Category: Paul Robeson

  • The DNA of American Folk Music

    Engraving of Pocahontas (1595-1617). In 2018, in response to pushback against her longtime claims of Native American ancestry (including from President Trump, who refers to her mockingly as “Pocahontas”), Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren had her DNA tested, and made the results public. The test indicated that Warren had a Native American ancestor […]

  • Love and Theft, redux: “That’s Why Darkies Were Born”

    Content warning: racist language/imagery. In 2019, the Yankees cancelled their tradition of playing Kate Smith’s stentorian recording of “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch. Taking their cue from New York, the NHL team the Philadelphia Flyers not only cancelled Kate Smith, but also covered (and later removed) a statue of her outside of the […]

  • Captain Jack

    In the novel White Tears by Hari Kunzru, which is about the haunting of a 21st-century sound engineer by the ghost of a forgotten early-20th-century bluesman, the allegorical figure of “Captain Jack” appears early on, in a quoted song lyric. The lyric is from Son House’s “County Farm Blues” (1941): Down South, when you do […]

  • We Shall Overcome

    The Library of Congress describes the famous Civil Rights Movement song, “We Shall Overcome”: It was the most powerful song of the 20th century. It started out in church pews and picket lines, inspired one of the greatest freedom movements in U.S. history, and went on to topple governments and bring about reform all over […]

  • Go Down, Moses

    The first published version of the spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” in 1862, attributed its authorship to “The Contrabands” — escaped slaves who joined the Union Army — who probably sang it as a rallying cry, rather than as a hymn. The song had been known for at least 15 to 20 years prior to its […]

  • Can Opera Be Woke?

    Verdi’s 1887 opera Otello is based on Shakespeare’s great tragedy Othello, or the Moor of Venice. Othello, a heroic general who is manipulated by his aide-de-camp, Iago, into his tragic events leading to his own destruction, is a role considered by many to be the pinnacle of a classically-trained actor’s career. As such, well into the twentieth century, […]