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Paul Robeson: “Ol’ Man River” and “Vi Azoy Lebt der Kayser?”

Here is the beginning of Encyclopedia.com’s profile of the multi-talented Paul Robeson, one of the most important figures — musical and otherwise — of the twentieth century:

Paul Robeson—singer, actor, civil rights activist, law school graduate, athlete, scholar, author— was perhaps the best known and most widely respected black American of the 1930s and 1940s. Robeson was also a staunch supporter of the Soviet Union, and a man, later in his life, widely vilified and censored for his frankness and unyielding views on issues to which public opinion ran contrary. As a young man, Robeson was virile, charismatic, eloquent, and powerful. He learned to speak more than 20 languages in order to break down the barriers of race and ignorance throughout the world, and yet, as Sterling Stuckey pointed out in the New York Times Book Review, for the last 25 years of his life his was “a great whisper and a greater silence in black America.”Born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1898, Robeson was spared most of the daily brutalities suffered by African Americans around the turn of the century. But his family was not totally free from hardship. Robeson’s mother died from a stove-fire accident when he was six. His father, a runaway slave who became a pastor, was removed from an early ministerial position. Nonetheless, from his father Robeson learned diligence and an “unshakable dignity and courage in spite of the press of racism and poverty.” These characteristics, Stuckey noted, defined Robeson’s approach in his beliefs and actions throughout his life. (Continue Reading…)

The above video of of Robeson singing Ol’ Man River in Showboat — which was written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II — is the best known clip of Robeson.  Below, Robeson sings Vi Azoy Lebt der Kayser? (How Does the Czar Drink Tea?). The song, sung in Yiddish, satirizes Czarist Russia.

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