NYU Black Renaissance Noire Fall 2013 - Page 173

“From the other side of the ocean, from London, the cry of an oppressed people was brought here, the cry of an insulted and driven race. The cry of pain of a race through the mouth of an artist, through the musical lines of a performer. The cry was directed to the world, the appeal was made to all of mankind, but the first country that must listen should be—America”. 20 In London, as in Moscow or New York, Robeson did not only express African American or Jewish suffering, but also regularly added to his repertoire popular anthems or revolutionary hymns from many different countries, invariably singing the original version: in Russian, Yiddish, Spanish, Welsh, Finnish and Yoruba for example. In front of his different audiences, he described his feeling of empathy with the downtrodden and explained how Russian peasant songs, Welsh hymns and Irish ballads, amongst many others, expressed a melancholy which was at once different and close to that expressed by the Negro spirituals. This was probably partly the skillful artistry of a singer seeking to win over his audience. But it would also appear to have expressed Robeson’s conviction that the diversity of these traditions and musical expressions, which were capable of awakening the echo of shared emotions and aspirations, must be preserved. He also championed the vitality and authenticity of these traditions as against the intellectual and abstract nature of the dominant Western culture. BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE Robeson’s repertoire ranged from one form of music to another in an attempt to find a common language which might reunite the vast community of oppressed peoples. “The Jewish sigh and tear are close to me. I understand them,” 19 he explained in an interview he gave to the Yiddish newspaper Morgen Journal-Tageblatt, adding that one day he would perform a Jewish opera. This feeling of intimacy, which he expressed on numerous occasions, was shared by the Jewish press who regularly praised his sensitivity and talent. Thus, in 1930, after a series of concerts in London, the very influential and popular Jewish Daily Forward devoted a long editorial to Robeson, including the following lines: 171 During his first trip in 1934, Paul Robeson had become friends with the film maker Herbert Marshall who had worked as Eisenstein’s assistant. It was through Marshall that Robeson subsequently came into contact with the directors of the London Unity Theatre, an avant-garde working class theatre, founded in 1937, which put on politically committed plays employing agitprop techniques. Robeson appeared in the theatre, notably in 1938 in Plant in the Sun, a play written by Ben Bengal about joint black and white trade union struggles in the United States. According to Jonathan Karp, it was in this group of left-wing actors, made up for the most part of Jews whose parents had moved to England from Eastern Europe, that Robeson became familiar with Ashkenazi culture. This was where he learnt popular songs, political hymns and liturgical songs. 18 His performance in Moscow, in 1949, was by no means the first time he had sung in Yiddish. In 1938 Robeson included a Hassidic song inspired by the Kaddish (a Jewish mourning prayer) in his performances at the Unity Theater. The song in question has been attributed to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1810) and Robeson included it in several later concerts presenting it as a sort of Jewish parallel to the Negro spirituals. BRN-FALL-2013.indb 171 9/13/13 12:48 AM