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Paul Robeson’s Song of Freedom

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

This week’s Free Ride* muses on the voice of Paul Robeson, one of the most remarkable and least recognized figures of the 20th century, who would have turned 113 today. When you think about the word “integration,” you might conjure up images of Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson. What is largely left out of the history books is the wide trail Paul Robeson blazed for these and others in so many areas of life, working for freedom and dignity across a wide range of issues. Integration was more than a cause or a movement for Robeson; he personally integrated his commitment to freedom into many aspects of life and work, from faith to career to politics to entertainment. He was an incredibly gifted athlete, playing college and professional football in the 1920s and 30s, and he used that experience to lobby tirelessly for the race barrier to be broken in Major League baseball. He also had a keen legal mind and was one of the first African Americans to graduate from Columbia Law School, later breaking the color barrier in a prestigious New York firm. As the son of an ex-slave, he deeply identified with the plight of working people everywhere, and traveled extensively to help organize trade unions for miners and other workers around the world.

For all of that humanitarian effort, he was rewarded by Senator Joe McCarthy with accusations of being a godless communist, and was hounded for years by enemies on the radical right, who finally succeeded in having his passport taken away, greatly damaging his career. Responding to his being blacklisted and having 86 concerts canceled, he said, Well, they can have their concerts! I’ll go back to their cities to sing for the people whom I love, for the Negro and white workers whose freedom will ensure my freedom. I’ll help, together with many other progressive artists, whenever I can get the time from freedom’s struggle, to show how culture can be brought back to the people. We created it in the first place, and it’s about time it came back to us! The smear campaign effectively erased him from the history books, and he is just now beginning to receive some of the recognition he deserved then. For people who do know the name, many simply associate him with his booming bass voice ringing out Ol’ Man River from the musical Showboat, or for some of the spirituals that he introduced to major concert halls. It is ironic that the McCarthy committee labeled Robeson as “godless,” when he was widely known for voicing the definitive treatment of the old gospel spirituals. He had a deep faith in the God he sang of, so the very idea that he was a “godless communist” was laughable to those who knew him and who appreciated the genuine faith communicated in his songs. The problem, for the accusers on the right, was that his faith compelled him to work for the poor, to speak out for the oppressed workers, to criticize our country’s mistreatment of people on the margins. So when he sang, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, there were two levels of meaning in the song – spiritual angst and social critique:

Sometimes I feel like freedom is near
Sometimes I feel like freedom is near
Sometimes I feel like freedom is near
But it’s so far aways, it’s so far awaaays

Paul Robeson also integrated the commitment to freedom into his work on the stage and screen; there was a deep sense of connection between the art form and the political work that defined his life. Perhaps the best example of this was the 1936 film, Song of Freedom, in which he played a British dockworker who got “discovered” for his amazing singing voice and was taken into the world of opera. His character then found that he had royal African lineage, and traveled back to his motherland to reclaim his heritage. So many things came together in that film – the plight of workers and labor issues, the challenges facing African countries in the modern world, and the global struggle for freedom. The recurring line from the title song speaks to his lifelong work:

Lead thy people to freedom, lead thy people to freedom

Our world needs some Paul Robesons today, leaders who have the capacity to integrate so many things – faith, vocation, advocacy, politics, the arts – into a life well-lived and  a voice for freedom. A quote from Robeson following his blacklisting sounds like he could be speaking to us today: Today the fight is still on for peace and freedom. Concerts must wait. There is a fierce political struggle which must be won.


*Free Ride is a Saturday blog from Stan Dotson that takes a different artist or song each week and muses on lyrics of freedom. You can click on the live links in the post to hear the music referenced in the blog. If you have a favorite “freedom” song (it could be any song that has the word free or freedom in it), feel free to suggest it in the comment box below. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.



  • April 10, 2011 at 5:29 am

    Thank you for expanding my knowledge on people I had thought of in only one dimension. I will have a new appreciation for Robeson’s lyrics now that I know the “heart” behind the songs he sang.

    Comment by Betty Jo

  • August 12, 2011 at 5:28 am

    Thanks for writing and sharing this, Stan. There are several aspects of his story in here that I wasn’t aware of. What a powerful, mindful and heartful figure in our history!

    Comment by Daniel Barber

  • February 25, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    With your insights to Robeson, I’m wondering if you have a copy of his lyrics to Smetana’s “Song of Liberty” (aka “Song of Freedom”), performed in both Czech and English? I’d like to share it with my students.

    Comment by Jim Chlebak

  • March 2, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Jim, I have not been able to find those lyrics. There is a good YouTube of it, so you could transcribe the lyrics, if you know Czech.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

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