died, aged 77, in 1976. What was more important though, was that he had seen his own beliefs triumph in the United States”. Robeson was angry that the younger generation of Martin Luther King and Co didn’t want to have anything to do with him due to his communist sympathies and he was simply excluded from their ranks. By the time president Johnson succeeded with his legislature in slowly ending segregation Paul Robeson probably didn’t know anymore his own name. Moreover Robeson would have derided later outings of black pride and isolation like Nation of Islam as he despised apartheid be it white or black. Still the fine voice lives on and no operatic bass has ever succeeded in moving so big an audience with simple songs. I wouldn’t trust EMI over much with this issue. Often these interesting albums by historical singers pop up in shops for a short time and then disappear for ever. So be quick !

Jan Neckers, Operanostalgia