Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Albums for Life: 62: Paul Robeson: Songs of Free Men

“I gits weary and sick of tryin', I'm tired of livin' and feared of dyin”

This music always reminds me of my Dad, Terry. Terry loved to sing, still does. As an ex Kings College choir boy he knows the descant to every hymn going; as kids the family used to slide en masse away from him in the church pew during the hymns as he went stratospheric with his tremulous strangulated castrato. Only dogs could hear him; only strangled cats could envy. Around the house Dad always sang Paul Robeson; the songs on this album in particular. It's only when I left home that I could appreciate the beauty of that syrupy voice without Terry's duet. Spirituals, tradition folk songs, show tunes, protest songs in particular. Paul Robeson was a towering figure in American culture, an extraordinary athlete-scholar-actor-singer, Robeson also became one of the earliest equal rights campaigners, a forerunner of Martin Luther King Jr, demanding stronger laws against lynching and refusing to perform in any venue which segregated the audience, sometimes putting his personal safety at risk in order to speak or perform. And though he was admired by many, his controversial support of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and the era of McCarthyism led to ostracism and his declining health. No surprise that a man who had to struggle so hard to be accepted in his own country would use his fame to take a political stance. And no more surprising, perhaps, that that stance would eventually all but destroy him. He was less than perfect; his serial adultery, his detached relationship with his son during his early life, his continued support for the USSR even when some of its excesses were becoming known. But here was a man who had to survive and wanted to thrive, in difficult times. He did this with honor, no little dignity (especially at a time when he was labelled "an uppity nigger") and although he lived an imperfect life (who doesn't?) his fragility all adds to his reputation as a great humanist. The McArthy witch hunt did for him in the 50s, effectively silencing his Stateside but he still found an audience elsewhere and was particularly popular in Russia and Wales where he was greeted in The Valleys as one of their own. Ultimately Robeson was a man of courage and political integrity, who, by the bye, could sing up a storm.  
His gravestone bears the inscription:
The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery.
I have made my choice.
I have no alternative.

His was a rich, deep bass-baritone voice, unlike any other.
At the heart of this album are political songs from Russia, Spain, Germany and America.
I've posted five of his most famous songs starting with Terry's favourite 'Mah Lindy Lou' and ending with a performance by Richard Hawley of Robeson's favourite song, 'Waterboy'.


  1. this is a great compilation Trevor - I never knew that about his popularity in Wales but it makes so much sense. It's as if Tom Jones had never donned the tight leather trousers..

    1. I have to admit that a couple of the clips aren't actually on the album Seamus.
      There are some great 'best of' compilations; an exhaustive EMI archive (9 CDs I think) that you can probably get for a tenner. Free Men sits as an original set of songs therefore the sound and voice sound like they're coming from a particular time and place. I'm aware of the 'no compilations' rule so... Also, I remember this particular set of songs, in their order almost as well as the Lord's Prayer...
      Paul Robeson in leather pants?
      It wouldn't have got past the censor and he wouldn't have got them off!

    2. Been listening to the album on the dreaded Spotify Trevor. I have a couple of compilations but this is better.

  2. Not my cup of tea, but really an interesting story. Martyn Joseph sure raves on about him; the Welsh connection I guess. I'm sure you'v heard his tribute Proud Valley Boy...