(1898-1976) The distinction of Paul Robeson as a singer does not lie in the physical range of his voice, but in the range of feeling which moves the singer in his choice of songs. The breadth of his appeal may lie in his arrant rejection of all songs -no matter how popular- which do not reflect his own feelings. Thus, Robeson and his songs merge into an indivisible expression.
It is surely unique for a singer of folk songs -for so Robeson has designated himself- to have drawn forth the most impassioned eulogies from the severest music critics, men of learning in entirely unrelated fields and, at the same time, to have appealed for so many years to average people from miners to housewives.
In essence, Paul Robeson's mode of singing has never changed, only his repertoire of songs has expanded. It is no exaggeration to say that he is the only singer who has mastered with equal ease a Chinese song, a Hebrew chant an an old English ballad.
When asked to discuss himself, Robeson has frequently said that he feels that songs he sings are more expressive of his exact feelings than anything he can articulate about himself in words. Robeson has sung to the world not for the sake of individual fame, but to communicate to the world through song.
His father was the Reverend William Drew Robeson of the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church of Princeton, New Jersey, where Robeson was born. His mother was a Quaker faith and of Negro, Indian and English descent. He was born and bred in the heritage of the spiritual, which embodies the deepest emotional and spiritual aspirations of the American Negro.
Thus, during his school days, his college years and as he struggled to put himself through law school, Paul Robeson often sang in Negro choirs.
It is not generally known that Robeson first went to England on 1922 while he was still a law student at Columbia University and there he raised his tuition fees by appearing in a play called Voodoo, with Mrs. Patrick Campbell. This was the beginning of an acting career that later brought him fame through his roles in Eugen O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings and Emperor Jones.
The climax of his acting carrer came with his appearence in the title role of Shakespeare's Otello.
Through the years in America he continued to sing the songs of people of the world in their own language, the Songs of Free Men as his record album was called. Perhaps his most triumphant musical achievement was the interpretation of the cantata Ballad for Americans by Earl Robinson, which received a coast-to-coast broadcast by CBS in November 1939 and which Robeson sang to many audiences thereafter.
With the end of the war, Robeson found himself cut off from the mainstream of American concert life. During the years of his exile he continued to study the music of the peoples of the world. In his book Here I Stand he wrote:
"I found enourmous satisfaction in exploring the origins and interrelations of various folk music... Interested as I am in the universality of mankind -in the fundamental relationship of all peoples to one another- this idea of a universal body of music intrigued me, and I pursued it along many fascinating paths"
On May 9,1958 Robeson appeared in his first Carnegie Hall concert in eleven years and convinced critics and audience that his voice still retained its power and beauty. Shortly after this concert Robeson went to Europe, and was greeted everywhere with tremendous enthusiasm.
After two strokes in less than a month, Paul Robeson, 77, dies in Philadelphia on January 23. At his funeral, 5,000 mourners listen to recorded spirituals, sung in Robeson's rich baritone, as his closed casket is carried out of his brother Ben's church into a cold Harlem rain.