A tribute to Paul Robeson
The concert venue was the Queen’s Hall (The Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe) on 7th February 2008.
I had known of Robeson’s singing career, but only recently begun to learn of his role as a civil rights campaigner, which meant just as much to him. To have his life celebrated by no less a persona than Sir Willard White, and a stone’s throw away, was an unmissable opportunity. Tickets were booked easily over the phone, at £10 each.
It was a memorable concert. Sir White shared the stage with Neal Thornton (piano, narrator) and Richard Bolton (guitar, cello). Mr Bolton is also a member of staff at the RGS, and got loyal whoops and whistles from his pupils when this fact was mentioned.
A dramatic entrance by White with Witness (Trad. Spiritual) began the evening. A narration of key moments in Robeson’s life was interspersed with quotes from Robeson and songs that he made his own in the course of his long, chequered, troubled life). My favourites of the evening were Deep River, All God’s Children Got A Robe, (Trad. Spiritual), Song of the Volga Boatman (Trad. Russian), Down by the Riverside (Trad.), Trees (Rasbach), I Got Plenty of Nothin’ (Gershwin/Hayward), All Through the Night (Trad. Welsh), and of course, the show-stopping Ol’ Man River (Kern).
White’s sense of humour sparkled through the evening and his stage presence was formidable.
It would have helped if there wasn’t such a steady flow of traffic (latecomers, bustling school officials) during the narrative. The odd mobile phone and sweet wrapper were additional distractions.