Today, with black American artists not just visible but at the very top of the commercial tree, it is sometimes difficult to see the true significance of Paul Robeson. His art seems a strangely anachronistic form of concert hall bass singing together with recitations from some of the stage's greatest works. It all seems very much removed from what is generally considered as black American culture, yet Robeson's prominence as both an artist and a political activist make him one of the most important figures in the 20th Century Civil Rights movement. This album, recorded at the Carnegie Hall in 1958, marked a comeback for Robeson after a decade of persecution within his own country as a consequence of his out-spoken political views.
In 1946 he was dragged in front of the California Legislative Committee on Un-American Activities. Then comments he made in Europe while on tour in 1949 tour led to a riot by veterans' organisation at a concert of his in Peekshill New York. The movement against him reached a climax when, in 1950, he was banned from travelling abroad by the US Government, who withdrew his passport. He found the media closed to him, and even those who he might have expected to support him, such as the NAACP, fiercely criticised him. Undaunted, he carried on campaigning, with support from left wing organisations and some of the more radical black organisations such as the National Negro Labor Council, and the Civil Rights Congress.
By 1958, the Cold War witch-hunts had been toned down and Robeson started to gain back lost territory. He published his autobiography, Here I Stand; his passport was returned and, for the first time in a decade, he gave a New York concert performance. Perhaps it was because he had turned 60 a month before, but when he took to the stage on 9 May 1958, with the tapes rolling for a "live" recording of the event made by Vanguard Records, he gave a perfect run-through of the work that had defined much of his career. So there is the recitation from Othello, the spirituals and the classical pieces and, of course, the political songs. Most notable of these is 'The Ballad Of Joe Hill', the near-legendary figure of early 20th century American Union organisation, who was executed after being fitted up by the "bosses", and whose final words to his brothers was not to feel sorry for him, but rather to get their revenge by organising themselves. The concert's message could not have been clearer, epitomised by the last song 'All Men Are Brothers'.
For the next five years Robeson toured the world but, by the time he returned to the USA, time and the nomadic life that he had led were beginning to take its toll. His wife of over 40 years Essie died in 1965, and for the next ten years he lived in seclusion at his sister's house in Philadelphia, where he died in January 1976. He is now recognised as one of the most important performers of his time, a campaigner for social and racial justice, who was willing to sacrifice his career for his beliefs.