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Reviews

Paul Robeson: The EMI Sessions 1928-1940
25 Mar 2009

Paul Robeson: The Complete EMI Sessions 1928-1939

Seven discs, of 170 tracks, amounting to over eight hours of music - this EMI set somehow manages to be both voluminous and narrow in its portrait of Paul Robeson.

Paul Robeson: The EMI Sessions 1928-1940

Paul Robeson

EMI Classics 2 15586 2 [7CDs]

$85.98   Click to buy

All recorded in the UK (mostly London), the selections cover musicals, gospel, and classical composers. Somehow, the totality of the listening experience conveys the sense of a talented vocalist trapped by the darker currents of American history in an artistic whirlpool, striving to present the best qualities of his voice but frequently swamped by racist expectations and a felt obligation to his people and their history.

The first of three versions of “Ol’ Man River” opens disc one, with Robeson’s voice coming in almost immediately. The tempo initially feels rushed, though that may well have been necessary to accommodate the 1928 recording process. The setting puts voices first (Robeson’s and those of the Drury Lane chorus), and Robeson projects the pathos of the song even within the oddly peppy arrangement. The 1931 version on disc two is even more discombobulating, with the almost cheerful band behind Robeson singing the version of the verse that employs the “n-word.” Startling at first, in context it makes sense, as the lyric goes on to plead “let me get away from the white man boss.” In fact, throughout the seven discs, the selections almost serve to offer a musical history of post-slavery African-American life, with the memory of the plantation fresh. Even the gospel songs focus on trials and tribulations, and the hope for a heavenly refuge. Somehow the innate dignity and security of Robeson’s vocals commands respect, even in titles such as “De li’l piccaninny’s gone to sleep.”

The third version of “Ol’ Man River” comes from the 1936 film soundtrack, where the recording strangely carries more surface noise than many of the earlier selections. In this lyric, “darkies” takes the place of the ostensibly more objectionable term, although the sheer frequency of “darkies” through these seven discs is disheartening, if not enraging. So it comes as a relief to hear Robeson take on great Duke Ellington songs such as “Solitude” and “Mood Indigo.” Even more interesting is to hear Robeson, who visited the Soviet Union, take on the “Song of the Volga Boatmen” and a Mussorgsky song translated as “After the Battle.” Disc seven is a surprising assortment of British songs and adaptations, including a setting of Blake’s “The little black boy” and Mendelssohn’s “Lord God of Abraham.” Robeson had apparently spent so much time in the UK by this point (1939) that his voice has accumulated some somewhat affected pronunciations, including rolled r’s.

It would have been out of order chronologically, but the end of disc five might have been a better way to leave this survey of Robeson’s 1930s’ career. Robeson offers an affecting, simple “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” and then reads the text of Langston Hughes’s “Minstrel man.” The side ends with a sentimental lament, “The Wanderer,” which captures in its essence the story of a great American artist who spent so much of the prime of his career outside the U.S.A.

EMI’s box set consists of the seven discs in individual slip cases (all with identical covers except the number of the disc) and a booklet containing detailed track information and a fairly brief but respectful note by Patrick O’Connor.

A disc or two of highlights from these years of recordings would do well for most anyone interested in this remarkable artist, but EMI earns thanks for making so much more available for anyone who wants the most complete portrait possible.

Chris Mullins

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