Thursday, April 9, 2015

Paul Robeson: American Natural

In this age of Auto-Tune, Melodyne and other pitch correction software, the concept of vocal talent continues to degrade toward mediocrity and worse. In its place we find the smoke and mirrors of
Paul Robeson in 1942
flashy, revealing costumes; seizure-inducing light shows; towers of flame; and deafening noise to take your mind off the lyrics. That's not to say the nation lacks extraordinary singers. It's just nearly impossible to find that purity in the entertainment industry today. Obviously the consumers are willing to buy what is pushed at them by the industry moguls. Perhaps the increasing diffusion of musical interests - the niche markets - will eventually improve the quality of what we hear. In the interim, musical talent remains a far cry from what it was in the last century.

One of the finest natural singing talents then was the American bass, Paul Robeson, born on this day in 1898.  Robeson was a scholar, athlete, actor and singer, a graduate of Rutgers and Columbia Law School.  You can read more about his biography here.  In 1927 Robeson found near-instant fame singing "Ol' Man River" in the Broadway musical, Showboat. He achieved extraordinary international success over the next decade as a singer and actor but turned to political activism by the late '30's. His continued disillusionment with the treatment of Africa and Africans in the United States pushed him toward leftist and labor causes that ended in conflict with federal anti-Communist interests, namely the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late '40's. For most of the next decade he was essentially blacklisted but returned to performing in the United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union by 1959. When his health failed in the early '60's he returned to the United States and lived a near-reclusive life until his death in 1976.

Here is natural talent at its finest:

Listening to his voice in classical performance we are left to imagine what scale his career could have reached in an era of equal rights for all Americans. In the same manner, we wonder about what can only be called his lost years, fired by the legacy of political sympathies that would move him to record this:


Regardless, Robeson's brief revival around 1960 brought to mind his great value as a gifted entertainer. Furthermore, it reinforced his place in history as a civil rights activist, one that I'm sure was an inspiration for many who would carry on in their own way in the struggle for equality that would shortly engulf the nation. 

We close with his signature song, the one that made him an international celebrity in 1927. I take heart in noting that this version has over 3 million hits on You Tube. It comes from the first all-sound version of the film produced in 1936.

I get weary and so sick of tryin'

I'm tired of livin', and afraid of dyin'
But Old Man River, he just keeps rollin' along


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