Paul Robeson – A Man For All Season

Bass Paul Robeson  

Songs of Free Men / A Paul Robeson Recital

While a student at San Francisco State University in the late 1970’s, I stumbled into an open air flea market. Ten feet from the chained entrance was stand with dusty old albums for sale, some clearly baked from the sun. While thumbing through one of the many boxes, I discovered one by Paul Robeson tilted “Songs of Free Men”, a collection of 10’ 38s with 5 two-sided vinyl recordings by Robeson with his pianist Lawrence Brown.

The legendary bass Paul Robeson excelled as an athlete, actor, singer, and activist, qualifying him as a contemporary renaissance man. His early accomplishments as a professional football player, Columbia law school graduate, and an actor on Broadway in the 1920s seemed but a prologue to even greater achievements to come. His 1958 autobiography is a worthy read. Robeson often sang American spirituals, a powerful musical expression of the human condition where bondage, ancient and more recent, intersects with a call for freedom.

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When I first picked up the collection, I thought it was a mirage or maybe a trick or a mislabeled album set. It was not – I stood there for several minutes reading in awe the liner notes of what was clearly a collector’s dream gift. For a voice student like me whose idol appeared on the cover, it was judgement day and I had “died and gone to heaven”.

The recordings in English were pressed in January and February of 1942 on the Columbia Masterworks label and released on February 8, 1943 with 25 songs rendered in Russian, Spanish, German and English. With details about all the songs, each is a Robeson salute to freedom everywhere experienced through humanity’s “sorrows, protests and hopes”

This collection is my most prized record set with the original folio casing, individual album sleeves with notes about the music along with quotes from Robeson. Wrapped in a plastic slip cover and only played once on a turntable shortly after I acquired it for $25 dollars, the set sits proudly in my study today.

Most importantly, a remastered CD of the original album can be purchased today with musical messages likely as applicable today as they were during WWII. This is an inspiring grouping of songs worth adding to your library.

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