Carnegie Hall Icon: Paul Robeson

Singer, Actor, and Social Activist

Paul Robeson's Carnegie Hall debut program, 1929 by Carnegie Hall ArchivesCarnegie Hall

Turning 60 a month before, Paul Robeson was at the end of a near decade-long battle with the US government over his right to travel internationally when he appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1958. Robeson made his debut here in 1929, and this concert was seen as a major comeback.

As an artist I come to sing, but as a citizen, I will always speak for peace, and no one can silence me in this.

— Paul Robeson

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.”

Ad for Paul Robeson's Carnegie Hall repeat performance (1958) by Carnegie Hall ArchivesCarnegie Hall

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.

Program for Paul Robeson Performance (1940) by Carnegie Hall archivesCarnegie Hall

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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