top of page
  • Writer's picturewoventogetherdundee

Paul Robeson in Dundee

Updated: Jul 29, 2023


Paul Robeson (Wikimedia Commons)


In the 1930s, the singer and activist Paul Robeson was probably the most famous person of colour in the western world. Born in New Jersey, USA in 1898, Robeson won a scholarship to attend Rutgers College, becoming only the third African American to study there. He excelled in both his studies and the college football team. He went on to graduate from Columbia Law School while also playing in the National Football League.


Robeson gave up his law career after experiencing repeated instances of racial prejudice. By that time, he was already acting and singing on stage and from the mid-1920s this became his full-time career. He was widely praised for his starring role in a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones, and his performances of spirituals on stage, radio and gramophone records (often accompanied by Lawrence Brown on the piano) became hugely popular.


Robeson had first come to Britain in 1922 and in 1928 became one of the stars of the London production of the musical Show Boat. He lived in London for the next four years and it was during this period that he first performed in Dundee, appearing at the Caird Hall on 4 March 1930 as the final attraction of a series of International Celebrity concerts. According to the Courier, the hall “was packed to the doors… Robeson’s magnetic personality seemed to captivate the audience even more than his singing, and he was rapturously encored at the end of every section of his programme.” Accompanied by Lawrence Brown, Robeson sang a series of “haunting negro melodies… with no suggestion of theatricality… He sang his perfect restraint and simplicity… Perhaps the most striking feature of this performance was its sincerity. Other singers there are, with voices more beautiful than Robeson’s, who do not touch such responsive chords in the hearts of an audience.”


Robeson’s success guaranteed a return visit, and he performed again with Lawrence Brown on 29 January 1934. This time extra seats had to be added to meet the demand, with some 2000-3000 people in attendance. Again the Courier raved: “From the moment Paul Robeson appeared on the platform he captivated his audience. His intensely shy but winning smile sets up at once a bond of sympathy between platform and auditorium. No one who hears him sing can fail to realise that he is an artist of great culture and fine discrimination.” This time the Courier also recognised Robeson’s wider appeal as an activist for African Americans: “His sincerity, his deep-rooted interest in his race and sympathy with their sufferings, the essential manliness and spiritual quality of his emotions have established for him a secure place in the affections of the public.”


Robeson returned again to Dundee in March 1935, and this time the Courier managed to get an interview with him in the Bruce Hotel, Carnoustie. The reporter began by describing him as an “intellectual and physical giant, who is the uncrowned king of his race”. Discussing his interest in folk music, Robeson dismissed the minstrel songs familiar to most white audiences (“songs written in the negro manner, in most cases written by white composers”) and instead focused on “true negro folk-songs” which he saw as “close to other kinds of folk-music, expressing the same emotions and feelings experienced by other races. Curiously, Hebridean folk-music is not strange to me… I get very Hebridean record I can find, and in them I hear echoes of something that has been in my own life.”


By the late-1930s, Robeson had become increasingly politically active, visiting the Soviet Union, travelling to Spain to support the Republican cause in the Civil War, and becoming more vocal about civil rights and African independence. His agent was concerned about the effect this would have on his popular success, but Robeson stated: “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”


On 16 January 1939, Robeson and Brown once again performed to a packed house at the Caird Hall. “The audience was as enthusiastic as it was large, and Robeson’s big smile and homely ways immediately set up a fine friendly link between the platform and the auditorium.” Multiple encores included a surprise rendition of Loch Lomond (the Courier’s reviewer praised his successful pronunciation of ‘loch’!) and the programme went on so long that a special arrangement was made to hold the last Tay Ferry until the end of the concert. The Evening Telegraph also reviewed the performance, claiming “the volume of applause swelled louder and louder as he sang song after song. Robeson was obviously moved by the reception, the like of which, he said, he had not received for many a long day.”


After a long gap, Robeson performed twice more in Dundee, in 1958 and 1960. By that time, he had spent many years blacklisted in the USA for his communist sympathies and had his passport revoked. It was finally restored in 1958 and Dundee was one of the stops for his comeback tours. In 1961 his physical and mental health began to deteriorate and he spent the rest of his life in seclusion. He died in 1976.


Sources:

Dundee Courier 3/3/1930, 5/3/1930, 30/1/1834, 27/3/1935, 16/1/1939, 24/3/1960

Evening Telegraph 16/1/1939

https://en.wikipedia.org/Paul_Robeson


73 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page