About this Recording
8.120638 - ROBESON, Paul: Spirituals, Vol. 1 (1925-1936)


Original Recordings 1925-1936

Among his remaining fans Robeson is still most generally admired for his intimate, easy way with songs from films and musicals including Show Boat and with certain numbers of the ‘Just A-Wearyin’ For You’ or ‘Sleepy Time Down South’ varieties, ballads heartfelt and direct in sentiment with which he could closely identify himself.  Never a singer in the strictest criterion of ‘bel canto’, he was nonetheless a great minstrel gifted with the common touch and as a singer of spirituals (and latterly of protest songs) he has long been rated a master, although he was by no means the first or only Negro vocalist to establish an international reputation in these genres. More accurately, like the tenors Roland Hayes and John Payne and, even more monumentally in his own generation the mezzo Marian Anderson, through large global sales of his spiritual recordings Robeson furthered an already thriving tradition.

Far from being a pure manifestation of folk-song, the spiritual as we now know it is really a hybrid contrived from the religious songs of the South such as those gathered in William F. Allen’s monumental 1868 compendium Slave Songs Of The United States and exploited commercially in the touring shows of the Christy Minstrels of the 1850s, the Georgia and Fisk University Jubilee Singers of the 1870s and, more recently still and most enduringly, in the arrangements popularised by the Erie, Pennsylvania-born Negro baritone recitalist Henry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949), whose seemingly immortal creations included Deep River and Go Down, Moses, both published commercially in 1917, by Ricordi & Co.

Paul Le Roy Robeson was born into a middle-class family in Princeton, New Jersey, on 9 April  1898.  His mother was a teacher and his father, a former slave and sometime student of theology, was a practising Presbyterian preacher. Brought up in a hard-working, God-fearing environment, Paul’s studious inclinations were encouraged and at thirteen he was selected for Somerville High School where, in addition to indulging his fondness for amateur dramatics, he also shone at football and sang in the glee club.  Initially intending to pursue a career in jurisprudence, he successively enrolled in the law faculties of two leading American universities: first, Rutgers in New Jersey, then Columbia in New York City. Paul graduated from Rutger’s with a Bachelor’s degree in 1919, was called to the bar in 1921 and continued to study law until he graduated, in 1923.

A keen semi-pro drama student he had meanwhile also made his acting début in Simon The Cyrenian (Harlem YMCA, 1920), worked briefly in Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s all-black Broadway melange Shuffle Along (he temporarily replaced the bass William Hann in the Four Harmony Kings) and, in July 1922, had sailed to England where he appeared in London in Mary Hoyt Wiborg’s Taboo (later re-titled The Voodoo) with the celebrated doyenne of English actresses, Mrs. Patrick Campbell (1865-1940).  Back in the USA, he sang in the chorus-line of Lew Leslie’s Plantation Revue (this starred the ill-fated Florence Mills) and between 1922 and 1924 appeared as a straight-actor in various plays with the Provincetown Players, including parts in Nan Bagby Stevens’ Roseanne and Eugene O’ Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, at the author’s personal request. In 1924 Robeson made his first (silent) screen appearance, as a young preacher, in Oscar Micheaux’s Body And Soul and in London the following year played the title role in O’Neill’s 1921 masterpiece Emperor Jones (a film-version made by United Artists in less than a week in 1933, also starred Robeson).

Although already an acclaimed stage-actor, when Robeson began his career as a recitalist in 1925 he not unreasonably feared that a programme devoted exclusively to spirituals would fail to draw a good audience, despite the precedents recently set by the American tenor John Payne and other black artists. With the support of some fine arrangements by his accompanist Lawrence Brown, however, he scored a big success at his first New York recital. The event did much to elevate the status of the spiritual while his voice itself ‘all honey and persuasion, yearning and searching, and probing the heart of the listener’ earned the apt definition of ‘the best musical instrument wrought by nature in our time’ – fair description, for the voice and artistry of Robeson the orator and declaimer were ‘natural’ insofar as they appeared to be spontaneous.  His first recordings, all of spirituals, made for Victor during July 1925, sold better than expected and after four months Robeson received a cheque for royalties of $12,000.

Throughout the late 1920s and 1930s the name of Robeson was magnified via stage and film appearances and the ever-increasing record sales of this populist who sang from his heart to the masses. In 1927 Robeson starred in Porgy And Bess (the Pulitzer Prize-winning play version of the 1925 Du Bose Heyward novel on which Gershwin based his 1935 folk-opera) and by 1928 he was domiciled in London. His appearance there in the première of the Kern musical Show Boat (he later participated in the show’s New York revival, in 1932) conferred on him both a transatlantic cachet and a new, more generalised recognition in the signature-tune of ‘Ol’ Man River’. From 1928 onwards, an extended series of recordings of popular fare as well as the spirituals included in this compilation made Robeson a dark-hued counterpart in the catalogues to McCormack or Peter Dawson which provided His Master’s Voice – and Robeson himself – with a ready money-spinner during years of recession.

Peter Dempsey, 2003

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