Paul Robeson: a true great, and my granddad’s hero

I freely recognise I’ve put up some really rubbish music here. So now, a masterpiece. One of the great American songs, and one of the great American singers. If this doesn’t move you, Houston you’ve got a problem.

Robeson was one of the key figures, perhaps the key figure in black culture between the wars, in what is often referred to as the Harlem Renaissance. He was also a star either side of the Atlantic on stage (as Othello with Peggy Ashcroft in London), lfilm and gramophone. He starred in Showboat.

In the mid-‘thirties Robeson became intensely political, visiting the Soviet Union. For many socialists he became a flag bearer, often regarded with deep suspicion in his native land. In 1939, he even starred in a British movie about a Welsh mining community, The Proud Valley.

My granddad was a shop steward in the Transport and General Workers Union, and a Labour Party activist. He loved Paul Robeson, for his trade union activism, his socialism, but most of all for his music.

Robeson did not end well. Perhaps in part due to the endemic racism of America, perhaps because of his disillusionment at the defeat of Henry Wallace ( who he campaigned for), perhaps as a response to persecution under McCarthyism, but his socialism moved closer to Stalinism. In truth though, it was a romanticism many on the left held. He, despite writing in praise of Stalin at his death, remained on the side of good. Well, that’s how my granddad would have it.

A few years ago I heard the great black American bass Willard White do a concert of Robeson’s songs. This great Russian folk song was the highlight:

And, well, what else?

Hearing Shenandoah brought a tear to my eye tonight; no, really.

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