GRAHAM HUGHES, Molineux historian, has come up trumps once again with a unique bit of the town's history. Regular readers will know that Graham is constantly unearthing rare items, and one of his latest is a programme sold during the visit of one of the biggest names of stage and screen to Wolverhampton's Civic Hall — Paul Robeson.
Robeson is perhaps best known for his show-stopping rendition of Ol' Man River in the 1936 version of the film Show Boat. Ironically, this most American of films, in which Robeson played the part of Joe the stevedore, was directed by a man from Dudley; James Whale of Frankenstein fame.
But it was thirteen years later, on Suday 27th February 1949, when Paul Robeson found himself on his old director's patch, as part of an 18 date tour. Always popular in Europe, and particularly in England, where he had previously lived for some years during lengthy spells on the West End stage, the singer found himself ostracized in his native America during the McCarthy era; when government concerns over the rise of the Soviet Union turned into panic, and anyone showing the vaguest of support for workers' rights was in danger of being 'outed' as a communist.
The son of an escaped slave, Robeson was always eager to speak out not just on behalf of the oppressed black population of the US, but for workers generally, and had even spent time in Moscow.
Unsurprisingly for the times, he found himself blacklisted in his homeland; his shows were cancelled at the insistience of the FBI, and his recordings were banned from radio and record shops. His films, Show Boat included, weren't even shown for some years. Whether he considered himself a communist is unclear, but he certainly leaned much too far to the left for the McCarthy-era US, and his supposed anti-American stance destroyed his career at home.
So Robeson returned to Europe, his only available audience, but was only granted his passport on condition that he refrained from making any comments deemed unacceptable to the US. But the tour which brought him to Wolverhampton must have been one of the last before a long, enforced absence from the stage. In 1950, following a speech in Paris in which he apparently called the US a fascist state (there was doubt over the actual words he used) his passport was revoked by the US government, to prevent him from expressing further views to an international audience. It was the best part of a decade before he was allowed leave the country again.
Though we had our worries too in the Cold War years, things didn't reach 'Reds under the Bed' proportions over here, and Paul Robeson was welcomed to the British stage in 1949. In fact the artist profile in the programme heaps praise upon him, not just for his singing and acting, but for his many other talents, including listing some of the awards he had earned for his work towards racial equality.
Paul Robeson is described as a Giant of Song, as well as a giant of a man; he stood just short of six foot four and weighed two hundred pounds. Born in New Jersey, he shone at school as both an intellectual and an athlete. He won honours for both at college, and went on to Columbia University to study law.
It was only while at Columbia in the early nineteentwenties that the young Robeson, swatting up on law and coaching an American Football team, was drawn towards the stage. Having been spotted performing a brief part in a production staged by the local YMCA, he was persuaded to take on the role of Brutus Jones in in Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones. The part as written required Brutus to whistle while lost in the jungle; but with Robeson's whistling being unfit for purpose, it was suggested he sang a spiritual instead. Almost overnight, he found himself acclaimed as both a singer and an actor off the back of that one performance.
Two years later in 1925, Paul Robeson made his first appearance as a concert singer at Greenwich Village in New York ...
"The emotional splendour of his magnificent bass-baritone held the throng spellbound," the Wolverhampton programme enthuses. "For his next concert, a long queue waited in a snowstorm, only to find the house sold out.
Soon after, he went abroad, and sensational reports of his successes came form London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Moscow and Leningrad.
Meanwhile in London, Robeson was approached about playing the role Othello.
He accepted, and in May 1930, the production opened with Robeson in the role of Othello, Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona, Dame Sybil Thorndike as Emilia, Maurice Brown as Iago, and Ralph Richardson as Roderigo."
So bright was his star in Europe that Robeson didn't return permanently to the States until 1939, when war broke out. In 1943, he reprised his role as Othello for a New York audience. The producer was Margaret Webster who had been in the audience for the first night of the original London production, and the play ran for a full season, followed by a second full season on the road.
Robeson toured as Othello for two years, with not a single empty seat in any of the venues.
With the tour finally over, he returned to Europe just after the war with his pianist Lawrence Brown, playing to huge crowds of American GIs stationed across France and Germany.
But there was far more to him than that all-powerful voice, as the programme continued enthusiastically: "The Robeson character is a many-faceted one. There is Robeson the actor, Robeson the thunder-throated bass, Robeson the athlete, Robeson the thinker. He speaks Russian, French, Italian, German, Spanish, and reads more than twenty other languages including Gaelic and Chinese.
Wife "Mrs Paul Robeson is an author and lecturer on her own. A graduate of Columbia, she has written a book, 'African Journey', an account of a trip she took in 1939 with Paul Junr., then eight years old. Paul, now twenty, is as distinguished an athlete as was his father.
"Robeson's present tour of the British Isles after an absence of ten years will be welcomed by those who reember the films in which he appeared, such as Proud Valley, Big Feller, Song of Freedom, Saunders of the River, and the unforgettable Showboat, in which he immortalized the song which seems to exemplifiy so beautifully the music of his race — Ol' Man River."
The show at the Civic that afternoon kicked off at 3pm, with an old English song called Over the Mountain. In the first half Robeson sang classical French songs, excerpts from Mozart's Magic Flute, and pieces by Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Mussorgsky.
After the interval, he concluded with a selection of 'Negro Folk Songs'; the penultimate song being Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, which, famously, has been adopted by English rugby fans in recent years.
Crowds The British tour took in huge audiences at some of the country's finest venues, including two nights at the Royal Albert Hall. It's unlikely many of those in attendance had much idea of the contrast between the rapturous welcome Robeson received here and the complete eradication of his career in his homeland. Even Robeson himself probably didn't foresee the virtual house arrest he would be placed under the following year, when his passport was taken from him.
Despite Britain’s MI5 having their own concerns about Robeson's Russian links, a movement sprang up in this country to bring attention to his plight. The National Paul Robeson Committee, signed up to by artists, trade unions and even some politicians, campaigned for the return of his passport and his career, with a similar group forming in the US. UK supporters included composer Benjamin Britten, author Kingsley Amis and poet John Betjeman.
In 1957, still unable to leave the States, Paul Robeson thanked his British supporters by singing to audiences in London and Wales via a telephone link. It wasn't until 1958, with the anti-communist hysteria beginning to fade at least a little bit, that the Supreme Court returned his passport and he came straight to London, singing to millions via television and radio. A year later he became the first non-white person to sing from the pulpit at St Paul's Cathedral, and played Othello for several months at the home of Shakespeare, Stratford-on-Avon. His last performance in Britain was with a Welsh Choir, at the Royal Festival Hall, in 1960.
Robeson was now in his early sixties, and though he did perform for audiences in Australia and New Zealand, his health, physical and mental, deteriorated, and by the time he returned to the US in 1963, his career was over. He lived a secluded life with his son and later his sister, only occasionally speaking out on the issues which had always driven him, until his death in 1976.
But times, and attitudes had changed. New York's Carnegie Hall hosted a tribute to Paul Robeson's life and career, and his films finally began to reappear on television.
A documentary about him won an Oscar in 1980, he received a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and English Heritage placed a blue plaque on his former home in Hampstead.
And, in a tribute that he could never have foreseen back in 1950, Paul Robeson was featured on a US postage stamp in 2003.