Robeson: An American Ballad by Arnold H Lubasch

‘Tallest tree in our forest’

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

robeson an american balladIt is clear from very early on that this biography is written by someone who admires Robeson wholeheartedly, both as an artist and as a person. And there is a great deal to admire. A man who stood up against and often overcame the overwhelming prejudice of his time, first in education, then in sport and finally going on to become a huge star both as a singer and an actor. It is perhaps hardly surprising that a man who had to struggle so hard to be accepted in his own country would use his fame to take a political stance. And no more surprising, perhaps, that that stance would eventually all but destroy him.

robeson footballThere is a huge amount of detail in this book. Lubasch tells us about Robeson’s early life and education, and his years as a college footballer when because of his great skill he was able to gradually push back the boundaries that prevented black men from full participation in the sport. His career as singer and actor is covered extensively with Lubasch telling us where he performed and usually which songs he sang and the size of the audience. This did become a bit repetitive but it was interesting to see how his choice of repertoire changed over the years as his political convictions grew. Lubasch also covers Robeson’s marriage in some depth, as well as his important friendships and relationships.

Playing Othello opposite Uta Hagen
Playing Othello opposite Uta Hagen

The second half of the book still tells us what he was doing as an artist at each stage but Lubasch gradually expands on Robeson’s admiration for the Soviet regime and the conflicts that this caused with the US government. Lubasch explains convincingly that Robeson’s support for the USSR arose out of the fact that it was the one place in the world where he felt that his colour was not used as a bar. He shows Robeson as one of the earliest of the equal rights campaigners, a forerunner of Martin Luther King Jr, demanding stronger laws against lynching and refusing to perform in any venue which segregated the audience, sometimes putting his personal safety at risk in order to speak or perform.

Robeson the activist
Robeson the activist

However, Lubasch’s warm admiration of Robeson leads him to step very gently around the less savoury aspects of his life – his serial adultery, his rather detached relationship with his son during his early life, his continued support for the USSR even when some of its excesses were becoming known. I felt this was a lack in the book – Lubasch’s hesitation to robustly criticise made this account of him feel a bit lightweight and less convincing than it otherwise would. Occasionally, the tone of praise for Robeson is almost sycophantic, perhaps more so to my cynical British ears than it would be to American ones. Overall, though, I found the book very readable and informative; and greatly enhanced by the many photographs and lyrics that are liberally included. I was left with an inspiring picture of Robeson as a man of courage, dignity and integrity. Recommended.

Robeson before the House Un-American Activities Committee
Robeson before the House Un-American Activities Committee

While reading the book, I immersed myself in that glorious voice by listening to the many recordings of Robeson available on youtube – pretty much every song Lubasch mentions is available there, including of course Robeson’s signature tune Ol’ Man River.

And as follow-up I watched The Proud Valley – the film Robeson was most proud to have been involved in.

Starring in The Proud Valley
Starring in The Proud Valley

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

4 thoughts on “Robeson: An American Ballad by Arnold H Lubasch

    • Thanks for commenting, Monika! I love his voice too and spent a happy week steeped in it while reading this – and have been listening again today while posting this review. A hugely talented and inspirational man 🙂

  1. As a farmer’s daughter from Illinois, and a fan of the Mississippi (is it possible to be a fan of a river?), I cannot hear Robeson’s name without hearing him sing Ol’ Man River. It was part of my childhood. Thanks for the lovely review.

    • All those riverboats and sharp-suited gamblers in the old films – though I’ve never seen the Mississippi I’m a bit of a fan myself. Fell in love with Robeson and the song as a very young child and hoped I’d grow up to sing just like him – I didn’t, which since I’m female seems quite fortunate in retrospect 😉

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