Rebel Music #16 Paul Robeson

By Alex

22 June 2012

Activist and scholar Norman Finkelstein on the great black American singer Paul Robeson...


In the 1960s everyone was listening to rock and psychedelic music.  I sat at home, alone, listening to Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, the Weavers.

In the early 1970s I discovered Paul Robeson.  He exerted a huge influence on me in my youth. 

Most people nowadays have never heard of Robeson.  He was an African-American renaissance man: extraordinary athlete, scholar, linguist, actor. 

He was also a Communist, committed to the Soviet Union. 

During the McCarthy era, he famously said that "I will not retreat one thousandth part of one inch," which became my credo in life. 

Ultimately, Robeson's pro-Soviet beliefs destroyed his professional career and, once the truth about Stalinism came out (like many others, he was quite naive), my impression is that it destroyed him internally. 

Robeson was best known for his rendering of folk music from around the world, first and foremost, African-American spirituals.   Initially I enjoyed listening to Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho and the more lively spirituals, but over time I came to appreciate the slower, drawn out ones.  They expressed the deepest yearnings of an oppressed people, with which I could identify.  His renderings of Russian and Yiddish melodies also resonated. 

It's an era that's past, probably for the better, so no one reading this can possibly understand the sentiments his music awakened in me. 

But the music, the person -- the willingness to make sacrifices for an ideal and for a cause (however mistaken) -- moved me in my youth and gave me a sense of purpose, as well as of solace in moments of setback and defeat. 

After I was denied tenure I started listening to Robeson again.

"Nobody knows the troubles I've seen,/Nobody knows my sorrows."

"Were you there,/ When they crucified my Lord?"

"Go down Moses,/Way down in Egypt's land,/And let my people go!"

"Some come crippled,/Some come lame,/Some come walking in Jesus name,/Bear the burden,/In the heat of the day."

I still keep a picture of Robeson pinned to the wall above my desk.

Norman Finkelstein is one of the world's foremost scholars on the Israel-Palestine conflict. You can read a recent NLP review of his latest book 'Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End' here.

Previously in the rebel music series:

Rebel Music #1 The Clash - Sandinista!

Rebel Music #2 George Clinton

Rebel Music #3 Atari Teenage Riot

Rebel Music #4 Robert Wyatt - Nothing Can Stop Us

Rebel Music #5 Manic Street Preachers

Rebel Music #6 Tracy Chapman

Rebel Music #7 Instrumental Interlude

Rebel Music #8 The Au Pairs

Rebel Music #9 The Band - 'King Harvest (Has Surely Come)'

Rebel Music #10 Crass

Rebel Music #11 Bruce Springsteen

Rebel Music #12 Akala

Rebel Music #13 Billy Bragg

Rebel Music #14 Steely Dan

Rebel Music #15 Elvis Costello - Shipbuilding 

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3 Comments on "Rebel Music #16 Paul Robeson"

By Sally Eberhardt, on 22 June 2012 - 15:19 |

“But the music, the person—the willingness to make sacrifices for an ideal and for a cause (however mistaken)—moved me in my youth and gave me a sense of purpose, as well as of solace in moments of setback and defeat.”  YES!  Thank you so much for this….... 

By George, on 24 June 2012 - 20:23 |

I believe that Paul Robeson changed the last verse of Ol’ Man River from its original tone of weary resignation to a tone of determined struggle. No doubt many would say this alters the rightful mood which they see as a kind of universal hymn to human frailty and transience.

But Robeson probably thought the original lyrics presented a neutered image of African Americans, projecting a complacent defeatism so that affluent liberals could feel patronizingly sorry, and perhaps even sorry for themselves (“We all have our burdens to bear”…etc), before shrugging their shoulders and moving on.

By Robert McLaren, on 30 July 2012 - 11:25 |

I knew about Paul Robeson before but it was ‘The Trials of Norman Finkelstein’ that prompted me start lessoning. So it is great to hear more from Finkelstein on the subject. I would like to share this short documentary about Robeson (it won an Oscar and is narrated by Sidney Poitier - if that helps). Enjoy.     

Part 1

Part 2

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