Paul Robeson, Yiddish and Opera Houses

by roadsideservice

My grandparents had a records of Paul Robeson singing at Carnegie Hall that I always loved. Here are some youtube videos I found.

Here he sings ‘The Warsaw Ghetto Rebellion’ in Yiddish, performed in Moscow in 1949. The context of Stalinist repression is central to the description of the publication of this on youtube. His son (quoted in the youtube description) says that lyrics translate roughly as:

Never say that you have reached the very end
When leaden skies a bitter future may portend;
For sure the hour for which we yearn will not arrive
Arid our marching steps will thunder: we survive.

In this video he sings ‘Vi azoy lebt der kayser? (How does the czar live, how does the tsar drink tea?)’ Lyrics are subtitled.

Here Robeson sings for workers at the Opera House site, as it was being built. I love the songs he sings – ‘Old Man River’ and ‘Joe Hill’. ‘Old Man River’ for the inversion of lyrics from the original and defeated Showboat tune (“Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’; / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An skeered of dyin’, / But Ol’ Man River, / He jes’ keeps rolling along!”) to the fighting lyrics of later years (“But I keeps laffin’/ Instead of cryin’ / I must keep fightin’; / Until I’m dyin’, / And Ol’ Man River, / He’ll just keep rollin’ along!”). And ‘Joe Hill’ because it is just such a great song and no one sings it quite like Robeson.

In any case, the picture of him singing on a worksite, in the dust of what is now an elite institution, always – somehow – slightly out of reach, is something special.