As part of the series on Radical Eastbourne it is worth recalling that the legendary black American socialist, singer and film star Paul Robeson performed in the town in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. This post aims to piece together the history of his performances in Eastbourne over a ten year period – please note that in order to do this post reproduces quotes from newspapers and columnists and journalists from the 1920s and 1930s, and so the language used to describe Paul Robeson and his songs is that which was customary for the time and so we apologise if anyone finds the language offensive today.
According to Marie Seton, after Paul Robeson’s success in the stage production of Show Boat in 1928 in London he undertook ‘his first provincial tour… he gave a concert in Blackpool … he also sang in Birmingham, Torquay, Brighton, Eastbourne, Folkestone, Margate, Hastings, Southsea and Douglas. “Very early I had the idea of singing in the summer at the spas and seaside resorts,” Robeson said. “It seemed to me a way to reach the British public. Even though this was not the usual tour for a singer, I wanted to try it. I offered to sing on a percentage basis to prove my point. That is how I began to build up an audience.”‘ As Robeson continued, ‘on sunny days I loved to sit – no, lie on the earth – try to press it to my bosom. Many times later I felt gay and joyous as I lay in the gentle breeze on the downs of Rottingdean, near Eastbourne. How I loved the English countryside. How understandable the lovely poetry flowing from it. How comprehensible the lovely music, the wistfully gay tunes…’
On 18 May 1929, Paul Robeson performed ‘a special programme of Negro spirituals’ at the Floral Hall, Winter Garden, Devonshire Park in Eastbourne (see Eastbourne Gazette, 1 May 1929). ‘The famous bass sings fine selections of negro spirituals, and is accompanied Mr. Lawrence Brown, who has composed the music to a good many of them. Paul Robeson’s tour so far has been a triumphant success, all the towns which has yet visited having sold every ticket for his concert. The necessity for early booking of seats is the fact that hundreds of people were turned away from the Brighton Hippodrome when Robeson gave his recital there. Among the songs he will sing are “Deep River,” “Were yen there?” “Water Boy” and “Didn’t it rain?” and many others’ (Eastbourne Gazette, 15 May 1929). Such was his ‘great success’ here that he was invited to return to sing at the Floral Hall in Winter Garden on Sunday 21 July 1929 (Eastbourne Chronicle, 13 July 1929).
In May 1930, Robeson famously starred as Othello opposite Peggy Ashcroft and Maurice Browne at the Savoy theatre in London, in a production Browne also produced. Maurice Browne’s mother ran Clovelly-Kepplestone, a private boarding school for girls in Eastbourne – and it seems Robeson came down to stay at the school as a guest around this time.
On 30 August 1931 Robeson returned to perform ‘Negro spirituals and plantation folk songs’ at the Winter Garden (Eastbourne Gazette, 26 August, 1931). On 2 September 1931, the Eastbourne Gazette reported that ‘after his appearance at the Winter Garden many were the enthusiastic comments’. Robeson ‘ the famous actor-vocalist’ returned again on Sunday 11 October 1931 to perform alongside Henry G. Amers’ Municipal Orchestra at Winter Garden (Eastbourne Chronicle, 10 October 1931). As one columnist, ‘Gazza’, wrote in the Eastbourne Gazette on 14 October 1931, ‘Those of us who were fortunate enough to hear Paul Robeson at the Winter Garden on Sunday evening were no doubt conscious of the grave personality behind this great negro singer. He stood before us in immaculate evening dress, with gold ring glittering on the little finger of his right band, yet his voice sang to us the deep spiritual outpourings, of his own race. I seemed to see him he might have been in his own country, the ebony blackness of his body etched sharply against the white of the cotton fields; or in days before that … down by the river, while his elders sang of the sweet chariot that was coming to carry them to their home. Today he stands the emblem the triumph of art over colour.’
On the evening Sunday 12 August 1934, Robeson returned after a three year absence to perform again at the Winter Garden in Eastbourne at a sell out show at which many people were turned away, unable to get in. The Eastbourne Gazette reported on their front page on 15 August 1934 there was ‘Paul Robeson Enthusiasm at the Winter Garden’:
‘Extraordinary and almost overpowering was the enthusiasm that greeted Paul Robeson’s singing at the Winter Garden, Devonshire Park, Sunday evening, by an audience that all but overflowed into the gangways. It is three years ago that this deservedly accomplished and popular singer was in Eastbourne, and doubtless he was in the happy position of one who was sure of pleasing many old admirers. To one who had not heard him before he must have appealed as singularly striking and attractive personality: one who carries his six-feet four with all the modesty of a skylark, sings with the ease and grace of nightingale, and whose art springs direct from Nature. Schubert would have written songs on the back of an envelope for Paul Robeson. A couple of Negro spirituals opened his programme. “Go Down Moses” and “Roll de ol’ Chariot.” Of course, if some religious artist were to paint pictures to-day of such “far off, divine events” on the lines of these Negro spirituals ” he would promptly be accused of something very closely allied to blasphemy. Still, treating the Old Testament Scriptures as so much folk-lore a step in the right direction, and, after all, it was the way we learnt it at our mother’s knee:
Go down Moses,
Way down an Egypt’s Lan’.
Tell ole Pharoah
To let my people go.”
which is, all said and done, what no doubt really happened. Sung by Paul Robeson, it becomes peculiarly pictorial and dramatic: “And the Lord said unto Moses” becomes a “religious ballad” which would have delighted Robert Burns.
Such favourites as “Shenandoah,” Ol’ Man River” (a burning and heartsearching ballad of Mississippi slavery), the pretty “Lindy did you hear dat mockin’ bird sing las’ night”, “Wagon Wheels,” “L’il David, play on your harp”:
“L’il David was a shepherd boy,
He killed Goliath, an’ he shouted for Joy,”
and some encores (Robeson speaks so quietly that it was difficult be sure of the titles), and a recitation to wind up, all these ditties trolled and crooned in this rich, sweet and mellow monotone, enchanted the large crowd of admirers, who called for more and yet more. Robeson is an “American” born in the States. His father was a parson, and his grandfather—a slave. Britain, following the Roman lead, has made her slaves freedmen, and now the sons of freedmen enslave the masters with their art. Very admirable music came from Alfred Campoli and his Trio of violin, ‘cello and piano. Lawrence Brown at the piano, was accomplished accompanist.’
‘EHB’ added on 15 August 1934 in the Eastbourne Gazette, the following report of Robeson:
‘The unusual spectacle of long queues of people patiently waiting outside the doors of the Winter Garden on Sunday evening ten minutes after the performance had begun in the hope of gaining admission the hall, which was already packed, found its explanation in the fact that Mr Paul Robeson was the attractive magnet that had drawn this huge concourse there. Inside the hall every seat was occupied and there was no standing room. It must always be an interesting problem to the student of psychology in what the particular attraction to the public of any special popular film or musical comedy star lies in excess of that accorded to the others. Fashion has, however, decreed that the particular idol of the moment should reign supreme in his sphere, and the public bow this decree. Many superlatives have been lavishly showered on Mr Robeson by the Press—he is described on the programme possessing the “greatest natural voice in the world today,” which is, of course, merely hyperbolical gush. Mr Robeson is a man of culture and high attainments with admirable bass-baritone voice, but no critic who knows what he is talking about would call him a great singer. What he sings he sings extremely well, but no better than any other good baritone, and to my mind his range of expression is very restricted, and I find little variety of tone colour or inflection in his voice. He interprets his own native folksongs to perfection, but the standard of a singer’s achievement rests on a much wider basis interpretative scope than that. Mr Robeson was accorded a tremendous welcome by the enormous audience on Sunday evening, and sang many characteristic numbers from his repertoire, including some negro spirituals, folk tunes, and examples by Jerome Kern, Palmgren and Lawrence Brown. A deafening downpour of rain unfortunately drowned his singing of the haunting melody “Shenandoah,” but this was only a transitory eclipse, and in all his songs Mr Robeson showed himself the artist that he undoubtedly is. He was supported in the programme by Mr Alfredo Campoli and his trio – a very attractive instrumental combination, which has been heard here with pleasure before.’
Robeson – now billed as ‘the world’s greatest Negro actor, singer and film star’ (Eastbourne Gazette, 17 April 1935) returned to perform ‘a light popular programme’ at the Winter Garden with Lawrence Brown on 20 April 1935.
As ‘EHB’ noted in the Eastbourne Gazette on Wednesday 24 April 1935,
‘The huge audience that gathered in the Winter Garden hear Mr Paul Robeson on Saturday evening offered another striking example star worship. Not only was every seat, but every inch of standing-room in the hall was occupied by this vast concourse. He was received on Saturday evening with the frenzied acclamation due to a member of the film constellation, and whatever he sang was accorded the tribute of an ovation. He sang, as he always does, very well: but his voice lacks sonority, and in the upper tones is thin and a little nasal in quality, while there is a trace of tremolo here and there. is good baritone voice, but in sense an outstanding one. It is, of course, in his native “spirituals” that Mr Robeson is always at his best, and several of these were included in his selections on Saturday, among them “Go Down, Moses,” “Ebenezer, Roll de ol’ Chariot” and Burleigh’s “Were You There?” (which, by the way, was referred to by the Archbishop of Canterbury ins address on Good Friday morning). By way of variety Mr Robeson included “O, No John, No!” which he sang admirably. In another group were two Gretchaninoff songs and “Ol Man River,” which Robeson substituted for another number, and this, too, was of course, received with appropriate enthusiasm. The duets in which Mr Robeson was joined by his accompanist. Mr Laurence Brown, were cleverly sung; and amusing, and among his encores were such old favourites as “Poor Old Joe ” and “The Old Kentucky Home.” The orchestra contributed a modestly supplementary share to the programme, but their playing was very warmly applauded and appreciated by the holiday audience.’
Robeson returned again to Eastbourne’s Winter Garden with Lawrence Brown on 11 August 1935, for a ‘popular programme featuring his greatest successes’ and alongside H.G. Amers and his Orchestra (see Eastbourne Gazette, 7 August 1935). As the Eastbourne Chronicle noted on 17 August 1935, Robeson now talked of his love of coming to Eastbourne.
“Whenever I come to Eastbourne I always have lovely audiences, and it pleased me greatly to know that the songs you like best are also my favourites.” Paul Robeson, who may be considered the world’s leading negro baritone, said these few words to the audience at the Winter Garden on Sunday evening at the conclusion of his concert. Every seat was occupied, and the enthusiasm knew no bounds. Seldom a singer been recalled for so many encores, which on this occasion outnumbered the items on the programme while it was plainly evident that Mr. Robeson enjoyed singing as much as listeners appreciated it. The most popular song was, of course, “Old Man River” which Paul Robeson made his finishing item, but even then equally delightful were “Mammies little babie likes shortnin’ bread,” “Steal Away” (this by request), and many others. The Canoe Song from “Sanders of the River,” the film in which Mr. Robeson is appearing was most enthusiastically received.’
AS EHB noted in the Eastbourne Gazette on 14 August 1935,
‘A very large holiday audience filled every put of the Winter Garden on Sunday evening when Mr Paul Robeson, in conjunction with the Municipal Orchestra was the special attraction. Robeson appeared to be in excellent voice and was. as usual, accompanied on the piano by Mr Lawrence Brown a beautiful accompanist, by the way, who first appeared few years ago in London as solo pianist. In his two groups of songs Mr Robeson included several popular spiritual examples, among them “Go down Moses,” “I’ll hear de Trumpet soun’” and “Goin’ to ride up in de Chariot,” arranged by Brown, and interesting songs of other types—“ The Wanderer,” a Finnish folk song arranged Selim Palmgren, the Russian song, “O. Ivan, you Ivan,” Rimaky-Korsakov, a clever nursery rhyme, Short’nin’ Bread,” arranged Wolfe, “Water Boy.” the convict song, and an amusing little folk song. “L’il David,” arranged Lawrence Brown, the charming sea chantie, ‘‘Shenandoah,” and, of course, several encores. Including the favourite plantation song, “Old Jo.” Needless to add, Mr Robeson received the most enthusiastic welcome. The orchestra, under Captain Amers, also received their full share of appreciation, and every number on the programme was given rounds hearty applause. The selections were of the popular kind and entirely to the taste of the audience.’
It seems he returned possibly again in 1936 (when we know Robeson did play De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on 22 March 1936, see Eastbourne Gazette, 11 March 1936), and again on Sunday 7 August 1938 in the Floral Hall at the Winter Garden in Eastbourne. As EAT reported for the Eastbourne Gazette on 10 August 1938, there were ‘remarkable scenes at Winter Garden’ as an audience of 1,800 were ‘bewitched’ by ‘the magic’ of ‘that master of song’ – Paul Robeson, with ‘hundreds’ turned away unable to get seats to listen, as had happened two years before.
‘About 1,800 Robeson-fans crowded the Floral Hall hundreds more ware disappointed, seats were provided and many contented themselves with standing, but still enough were turned away have filled another hall. And the scenes inside the hall were memorable. More than usually generous in the warmth of their reception of the preliminary items, the crowd applauded wildly on the appearance Mr Robeson. At the end of the first half of the show the clamour of the audience necessitated two encores, while at the close of the original programme they simply would not let Paul go. He recalled time after time and even after giving four more items the company wanted more. The applause was terrific. The programme was worthy of the reception. Of Mr Robeson one can say nothing new. The richness of his voice, the strength of his expression. the clarity and forcefulness of his enunciation, have moved the hearts of millions. In days when all that is best music, in song and in their exponents is brought to the masses through the wireless, there still remains only one Paul Robeson. His singing is not merely heard, it is felt, and the inspiration of his singing defies adequate description. The programme on Sunday was admirable in its demonstration of Mr Robeson’s equal capacity in varying moods of song. In compositions both grave and gay, in pieces delicate or inspiriting, he showed himself once again the complete master. Prominent, of course, were the negro spirituals, those songs of enchanting rhythm and haunting melody which he has made famous. He began with “Go Down Moses,” followed later by the lovely, amusing, yet impressive, “Ezekhiel Saw de Wheel” (in which he was assisted in a vocal duet by pianist, Lawrence Brown). “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and (again in duet form) “Joshua Fit Battle of Jericho,” while another great favourite, “Little David Play on Your Harp.” was given as one of the many encores, again the assistance of Lawrence Brown. The popular, somewhat hackneyed, “Shenandoah” especially appealed to the audience by reason of the new meaning, the new beauty which Mr Robeson’s voice brought to the song. Another especially appreciated rendering was that of the well-known English piece, “O, No, John!” in which the singer’s wealth of expression gave the song its full appeal. The negro convict song “Water Boy,” the little negro’s heart-cry for his African home “In Galam,” Moussorgsky’s “After the Battle,” the Mexican folk song “Encantadora Maria” and “Sometimes I Feel Like Motherless Chile” were also in the programme. Upon his recall to the stage at the close, Mr Robeson could not resist the for the song for which, perhaps. he is the most famous, “ Ole Man River.” while the beautiful melody of “Curly Headed Baby” provided an appropriate and delightful finale. Although Mr Robeson naturally held wide of place, the entire evening’s programme was one of distinction. For opening of each half was sustained by Alfredo Campoli the well-known whose broadcasts are so popular, assisted by Morris Westerby (cello) and Sidney Crook (piano). His playing was of the usual brilliance, worthy of an outstanding evening’.
Robeson also performed across the South Coast in these years – in April 1938, Paul Robeson performed at Brighton Dome – as covered in the Brighton and Hove Gazette on 30 April 1938.
As Larry Brown, Robeson’s friend and musical assistant, recalled to Marie Seton the provincial tours of 1938-1939 were ‘the most successful’ they ever had. ‘We never had audiences like those we had in 1938 and 1939. The people who formed the backbone of England – those who had kind hearts and were human – had always appreciated Paul. Now they seemed to love him more than ever because of what he was trying to do for the people.’
Notice also references to Spain in the Brighton and Hove Gazette report and in the Eastbourne Gazette‘s report a notice about the local solidarity work with refugees from the Spanish Civil War – a struggle for freedom and democracy against fascism which Paul Robeson had characteristically thrown his support behind, which Mike Anderson, who has helped with this piece, has written about here. When Paul Robeson went to Spain to visit the International Brigades and give a concert to entertain them, one of those in attendance listening was Stan Hilton, a member of the International Brigades born in Newhaven who grew up in Brighton.
On Monday 10 April 1939, for Easter Monday, Paul Robeson returned to the Winter Garden, supported by the Municipal Orchestra, once again ensuring a full house in attendance (Eastbourne Chronicle, 15 April 1939) As the Eastbourne Gazette noted on 12 April 1939,
‘Easter Monday and Paul Robeson brought what was expected: a large audience to the Winter Garden. His programme contained, at the one emotional extreme, a song by Moussorgsky (“After the Battle”), and one of Kennedy Reaser’s arrangements of the Hebridean Songs (“An Eriskay love lilt ”). On the other hand there was, of course, a group of those spirituals ” which some admire so profoundly and others dislike so heartily, “Stan’ still Jordan,” “Roll de ol’ chariot along,” Li’l David,” the “sermon-song” about “Weepin’ Mary” and another about Methusaleh and Elijah and Daniel as “Witness for de Lord”; and between these cults came the nursery rhyme “Shortenin’ Bread,” and “Ol’ Man River,” and “Ma Curly-headed baby.” The quiet power of Robeson’s rich and resonant voice penetrates everywhere the softest syllable could be heard at the back of the Winter Garden on Monday evening.’
On 30 July 1939 once again Robeson was set to perform at the Winter Garden accompanied by Lawrence Brown on the piano (Eastbourne Gazette, 19 July 1939), though it seems this was postponed to 24 September 1939 (See Eastbourne Gazette, 26 July 1939), and so given the outbreak of war this concert probably did not take place.
On 6 November 1940, one reader to the Eastbourne Gazette noted that ‘Myra Hess, Richard Tauber and Paul Robeson’ have ‘been the biggest concert “draw” we have had at the Winter Garden for the last few years’. On 17 February 1945 the Eastbourne Chronicle columnist G. Wilcox confirmed that Paul Robeson drew the largest crowds in recent years to Winter Garden, Devonshire Park. Robeson’s 1,573 tickets sold for his 1938 show at Winter Garden was still regarded as ‘the record for recent years’ – beating the likes of Richard Tauber (1,404), Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch for ‘Band Waggon’ (1507) – both in 1939, as well as the 70 strong London Philharmonic Orchestra playing in 1945 (1,175).
Update (May 2022): The refurbished Winter Garden is going to dedicate a special Paul Robeson Room in honour of Robeson’s legendary performances at the venue and a special commemorative programme of events is being put together to help launch this. So far these include a special performance of ‘Call Mr Robeson’ by Tayo Aluko at the Grove Theatre in Eastbourne on Friday 4 November 2022 – details of how to book tickets here: https://grovetheatre.onlineticketseller.com/events/20265 Thanks to Mike Anderson for help with the research for this blog post.