Robeson's message from the grave

Athlete, actor, political activist, the black American bass Paul Robeson was used to making history. The first black film star to play more than just Uncle Toms, America's first black stage Othello, the man for whom Rodgers and Hammerstein removed the word `nigger' from `Ol' Man River', Robeson became America's most vocal ambassador in the cause of freedom and the oppressed. A convinced Communist, he first visited the Soviet Union in 1934, the same year he condemned Nazi persecution of the Jews. Fifteen years later, blacklisted in his own land, he was back in the USSR, delivering a nationally broadcast recital that dared to challenge Stalin's own anti-Semitic policies. Now, at last, the tape of that historic recital has been found and released on CD. Here, the singer's son tells Andrew Stewart about his father's unspoken message that even the Soviet censor could not suppress.

The announcer barks out Paul Robeson's name with manic efficiency, prompting thunderous applause from the audience in Moscow's Tchaikovsky Hall. Before opening his recital, the great bass quietly thanks his hosts and tells them how much it means to be back on Soviet soil. Next comes a programme of simple folk-songs, classical arias, spirituals, and ballads of freedom and oppression, each prefaced by a line or two of spoken explanation in Russian and delivered with irresistible intensity. Robeson sounds tired at times, his voice not at its best. But the power of his farewell Moscow performance and the strength of his message of freedom proved sufficient to move even Stalin himself.

On 14 June 1949 radio listeners throughout the Soviet Union tuned in to hear an unforgettable live performance by the Black American, a people's hero who dared to lecture his countrymen on the morality of communism. Meanwhile the KGB and CIA were busy noting Robeson's views on the enduring cultural ties between the Jewish communities of the Soviet Union and the United States and his tribute to the recently deceased actor Solomon Mikhoels. The recording of that historic concert was confined immediately to the archives of "subversive" material thanks to Robeson's open support for those persecuted under Stalin's covert 1948-49 purge of Jewish intellectuals and liberal-minded Communists. Tristan Del, chairman of USSU Arts Group, rediscovered the abridged master tapes two years ago, their contents now released on the Revelation label.

Shortly before the Moscow concert, Robeson demanded to see his friend the poet Itzik Feffer, then languishing in the Lubyanka prison. The meeting took place in the singer's bugged hotel suite, Feffer cracking jokes while writing down that Mikhoels had been murdered on Stalin's orders and signalling that he, too, would surely be killed.

After concluding his official programme with his perennial calling-card, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Ol' Man River", Robeson added a surprise encore: an impassioned account of "Zog nit Keynmol", the defiant "Song of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising". The Soviet censors allowed the song and the following audience ovation to stand but cut the singer's spoken translations of the original Yiddish text into Russian along with his personal tribute to Mikhoels.

Robeson's popularity in the Soviet Union, however, was such that the increasingly paranoid Stalin postponed the execution of Feffer and others in his circle until 1952. "My father told me the story of Mikhoels and Feffer immediately after he came back from Russia," recalls Paul Robeson Jr.

"He swore me to secrecy about it for fear that Feffer and his colleagues would be killed. I always believed that there was a tape of the concert, so I was not entirely surprised when Tristan Del found it." With Senator McCarthy's Un-American Activities Committee and the FBI already pressing to discredit Robeson at home, it appears he had little to lose by visiting Russia and pledging support for the Soviet people. "I think the visit was much more subtle," his son explains. "His calculation was, `How can I help my friends and colleagues without doing serious damage to myself?' He was in deep trouble and needed all the friends he could get, especially as he thought that the American authorities would probably kill him on his return." In fact, they revoked his passport, preventing him from travelling abroad again until 1958. "It would have been foolish to attack the Soviets, so he had to figure a way of doing it `innocently' while still helping his friends."

Robeson played the part of the naive American citizen abroad, apparently ignorant of secret police surveillance and Soviet persecution of the Jews. "The line he took was to say, `I don't know Jewish stuff is outlawed; nobody told me not to sing Jewish songs or talk about them, so what the hell. I'm an artist and not responsible for the undertones and sub-editorial policy of Pravda.' The Soviets had to accept that, since they could hardly take him to task in public over a policy of anti-Semitism that wasn't yet public or for breaking `secret' rules." Robeson, unable to tell Feffer's story, limited his public comments to news that his Russian friends were all in good health. "If he breathed a word, they were dead," explains Robeson Jr. "Dad was a survivor, and wasn't self-destructive. He also didn't want to anger the Soviets or the Left at home, since his life depended to some extent on their enthusiastic public support. They supplied bodyguards and helped keep him alive, so he surely didn't want to thumb his nose at the domestic Left or the communists. He wasn't stupid, even though he was defiant on many levels."

Those blessed with the gift of historical hindsight have readily challenged Robeson's decision to keep quiet about the crimes of Stalin while praising the achievements of Soviet society. "On that point, history will have to judge my father on his merits." Did the senior Robeson ever express private doubts to his son about the gradual corruption of Stalin's utopian plans? "Coming to the Soviet Union in 1934, dad saw the flaws. He was aware there had been a famine, that there were dissidents and that Stalin was more dictatorial than one would have liked. But he told me in 1937 that the Soviet system represented the only hope of destroying Hitler's Fascists." Even during the post-war period Robeson was unwilling to denounce Stalin, claiming instead that the Soviet Union stood between the Third World and its exploitation by the United States. "If there wasn't a Soviet Union to offset western colonial power," Paul Robeson Jr explains, "dad believed you'd have to invent it. That was a black view, not a white one. I don't say he was a saint, but this was his conscious view of world affairs, not a naive position formed without understanding. Complex political issues like that are hard to explain in a bumper sticker! If people want a politically correct hero, then Paul Robeson's not the man.

"He never considered himself a hero, nor was he imprisoned by political correctness. The Moscow recording and its background humanise him, without making him into an icon.

"Let him go into history as he was."

Paul Robeson - `The Legendary Moscow Concert' including `Ol' Man River', `Over the Mountains', `Curly Headed Baby', `Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'. Revelation Records RV70004.

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