‘And You Know Who I Am’: Paul Robeson in Concert stages the musical innovations of Paul Robeson, famed international star of stage and screen, from his earliest concertized spirituals through his folk songs.
In 1939, Robeson took to the CBS airwaves in a performance of the now-iconic “Ballad for Americans,” a ten-minute composition for soloist and chorus by John La Touche and Earl Robinson that detailed the history of the nation from its founding through the end of the depression. Written for the Federal Theatre Project, “Ballad” found a huge audience by asking the enduring question: “Who are we?” Robeson was uniquely positioned to provide an answer. The son of a formerly enslaved person who absconded with his freedom, Robeson was a Phi Beta Kappa scholar, Columbia Law School graduate, and famed concert singer and actor before becoming a global anti-colonial, civil rights, and labor activist. “Ballad for Americans” revealed Robeson’s love and concern for a nation still in the making. Backed by a large chorus, he sung of histories that included the failed promises of freedom announced by the Constitution (such as lynching), while he also extolled the nation’s virtues, which he located most concretely and proudly in the diversity of its citizens. When asked repeatedly by the choir to identify himself, Robeson responded with a litany of diverse identities, in particular, those “nobodies” whom he argued became “everybody.” This effort—to name ourselves in moments of despair and/or doubt—is an ongoing practice that singers and choirs alike took up in the years after the premiere of “Ballad” and one that is still needed today.
As the centerpiece of the evening’s program, “Ballad for Americans” includes a collaborative performance by UCLA Chamber Singers and UCLA Music of African Americans delivering an updated version of the song. The other songs in the night’s repertoire are performed by students and invited guests Toshi Reagon and baritone Steve McClain.
Don’t miss the pre-concert discussion, "Everything Man: Author Meets Critics,” of Musicologist Shana L. Redmond's newly released monograph, “Everything Man: The Form and Function of Paul Robeson,” which brings historical perspective to ongoing struggles of representation and justice.