Paul Robeson sang in Yiddish
Source: San Diego Jewish World
I still remember the rich bass baritone voice of Paul Robeson singing “Old Man River” in the 1936 movie Show Boat. That was his song and I thought no one else could match his performance. Unfortunately, I doubt if anyone under the age of 60 would remember Robeson in spit of his worldwide fame.
By chance someone just sent me a link to a recording by Robeson in Yiddish. This is a new one, for me. I further learned he had recorded several Yiddish songs and often included them in his concerts.
I knew something about his political activism and since I loved his voice decided to click on Google to find out more about the iconic Robeson. I soon learned Robeson’s “Old Man River” was just the tip of his life’s “iceberg.”
Paul Robeson attended Rutgers University (1915) on an academic scholarship and was the valedictorian of his class, outstanding athlete and later was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He studied Swahili and Linguistics at the School of Asian and African Languages in London.
He began studying Yiddish informally at Columbia University and made several trips to Poland and the Soviet Union where he could speak Yiddish with Jewish activists, poets, and Soviet anti-fascist groups.
He admired poetry of the Yiddish poet Itzik Fifer and visited him while he was languishing in prison. At a concert in Russia, although Robeson was instructed not to sing any Yiddish nationalistic songs, he nonetheless in defiance sang the Yiddish Partisan song Zag nit keen mol. The concert was heard on radio by millions of listeners around the world.
After college in 1928 Robeson scored success in the London premiere of Show Boat, and was featured in the London productions of The Emperor Jones and All God’s Children Got Wings. He also starred in a British production of Othello. Between 1925 and 1961 he recorded some 26 songs of various ethnic settings.
He was a dedicated activist with strong support for social and political equality. He spoke out strongly to support the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. He saw the writing on the wall as Hitler sent armaments and planes to be used on the testing grounds as he supported the Fascist Franco. The rest of the world stood by and Germany soon proceeded in its rape of Europe leading to the Holocaust of 6 million Jewish lives.
Robeson’s activities in the Civil Rights Movement, support of Communism and sympathies with Russia cost him the malicious blacklisting by Republican U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin
Because of his pro-Russian sympathies and refusal to recant his public advocacy the U.S. State Department took away his U.S. passport.
He moved to Harlem (1960-65)and published a periodical called Freedom highlighting his views of the political system. In the 1960’s, he retired to his home in Philadelphia.
Paul Robson was a remarkably multi- talented man who left his mark in history as a scholar, actor, concert singer extraordinaire and activist for social justice. I salute his memory.
Republished from San Diego Jewish World
Cantor Sheldon Foster Merel is cantor emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego. He may be contacted via [email protected]