ROBESON, Paul: Spirituals, Vol. 1

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Original Recordings 1925-1936

Among his remaining fans Robeson is still most generallyadmired for his intimate, easy way with songs from films and musicals includingShow Boat and with certain numbers of the 'Just A-Wearyin' For You' or 'SleepyTime Down South' varieties, ballads heartfelt and direct in sentiment withwhich he could closely identify himself. Never a singer in the strictest criterion of 'bel canto', he wasnonetheless a great minstrel gifted with the common touch and as a singer ofspirituals (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 aninternational reputation in these genres. More accurately, like the tenorsRoland Hayes and John Payne and, even more monumentally in his own generationthe mezzo Marian Anderson, through large global sales of his spiritualrecordings Robeson furthered an already thriving tradition.

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

Paul Le Roy Robeson was born into a middle-class family inPrinceton, New Jersey, on 9 April 1898.  His mother was ateacher and his father, a former slave and sometime student of theology, was apractising Presbyterian preacher. Brought up in a hard-working, God-fearingenvironment, Paul's studious inclinations were encouraged and at thirteen hewas selected for Somerville High School where, in addition to indulging his fondnessfor amateur dramatics, he also shone at football and sang in the gleeclub.  Initially intending topursue a career in jurisprudence, he successively enrolled in the law facultiesof two leading American universities: first, Rutgers in New Jersey, thenColumbia in New York City. Paul graduated from Rutger's with a Bachelor'sdegree in 1919, was called to the bar in 1921 and continued to study law untilhe graduated, in 1923.

A keen semi-pro drama student he had meanwhile also made hisacting debut in Simon The Cyrenian (Harlem YMCA, 1920), worked briefly in EubieBlake and Noble Sissle's all-black Broadway melange Shuffle Along (hetemporarily replaced the bass William Hann in the Four Harmony Kings) and, inJuly 1922, had sailed to England where he appeared in London in Mary HoytWiborg's Taboo (later re-titled The Voodoo) with the celebrated doyenne ofEnglish actresses, Mrs. Patrick Campbell (1865-1940).  Back in the USA, he sang in the chorus-line of Lew Leslie'sPlantation Revue (this starred the ill-fated Florence Mills) and between 1922and 1924 appeared as a straight-actor in various plays with the ProvincetownPlayers, including parts in Nan Bagby Stevens' Roseanne and Eugene O' Neill'sAll God's Chillun Got Wings, at the author's personal request. In 1924 Robesonmade his first (silent) screen appearance, as a young preacher, in OscarMicheaux's Body And Soul and in London the following year played the title rolein O'Neill's 1921 masterpiece Emperor Jones (a film-version made by UnitedArtists in less than a week in 1933, also starred Robeson).

Although already an acclaimed stage-actor, when Robesonbegan his career as a recitalist in 1925 he not unreasonably feared that aprogramme devoted exclusively to spirituals would fail to draw a good audience,despite the precedents recently set by the American tenor John Payne and otherblack artists. With the support of some fine arrangements by his accompanistLawrence 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 voiceitself 'all honey and persuasion, yearning and searching, and probing the heartof the listener' earned the apt definition of 'the best musical instrumentwrought by nature in our time' - fair description, for the voice and artistryof Robeson the orator and declaimer were 'natural' insofar as they appeared tobe spontaneous.  His firstrecordings, all of spirituals, made for Victor during July 1925, sold betterthan expected and after four months Robeson received a cheque for royalties of$12,000.

Throughout the late 1920s and 1930s the name of Robeson wasmagnified via stage and film appearances and the ever-increasing record salesof this populist who sang from his heart to the masses. In 1927 Robeson starredin Porgy And Bess (the Pulitzer Prize-winning play version of the 1925 Du BoseHeyward novel on which Gershwin based his 1935 folk-opera) and by 1928 he wasdomiciled in London. His appearance there in the premi?â?¿re of the Kern musicalShow Boat (he later participated in the show's New York revival, in 1932)conferred on him both a transatlantic cachet and a new, more generalisedrecognition in the signature-tune of 'Ol' Man River'. From 1928 onwards, anextended series of recordings of popular fare as well as the spiritualsincluded in this compilation made Robeson a dark-hued counterpart in thecatalogues to McCormack or Peter Dawson which provided His Master's Voice - andRobeson himself - with a ready money-spinner during years of recession.

Peter Dempsey, 2003

Item number 8120638
Barcode 636943263822
Release date 05/01/2003
Category Nostalgia
Label Naxos Jazz Legends
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Artists Dawson, Herbert
Brown, Lawrence
Robeson, Paul
Clapham, Ruth
Dawson, Herbert
Brown, Lawrence
Robeson, Paul
Clapham, Ruth
Producers Dempsey, Peter
Dempsey, Peter
Disc: 1
Nearer, My God, to Thee
1 Git on Board, Li'l Children - Dere's No Hidin' Pla
2 MEDLEY: Roll De Ole Chariot / Mary Had A Baby, Yes
3 Joshua Fit de Battle ob Jericho
4 Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
5 Nobody Knows de Trouble I've Seen
6 Hear de Lam's A-Cryin'
7 Ezekiel Saw de Wheel
8 I'm Goin' to Tell God All o' My Troubles
9 I Got a Home in Dat Rock
10 Deep River
11 Witness
12 Scandalize My Name
13 Sinner, Please Doan' Let dis Harves' Pass
14 Weepin' Mary - I Want to be Ready
15 My Lord, What a Mornin'
16 Oh! Rock Me, Julie - Oh! Didn't it Rain
17 Hail de Crown
18 Exhortation
19 I Stood on de Ribber - Peter, Go Ring dem Bells
20 Go Down, Moses
21 Steal Away
22 De Ole Ark's A-Moverin'
23 Nearer, My God, to Thee
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