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September 4, 2009

Remembering troubled legacy of Paul Robeson, 60 years after Peekskill Riots

On Sept. 4, 1949, a crowd of 20,000 turned out to hear Paul Robeson sing near Peekskill, NY, just a week after a mob had brutally attacked people arriving for a concert the great African American bass was scheduled to perform.

The earlier incident, on Aug. 27, involved demonstrators wielding billy clubs and throwing rocks, injuring would-be concert-goers and damaging cars. Police did little to interfere. Robeson’s intense sympathy for the Soviet Union at a time when the Red Scare was raging, made him a target of hate.

For the rescheduled performance, Robeson supporters put together their own security force and the concert went on, but, afterward, there was more trouble, as demonstrators attacked the departing audience. More than 100 people were hurt.

Now, 60 years after what became known as the Peekskill Riots, it should be possible to have some perspective on Robeson and the ugly opposition to him. But, as Peter Applebome’s fine column in Thursday’s New York Times points out, there is still anger and hate out there. It surfaced when plans were announced for a concert on Friday that will celebrate the life and legacy of Robeson in the very region where the riots took place.

Applebome quotes from emails: “Has anyone noticed that these minorities who hate this country are now running it?” posted one reader on an online message board linked to a story about the concert. “Obama should come to this. One commie to honor another,” posted a second.

There won’t likely be any riots at Friday's concert, probably not even any demonstrators. But it does give one pause to know that some folks still can’t take a longer view of history and of the individuals caught up in it. Surely it's possible today to look soberly at Robeson's embrace of the Soviet system, to appreciate the world he lived in, the battles he had to fight for dignity in his own country. We can still disagree with the choices he made, and disagree strongly, without condemning the soul of such a gifted artist.

Sometimes I wonder if we’re about to plunge right back into all-out McCarthyism, so wild and incendiary are the accusations that fly about every day in what passes for political discourse today. The anniversary of the Peekskill Riots should be a sobering reminder of what happens when people stop thinking, stop behaving with civility, stop listening.

Speaking of listening, here's the splendid voice of Paul Robeson, singing some of my favorite American and English songs:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:05 AM | | Comments (10)


Terrific use of blog by music critic to both inform about the still-existing racism surrounding the legacy of Robeson and the opportunity to listen to his great voice.

Yes, Robeson bet on the wrong horse by visiting and exalting a totalitarian government that would silence many of its artists, but he was still a great American in many ways.

Thanks for the comments. TIM

I am sure that you would be just as broad minded and forgiving about any (white) artist that embraced the other end of the political scale, would you not, Mr. Smith? I am sure that you would write a similarly condescending critique, for instance, of all the 'hateful' critics of the likes of, say, Leni Riefenstahl....

Maybe you're not allowed to mentioned commercial products, but within the last year or so EMI issued a splendid 7-cd set of Robeson's recordings for EMI (1928-1939) that any lover of great singing should investigate. They allow one to enjoy his art as a singer without the heavy overlay of politics that (IMO) somewhat marred his Vanguard recordings. I think you should also have mentioned he was a renowned actor, making several films and starring on Broadway in a production of Othello (with the legendary Uta Hagen as his Desdemona) of which at least an audio recording exists.

As to his politics ... the less said the better, IMO. But I think it comes through very clearly in his recordings that he was a man of extraordinary sensitivity and deep humanity.

I'm glad you brought up Robeson.

Thanks for writing, and for the welcome reminder about Robeson's distinguished acting career. There are certainly many facets to this man.TIM

Although I don't usually comment here I do enjoy reading as an escape into a subject that I love that is less heated and political than the InsideEd blog where I usually comment. The current furor over all things racial and political on that blog drove me here, but it seems nowhere is safe.

If I'm optimistic I think this is the beginning of the discussion of race and history and reconciliation that our country needs. Sadly the level of discourse does not make me optimistic.

Paul Robeson was a compassionate, gifted and intelligent man at a time where his options were limited to an extent that I think we can barely imagine. Thanks for the You Tube links. Maybe by listening to him sing I can shut out the noise of the screaming closed minds that make me despair.

Thanks for commenting. I'd like to think we will be able to discuss difficult things sanely in this society someday soon. I'm always grateful for great music and musicians, and the reassurance the provide that humankind really does have a nobler side.TIM

Dear Tim Smith,

As is commonly seen in many newspapers in the US, you demonstrate very little knowledge and historical perspective in regards to Paul Robeson. Unlike many white artists like Pete Seeger, who had exact views as Robeson, Seeger's white privilege allows him to escape retrospective vilification. You act as if Robeson was the ONLY artist who was an advocate of Socialism for emerging former colonialist countries and Eastern Europe. And you woefully forget that Robeson's RACE and his fighting, as a Civil Rights maverick against lynching, the KKK, colonialism, union busting as well as his beliefs in Socialism was why he was persecuted by the US, NOT just his friendship with the Soviet peoples. So speak for yourself when you say "We can still disagree with the choices he made, and disagree strongly..."

Not many of Robeson's fans disagree when we say that he made the right choices given the times he came up in. Seeing as the US has NEVER rounded up Neo-Nazis or KKK members in the same fashion as McCarthy witch hunted anyone he wanted who he thought was "red" but anyone who dare work for social programs is still, to this day, Ultimately the enemy today is definitly not Communism (how many products are 'made in China'?) , it's organized religion and capitalism unchecked and unregulated, bailed out continually that is driving the world downward.

Please read more about Robeson before you write another article.


Amanda Casabianca
The Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee

You can drop the attitude. It doesn't do much for your cause. If you had read my post carefully, you would have noticed the link to the Times story, a story that delved into the importance of Robeson as an early civil rights leader, and that also pointed out the artist's debatable support for Stalin. I thought that writer did a great job covering those issues, so it seemed better to let blog-readers go directly to that. My main concern, given the historic anniversary, was to remind people what happened in Peekskill when a great singer wanted to sing. That's why I included several clips of Robeson the vocalist, not the activist. In your rush to condemn a great admirer of Robeson who didn't live up to your expectations of how to express that admiration, you may not have noticed that this is a classical music blog. Cheers. TS

Dear Tim,

There is no attitude to drop and the cause is being true to Robeson's history not any embrace or dislike of a "cause". Also, I'm responding to your words not those of the New York Times, a perennially anti-Robeson paper, especially during the 50's and 60's.
I hold you, an obvious expert in classical music, to much higher standards.
The USSR (once our 'friend' as you know) connection with Robeson is continually and garishly blown out of proportion by the mainstream and right wing media to take the truth away from the fact that his anti-colonialist work and vocal challenge to President Truman on lynchings was a far greater "threat to internal security" as FBI and CIA files show. Case in point, the majority of Americans who are well educated enough to know about Paul Robeson, still think "he was Communist Party member" , yet he has never, to this day EVER been identified officially (or unofficially) as such . I saw only direct references to the USSR and nothing to his other work ( eg:civil rights, Hollywood stereotype fighting, never playing segregated concert halls, popularizing Negro spirituals, etc etc) referenced here which is why I brought it up. I would not want someone, especially a younger person, to glance at this article and think Robeson was only hounded and persecuted for his friendship with the Soviet Union when it is arguably only a small portion of his illustrious and unparalleled life and history.

Amanda Casabianca
The Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee

I'm probably showing my ignorance yet again, but I have not heard that upstate New York was a major KKK breeding ground, or that the people protesting the 1949 concert were primarily targeting Robeson because of his commitment to civil rights. I was under the impression that this specific incident, which was all I was attempting to remind readers of on the 60th anniversay, came about largely because of the Red scare. And I was struck by the similarity to the charges of "commie" and the like being thrown today at a black president. I truly do know that there is a much broader picture to Robeson, and to his era. If I had been writing on, say, the anniversary of Robeson's birth or death, I'd certainly try, in my paltry way, to address the important issues you raise so expertly and eloquently. TS

Tim, thanks for the historic reminder and the great music.

The Civil rights movement , MLK and even the struggle for a National health system which Truman attempted, were and still are considered by many Americans to be Communist affiliated aka RED. Anti Communism scared the hell out of millions and as Reuters pointed out today it still reverberates in the public option health care debate and people worried about becoming "like Russia". It would be easier if Paul Robeson's legacy COULD be apolitcal but he would not have wanted it that way.

In musical news , you may be familiar with Sir Willard White who is considered the foremost interpretative basso profundo re Robeson's song catalog. His tribute in song to PR is NOT to be missed!

Amanda Casabianca
The Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee

Sir Willard White is a bass-baritone, not a basso-profundo, as the biography on his management's site (IMG Artists) makes clear. He sings a repertoire that Robeson, who was a profundo could not have imagined, including Wotan in Wagner's Ring, Golaud in Pelleas and Melisande, and the four villians in Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. That said, his tribute to Paul Robeson CD is superb, and if I read correctly, he has developed a new recital program devoted to more music associated with Robeson.

Hi Mike,

You are correct I had it wrong. With his baritone, Sir Willard White out does Robeson's opera repertoire, the latter never wanting to pursue Opera seriously. But had Robeson studied opera I think he could have gone to the zenith as many experts and vocal coaches would agree.

Thanks again to Tim Smith for allowing a debate about Robeson and for writing the best piece on The Peeksill Riots 60th anniversary.

Amanda Casabianca
The Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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