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125 One of the great inspirational figures of the twentieth century, the African American actor, singer, and political activist Paul Robeson was a frequent visitor and resident in Britain, and in turn Britain was an important influence on Robeson’s singing, acting, and politics. He linked politics and culture in support of 1930s political campaigns against fascism and colonialism which then set the ground back in the United States for his political campaigning for black rights and colonial freedom during and after the Second World War. In the period of the Cold War he was victimized for these and his peace and anti-nuclear activities by the American authorities, but he continued to have many friends and admirers in Britain and elsewhere in Europe even after his death in 1976. This essay outlines key events in Robeson’s visits to and residence in Britain, its significance on his personal development, and the effect he had on those who heard and saw him act and sing. It also examines Robeson in the context of what he called“Negro”music and of organized black and anti-racist activity in Britain. It concludes with a discussion on his continuing relevance.1 8 —SEAN CREIGHTON Paul Robeson’s British Journey 126 SEAN CREIGHTON Robeson, “Negro” Music, and Racism Robeson was deeply rooted in spirituals, gospel, hymns, ragtime ballad, and blues as well as mainstream white American and British popular songs.2 In the early 1920s he specialized in singing Negro spirituals and popular songs. He had reservations about U.S. black audience demands for the inclusion in his programs of German, French, and Continental classics. He feared “the eventual obliteration of their own folk-music.”3 But as he studied Negro and other music from around the world he saw links between African American and other folk musics. In 1939 he explained that while he had thought of himself as a concert artist, he was now “best as a singer of folksongs.”4 Robeson’s own personal list of significant black composers, musicians and singers included Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes, William Handy, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Henry Burleigh, Nathaniel Dett, William Dawson, William Grant Still, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters, Florence Mills, Bert Williams, Bessie Smith, Bill Robinson, Eddie Rector, Teddy Wilson, Turner Layton,Johnny Dunn,Hall Johnson,Will Marion Cook,Count Basie,Mahalia Jackson, Josephine Baker, Wayland Rudland, and Louis Armstrong.5 When he first came to Britain in 1922 there was a lively following for black musicians,singers,and dancers.Robeson stayed in the flat of John Payne, a black American who had originally come over in 1919 with the Southern Syncopated Orchestra led by Will Marion Cook. Here he met the black American pianist and arranger Lawrence Brown. Meeting again in New York in 1925 a life-long association as singer and accompanist began. For Brown, Robeson’s was “the voice of the Negro people,” “true with all the half-tones, the indefinable rhythm, the colors,” “that ranged from a velvety black bass up to the tonal scale to light, clear, translucent overtones.”6 Other contributors to this volume have shown that Afro-American performers in Europe were caught in a dilemma about how to present their music—in its original and raw form or to soften it by“Europeanizing”it. This was also Robeson’s predicament. The rawer performance forms like cakewalk and early jazz, seem to have had three main sets of reactions among different groups of their white European audiences: enjoyment, moralistic horror , and “racism.” Enjoyment could come in two forms: comic appreciation, and a sense of racial superiority. For those who simply enjoyed the comic aspects could this have been the same kind of enjoyment as of the cruder 127 PAUL ROBESON’S BRITISH JOURNEY antics and songs of some white musical hall performers? These enabled music hall audiences to join in—singing along and laughing. There is some evidence emerging that there was a spectrum in British audience responses to blackface minstrelsy from the racist to the sympathetic and empathetic.7 The songs that particularly seem to reveal sympathy and empathy are those of Stephen Foster, a white American songwriter on black themes. Robeson was just one of many black artists to perform these songs. Perhaps the key to positive identification lies in what Robeson wrote in 1958: “The power of spirit that our people have is intangible. . . . A spirit of steadfast determination, exaltation in the face of trials—it is...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781604735475
Related ISBN
9781578069606
MARC Record
OCLC
630107738
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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