Paul Robeson – Steve Davies

Well it would have to be a Negro Spiritual, wouldn’t it? Spirituals are my favourites; listening, singing, on my own or with the choir.

Paul Robeson in still regarded as one of the best exponents of a Spiritual, but even he came in for criticism, notably from Harry T. Burleigh. Before Robeson became famous, Burleigh had scored and performed many of the Spirituals. He coached Robeson during his formative years as a performer, but didn’t appreciate Robeson’s partnership with Larry Brown. Brown did the arrangements for many of the definitive Spiritual recordings of the late 1920’s and early 30’s, as well as playing the accompaniment and singing tenor harmonies to Robeson’s bass baritone.

Everyone has their own interpretation of how a song should sound and feel. Fifty choristers would probably create fifty different interpretations of the same song. Down the  years, some of the more popular Spirituals have been adapted and changed, particularly those adopted by the Folk Movement of the late 1950’s and early 60’s. Songs like Aint Going To Study War No More and even, dare I say it, Every Time I Feel The Spirit seem to have acquired a happy-clappy delivery, which, in my opinion, detracts from the original spirit of the song. Every Time dates from 1925 and carries the instruction to sing with breadth and reverance. Swing Low Sweet Chariot is now sung at a pace more suited to Ben Hur than a meaningful Negro Spiritual.

I have several Robeson recorded versions of the same Spiritual which differ in expression, time and tempo. Some of the recordings he made with Larry Brown and sung so fast it is damn near impossible to get the words out (like our Peter Piper warm up).

Over the years the choir has performed quite a few Spirituals. They have seldom failed to hit the spot, particularly if slow and unaccompanied (Steal Away, My Lord What A Morning). However, my favourite performance was Gary Culverwell’s Town Hall solo in I’se Weary Of Waiting. In my opinion, more moving than Sir Willard. Dave Marshall in Bui Doi (I know it’s not a spiritual) also comes ahead of Sir Willard’s interpretation. The WW gig was still a great night.

What makes a song ‘hit the spot’? I’ll leave the last word to Harry T. Burleigh (1917).

“Success in singing these songs is primarily dependent upon deep spiritual feeling . . . their worth is weakened unless they are done impressively for through these songs breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice and brotherhood of man . . . and eventually deliverance from all that hinders and oppresses the soul will come, and man, every man, will be free.”