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Picks and Pans Review: The Peace Arch Concerts

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Paul Robeson

Oh, what a difference a few decades can make. Just think of the seven-figure contracts, the endorsement deals, the merchandise tie-ins that would be Paul Robeson’s if he’d had the good sense to be born now rather than then (in 1898). An All-American footballer, lawyer and Broadway star (Othello, The Emperor Jones), Robeson was also a mightily gifted vocalist for whom Jerome Kern wrote the classic “Ol’ Man River.” But Robeson’s political activism—he fought tirelessly for racial equality, but also for Soviet-style socialism—proved a career killer. With his passport revoked in 1950 and his name high on showbiz blacklists, the Princeton, N.J.-born star was limited to performing in trade-union concerts like these, held on the U.S.-Canadian border in 1952 and 1953. Here his astounding bass-baritone resonates across four decades as he sings soaring spirituals and mournful songs of protest. Robeson died in 1976, but his legacy will get some much-deserved refurbishing when a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement is bestowed posthumously in New York City on Feb. 25. (Folk Era)