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Paul Robeson - The Complete EMI Sessions 1928-1939
Paul Robeson (bass)
With Lawrence Brown (piano), Ruthland Clapham (piano), Herbert Dawson (organ) and orchestras conducted by Herman Fink, Carroll Gibbons, Ray Noble, Jack Hylton, Percival Mackey, Muir Matheson, Clifford Greenwood, Eric Ansell, Van Phillips, Ronnie Munro, Walter Goehr and Ernest Irving
rec. London 1928-39
Full track-listing at foot of review
EMI CLASSICS 2155862 [7 CDs: 63:38 + 63:50 + 76:09 + 76:53 + 63:39 + 68:23 + 64:52]


Experience Classicsonline

This is now an obvious first port of call for pre-War Robeson material given that it includes his complete EMI recordings made over a dozen years. This is apparently the first time they have been collated in a single box in this way and the Abbey Road team has effected the re-masterings. It includes the first published EMI recordings from 1928, which are decidedly less common than the more familiar later sides of the same material. The bands are high class if not always attuned to the genre – but by the time we get to the later material things work well.

It would be rather exhausting – and not recommended – to do what your critic did and listen to every track one after the other. For one thing Robeson re-recorded a lot and left behind numerous examples of his medleys. So there’s invariably quite a bit of duplication one way or another.

Highlights of the first disc include the Kensingtonian tones of the so-called Mississippi chorus in Ol’ Man River – with the orchestra of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Better of course are Robeson’s first recordings with pianist Lawrence Brown. I also enjoyed the non-Spiritual things such as Nevin’s Mighty lak’a rose where Ray Noble directs the anonymous band with distinction. By the time of the second disc things have settled down. One can only admire what I’d call the recitativo theatricality of the Will Marion Cook song Exhortation, the cavernous Go down, Moses and the elegant arrangement of High Water – though Crosby always sang this to the manner born. There are some bluesy contributions from a good trumpeter and some string players on Rockin’ Chair – it’s a frustrating feature of such recordings that it’s next to impossible now to work out who they were; but maybe the fiddlers were Eric Siday or Jean Pougnet. The highlight of this disc was the glorious coupling of Bear de Burden and All God’s chillun got wings with another splendid pianist and colleague, Ruthland Clapham. There’s no getting away from the fact that songs such as That’s why darkies were born are also here.

For a religiose pairing leading organist Herbert Dawson accompanied Robeson – heard on the third disc. In Carey’s Nearer, my God, to Thee one can detect an intrinsic bleat in Robeson’s voice. But he’s on inspirational form in the traditional Pilgrim’s Song and on one of the best Harry Burleigh arrangements – Were you there? In disc 4 we have some unusual repertoire, as if EMI were trying him out in lighter fare. It doesn’t work; the voice is too immobile to do anything with such admitted trifles as Wagon Wheels and So shy. This disc also contains some music from the film Sanders of the River. Gloomy Sunday, on CD 5, is a histrionic tone poem – pre- Billie Holiday – and there’s yet another version of Ol’ Man River. There are extracts from the film of Song of Freedom whose composer was Eric Ansell, who is on hand, a year apart, to conduct four extracts as he does Spoliansky’s music from King Solomon’s Mines. Interesting there is a poem by Langston Hughes read with dignity by Robeson. Disc six dates from 1937-38 and most things here are on the highest level of accomplishment. The first four tracks are indispensable for anyone who admires great artistry. Arthur Somervell’s bardic arrangement of All through the night is perhaps less so but that’s not the singer’s fault. Robeson also sings Ellington and Gershwin in this volume  though he is altogether shakier on the pianist-composer Edward Kilenyi’s Encantadora Maria.

Robeson was great Russophile; he sings Grechaninov’s Lullaby half in English and half in Russian, recites Blake’s The little black boy and then embarks on some unlikely material with a chamber orchestra directed by Walter Goehr – Jerusalem, The Blind Ploughboy and the like. The band sounds as if it composed of café fiddlers earning a few bob. A few other incongruous items stud this volume – Plaisir d’amour (I think not), John Ireland’s Sea Fever and Quilter’s Now sleeps the crimson petal.

As I noted at the beginning then a first port of call for Robeson enthusiasts looking to acquire the complete EMI sides. There are reasonably succinct notes, good pictures, no texts and no matrix or issue numbers. As for the transfers they are smooth but treble-starved; too much so for my taste, though many will enjoy the aural ride free of shellac hiss.

Jonathan Woolf 


CD1 [63:38]
01. Showboat/Ol' Man River
02. Seem Lak' to Me
03. Down de Lover's Lane
04. Scandalize My Name
05. Sinner Please Doan' Let Dis Harves' Pass
06. Weepin' Mary
07. I Want to Be Ready
08. My Lord What a Mornin'
09. De Li'l Pickaninny's Gone to Sleep
10. Git on Board Li'l Children
11. Dere's No Hidin' Place
12. Plantation Songs, Pt. 1: So Early in the Morning - Carry Me Back to Old Virginia  - Old folks at home – Goodnight ladies
13. Plantation Songs, Pt. 2: Away Down South in Dixie - Poor Old Joe - Oh, Susanna – My old Kentucky Home
14. Oh Rock Me Julie
15. Oh Didn't It Rain
16. Mammy
17. Roll Away Clouds
18. Sonny Boy
19. Say It with Songs/Little Pal
20. The Lonesome Road
21. Just Keepin' On
22. Mighty Lak' a Rose
23. Mammy Is Gone
CD2 [63:50]
24. Hail de Crown
25. Exhortation
26. Stood on the Ribber Jordan/Peter Go Ring dem Bells
27. Go Down, Moses
28. High Water
29. Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)
30. Poor Old Joe
31. My Old Kentucky Home
32. Showboat/Ol' Man River
33. River Stay 'Way from My Door
34. Rockin' Chair
35. Medley of Spirituals
36. My Heart Is Where the Mohawk Flows Tonight
37. The Folks I Used to Know
38. Mary Had a Baby (Yes Lord)
39. Lil' Gal
40. Bear de Burden/All God's Chillun Got Wing
41. That's Why the Darkies Were Born
42. When It's Sleepy Time Down South
43. Seekin'
CD 3 [76:09]
44. Nearer My God to Thee
45. There Is a Green Hill
46. Ma Lindy Lou
47. Ma Curly Headed Baby
48. Pilgrim's Song
49. Roll de Ole Chariot Along
50. Since You Went Away
51. Wid de Moon Moon Moon
52. Got the South in My Soul
53. Hush-A-Bye Lullaby
54. Round the Bend of the Road
55. Take Me Away from the River
56. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
57. On Ma Journey
58. Bye and Bye
59. Were You There?
60. Swing Along
61. Piccaninny Shoes
62. In a Narrow Street
63. Carry Me Back to Green Pastures
64. Lazy Bones
65. Blue Prelude
66. Paul Robeson Medly, Pt. 1: Roll de Ole Chariot/Mary Had a Baby/Swing Low, sweet chariot/Heav’n, heav’n
67. Paul Robeson Medly, Pt. 2: Carry Me Back/Mighty Lak' a Rose/Round the Bend of the river/River, stay ‘way from my door – Ol’ Man River
CD 4 [76:53]
68. Fat Li'l Fella Wid His Mammy's Eyes
69. Shortnin' Bread
70. Snowball
71. Water Boy
72. Doan' You Cry Ma Honey
73. Steal Away
74. Scarecrow
75. Wagon Wheels
76. So Shy
77. Piccaninny's Slumber Song
78. St. Louis Blues
79. Mammy's Little Kinky-Headed Boy
80. Little Man, You've Had a Busy Day
81. I Ain't Lazy I'm Just Dreaming
82. The Banjo Song
83. Paul Robeson Medley No. 2/Lazy Bones/Scarecrow/Fat Li'l Feller/Wagon Wheels/deep River/Ma Curly-headed aby – Carry me back to green pastures – Old folks at home
84. Sanders of the River/Love Song
85. Sanders of the River/Congo Lullaby
86. Sanders of the River/Canoe Song
87. Sanders of the River/Killing Song
88. Shenandoah
89. Jes' Mah Song
90. De Ole Ark's A-Movering
91. Ezekiel Saw de Wheel
92. Joshua Fit de Battle ob Jericho
CD 5 [63:39]
93. Honey (Dat's All)
94. Gloomy Sunday
95. Showboat/Ol' Man River - Film Version
96. Showboat/I Still Suits Me - Film Version
97. Song of Freedom/Sleepy River
98. Song of Freedom/Lonely Road
99. Song of Freedom/Song of Freedom
100. Song of Freedom/The Black Emperor
101. Creole Song/Mam'selle Marie
102. Dere's No Hidin' Place
103. Oh! No John
104. Passing By
105. Hammer Song
106. Lil' David
107. Jericho/My Way
108. Jericho/Golden River
109. King Solomon's Mines/Ho! Ho! (Wagon Song)
110. King Solomon's Mines/Climbing Up (The Mountain Song)
111. Big Fella/Lazin'
112. I Don't Know What's Wrong
113. Big Fella/Roll Up Sailorman
114. You Didn't Oughta Do Such Things
115. Jericho/Deep Desert
116. Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
117. Minstrel Man
118. The Wanderer
CD 6 [68:23]
119. Dere's a Man Goin' Round' Takin' Names
120. No More
121. Work All de Summer
122. Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?
123. Still Night, Holy Night
124. All Through the Night
125. Solitude
126. Mood Indigo
127. Porgy and Bess/Summertime (Lullaby)
128. Porgy and Bess/It Take a Long Pull to Get There
129. Porgy and Bess/It Ain't Necessarily So
130. Porgy and Bess/A Woman Is a Sometime Thing
131. Just A-Wearyin' for You
132. At Dawning
133. Song of the Volga Boatmen
134. An Eriskay Love-Lilt
135. Encantadora Maria
136. Goin' to Ride Up in de Chariot
137. Every Time I Feel de Spirit
138. Lay Down Late
139. After the Battle
140. David of the White Rock
141. Trees
142. Songs My Mother Taught Me, Op. 55, No. 4
143. Loch Lomond
144. Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes
CD 7 [64:52]
145. Down de Lovers' Lane
146. The Moor of Peter the Great/Lullaby
147. Night (Russian Folk Song)
148. Songs of Innocence/The Little Black Boy
149. Dear Old Southland
150. Jerusalem
151. The Blind Ploughman
152. Chu Chin Chow/The Cobblers Song
153. Oh, Could I But Express in Song
154. Love at My Heart
155. Nothin'
156. The Rosary
157. A Perfect Day
158. Absent
159. Black Eyes
160. Robin Hood/Oh Promise Me
161. Plaisir d'Amour
162. Sylvia
163. She Is Far from the Land
164. Thora
165. Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal
166. Sea Fever
167. The Proud Valley/Ebenezer
168. Land of My Fathers
169. Deep River
170. Elijah (Rehearsal Scene) Lord God of Abraham; Baal Chorus



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