Monday, 28 February 2011

Expect The Unexpected: Ol Man River Silences The Passengers....Temporarily

"To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect," said Oscar Wilde.

Well damn and blast Oscar Wilde. He's exposed my inadequacies by saying that. There was absolutely nothing to suggest that an evening of Paul Robeson songs that my wife dragged me along to on Friday night would be anything other than two hours of purgatory.

Two hours of Ol' Man River, a song or two from Showboat could not think of any other songs he might have sung. It was going to be desperate.

How wrong could I be. It was amazing. 90 minutes flew by and I freely admit that I was on the edge of my seat for the whole performance. It took the form of a monologue about Paul Robeson's life, interspersed with his songs. What a man Paul Robeson was. Singing was a small part of his life. He graduated from Columbia University Law School with a top degree, became a lawyer, a nationally renowned football player, an actor, taking the lead in Song Of Freedom and The Emperor Jones, Shakespearian actor - his Othello was the longest running Shakespeare play on Broadway, spoke fifteen languages and felt that the famous had a responsibility to fight for social justice and peace.

By choosing to be a political activist he fell foul of Senator Joe McCarthy and was blacklisted, had his passport revoked and was close to becoming a non-person. He was under surveillance by the FBI and the CIA and his beliefs were publicly condemned. He visited and became attached to the Soviet Union. Likewise he often went to Wales, to the Rhonda Valley.

"I learnt my militancy and my politics from your Labour movement here in Britain...." he said.

Paul Robeson was far from perfect and was considered a thorn in the side by many. But he was a man way ahead of his time. A forerunner of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. His songs I find myself humming whilst driving. Swing low sweet chariot, Joshua fit the battle of Jericho temporarily silence the passengers.

"Ol' man river. Dat ol' man river," I start singing, "he mus'know sumpin. But don't say nuffin'. He jes keeps rollin'. He keeps......"

" Oh do shut up, driver," a voice pipes up from the back, snaffling out all singing.

So is this going to be a bad week. I think not. Expect the unexpected.

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