As I’ve mentioned before, I love music. I listen to it on NPR in my car and sometimes at home, and I listen to one or two of my more than 200 CDs almost every evening after I settle into my nesting chair to write in my journal and read. I probably have that many or more cassette tapes, too, which I listen to rarely now, and upstairs in my junk room/closet, there are still my vinyl records.
Last week, I dug out The Odyssey of Paul Robeson, Unique performances from the collection of Paul Robeson, Jr. I listen to it at least once a month because I love his voice and the songs he sings. Because the selections were from different periods of his life time, I can pick up the differences in his voice as he aged although he still had an awesome voice.
For those of you who haven’t heard of Paul Robeson. I’ll give you a brief synopsis below of the life of this totally amazing man. I’d heard his story before, but I went to The National Archives, Wikipedia, and a site called simply BIO and spent the last few days refreshing my memory and learning more about him.
Paul Leroy Robeson was born April 9, 1898, the son of a former slave in Princeton, New Jersey, and died January 23, 1976. During his lifetime he achieved so much there’s no way I can cover all of his fascinating life in the space of a blog.
Robeson won an academic scholarship to Rutgers College in late 1915, and became the third African-American student ever enrolled at Rutgers. He tried out for their football team and the other team members gave him a rough time breaking his nose and dislocating his shoulder. But he persisted, and gained the support of his team and was twice named All American.
His joined the debate team, sang off-campus to earn spending money, and on-campus with the Glee Club informally, as membership required attending all-white mixers. In addition to his varsity letters in multiple sports, academically he finished university with four annual debate triumphs. He was accepted into Phi Beta Kappa and Cap and Skull. His classmates elected him valedictorian. It was quite an unusual honor for an African American in those years.
He entered New York University School of Law in 1919. To support himself, he became an assistant football coach at Lincoln. However he felt uncomfortable at NYU. He moved to Harlem and transferred to Columbia Law School. Already known in the black community for his singing, he was selected to perform at the dedication of the Harlem YWCA.
He met his future wife, Eslanda “Essie” Goode and after her coaxing, he made his theatrical debut as Simon in Simon of Cyrene. After that his life became busy between his studies, playing football with NFL’s Akron Pros, acting, and singing. He postponed school for a while to act in plays in the U.S. and then went to Britain to perform in a play there. He ended his football career after 1922, and he graduated from law school that year, too.
In 1924, he played the lead in the production All Gods Chillun Got Wings, and the following year he starred in the London Play The Emperor Jones. He went on to star in many plays and movies even Othello, in 1943, and the play Show Boat which later became a movie, and so many other plays and movies.
In 1927, his only child, a son was born and named Paul Robeson, Jr.
Robeson had a great following in Europe, and beyond, and became an activist speaking out against racial injustice at home and abroad. In 1950 the State Department revoked his passport so he could no longer travel abroad to earn money. It was mostly because he joined different peace organizations as well as organizations seeking equality, and the misunderstanding of a speech he made as an actor. During the years of McCarthyism and cold war paranoia, he was blacklisted from domestic concert venues, recording labels and film studios and suffered financially. He fought the injustice for years and repeatedly applied for the reinstatement of his passport and rejected appeals. Eventually after the end of McCarthyism, in 1958 the Supreme Court finally agreed, and ruled the State Department could not deny American citizens the right to travel regardless of their political beliefs or sympathies.
He has won awards for his efforts to end Apartheid in South Africa. Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist won an Academy Award for best short documentary in 1980. In 1995, he was named to the College Football Hall of Fame. In the centenary of his birth, he was commemorated around the world. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award, as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He is also a member of American Theater Hall of Fame.
He has won too many other awards to list them all here. As of 2011, the run of Othello in which he starred was the longest-running production of a Shakespeare play ever staged on Broadway.
The last years of his life were sad. He suffered from depression and paranoia, and other health issues, which might have been brought about by attempts by the CIA and M15 to “neutralize” him according to his son Paul Jr. He attempted suicide and was given heavy doses of drugs for nearly two years with no accompanying psychotherapy in Britain where he spent some of his time.
In 1963 after living abroad for some years and suffering from serious illnesses, .he returned to the United States and for the remainder of his life lived mostly in seclusion. He only made a few major public appearances in the Civil Rights movement before falling seriously ill. On January 23, 1976, he died from complications of a stroke, in Philadelphia where he’d been staying with his sister.
Are you familiar with Paul Robeson?
If you are which are your favorite songs he sang?