I’ve been listening to a lot of Paul Robeson lately, mainly because of the recent release of a seven CD-set, “The Complete EMI Sessions 1928-1939.” (It includes the first recordings ever made at EMI’s Abbey Road studios, in November 1931, some forty years before the Beatles barefooted it on a zebra crossing.) And I have also been listening to a single disc “On My Journey: Paul Robeson’s Independent Recordings” released on Smithsonian Recordings in 2007, comprising most of the recordings Robeson made on his own, independent Othello Records, after he was blacklisted from the major labels and not even allowed to purchase time in their recording studios. They are among his last recordings, from the mid 1950s.
Paul Robeson of course had one of the great voices of the 20th century, a dark bass-baritone, as flexible as it was sonorous, capable of deeply affecting singing in almost any repertoire. But the repertoire he sang on his EMU recordings was somewhat odd. In all of 180 or recordings there is nary a version of Joe Hill, the Four Insurgent Generals, or much else that would indicate his left wing sympathies. (Though some of the songs he recorded for the 1936 film “Song of Freedom” and “The Black Emperor” are properly stirring.) Indeed, if one didn’t know better, one might think that Robeson was devoid of any political consciousness at all, given the large number of songs he recorded that were plantation songs, many with the obligatory reference to “darkies” ranging from the minstrel songs of Stephen Foster, through several generations of plantation songs, up to their last incarnation in 1920s era songs such as “When its Sleepy Time Down South” and even the egregious “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” along with some of Hoagy Carmichael’s more infelicitous ditties, such as “Lazy Bones” and “Snow Ball.” (There is even a “nigger” in his 1930 version of “Old Man River.”) I am sure this was due more to EMI’s conservative recording policies than Robeson’s own inclinations, but it still somewhat disconcerting. On the other hand, it probably kept him from embarrassing himself in the other direction, as he did in the early 1940s, when he recorded the bulk of his politically oriented music, including his classic recording of the Soviet national anthem, with Robeson singing “Stalin, our leader, who trusts in the people,” above an accompanying chorus.
There are several dozen recordings of spirituals, but the bulk of his EMI recordings are light popular music, ranging from efforts at jazz such as “Solitude” and “Mood Indigo” (acceptable at best, he’s no Ivey Anderson) and scads of light classical songs, at which he is never less than very good and often superb. If there is one disappointment from his extensive EMI catalogue, it is the lack of any selections from the heart of the classical repertoire, no Lieder (he would have been a masterful singer of Schubert and Brahms) and no opera, save several selections from “Porgy and Bess” (ditto his unrecorded Verdi, Wagner, and Mozart.) As far as I know the only true opera recording he made was of the last monologue from Boris Godunov. It is magnificent. Of course, he would have been able to have an operatic career on stage in the 1930s, and that is an understandable excuse, but it didn’t prevent similarly disadvantaged African American classical singers, notably Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes, from singing opera unforgettably.
Well, there’s nothing to do done about that now. What Robeson sang wonderfully, and probably better than anyone else before or since was the Negro spiritual. It is a hybrid genre, born of the uplift of the talented tenth in the decades after Reconstruction, a wedding of the sorrow songs of slavery with the cadences and timbre of the classical art song. It is America’s greatest contribution to the classical song literature in the late 19th and early 20th century, and Robeson made it all his own, from his deep empathy with the people who first sang these songs, knowing their suffering, and knowing their need for release in their singing.