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Live from Carnegie Hall: Paul Robeson

On the eve of Independence Day, this week's Live from Carnegie Hall looks at the penultimate Carnegie Hall concert by one of America's finest baritones and human rights activist Paul Robeson.

Artist: Paul Robeson
Album: Live at Carnegie Hall: The Historic May 9, 1958 Concert
Label: Vanguard
Date Recorded: May 9, 1958
Fun Fact: The New York Times noted that Mr. Robeson was "dressed in a dinner jacket, instead of the customary tails of the recitalist."

Turning 60 a month before, Paul Robeson was coming to the end of a near decade-long battle with the US government over his right to travel internationally when he took to the Carnegie Hall stage on May 9, 1958. Viewing him as a communist sympathizer, the State Department revoked his passport in 1950. His constant efforts to regain his freedom to travel helped drive the 1958 Supreme Court decision that directed the State Department to no longer deny citizens the right to travel because of their political beliefs or affiliations.

Robeson made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1929, and this May 9 concert was seen as a major comeback appearance. The controversy surrounding the legendary baritone meant that the sellout audience was met in front of the Hall by 20 police officers. The New York Times reported that "Their presence was unnecessary. The audience, which filled the hall, was orderly, and there were no demonstrations outside. And so the police went home about 9:15 PM."

Accompanied by pianist Alan Booth, Robeson performed songs—in English, German, Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Chinese—and theatrical monologues including one from Othello, which The New York Times ironically regarded as one of the most musical parts of the evening. He reserved one of his signature songs, "Joe Hill," as an encore—the opening strains being drowned out by applause.

Paul Robeson made a second 1958 appearance at Carnegie Hall a couple of weeks later on May 23. His passport was reissued shortly after the May 9 concert, allowing him to resurrect his career internationally. He went on to tour successfully in Britain, the Soviet Union, Australia, and New Zealand. Having performed here more than 10 times over four decades, the May 23, 1958, Carnegie Hall concert turned out to be his last at the Hall.

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