​​​​ Paul Robeson at King George's Hall Blackburn

On Tuesday the 21st of October 1958 almost three thousand people waited with great excitement for the appearance of Mr. Paul Robeson. They were not disappointed.

The stature of the man - being six foot four inches tall and his remarkable voice, held the audience spellbound. Even without any formal training he could evoke great emotion and his love of humanity could almost be heard in his interpretation of songs from “Negro Spirituals," classical anthems and local folk songs. He acknowledged this audience in Blackburn as being one of his greatest and at the end signed programme after programme speaking to all the individuals who had waited patiently to see him. He had arrived in Blackburn from London and stayed at the White Bull on Church Street – enjoying coffee and sandwiches before the performance. His accompanist was the renowned Lawrence Brown who originally had accompanied Roland Hayes with whom he had appeared at Buckingham Palace in 1921. Brown was best known for his arrangements of “Negro Spirituals" and his relationship with Paul Robeson lasted forty years.

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Paul Robeson
This was not Paul Robeson's first performance in Blackburn as he had visited before the war in 1939. He felt an affinity with the cotton towns of the north, since his father, when a slave, had gathered the raw cotton which came to the mills to be spun, woven and made into the clothes worn by the people of Lancashire. In the thirties he had lived in England singing and also acting for which he was greatly acclaimed.

During the war he supported his country, the USA, but afterwards his past support for the Republicans in Spain, his pro-soviet views and his sympathy for African Nations lead to him being scrutinised by the FBI and consequently having his passport revoked.

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one night at King George's Hall

Blackburn Music Society joined with a committee in Manchester to support the return of his passport. It was felt that this support helped to encourage his friends in America and finally his passport was returned. Blackburn Music Society had written in 1956 to ask him to perform again in Blackburn and he willingly agreed. Paul Robeson's “come back" tour of 1958 took in twenty eight venues from September to December including Blackburn.

In the early sixties his health deteriorated and he retired living privately in Philadelphia. Aged seventy seven on January the 23rd 1976 Paul Robeson died. He had gained a law degree and to give more meaning to some of his songs had learnt German, Yiddish, Chinese and Russian. In 1940 Hamilton College New Jersey conferred on him an honorary degree – Doctor of Humane Letters and almost eighty years after graduating from Rutgers College he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Between 1925 and 1961 he released 276 distinct songs many of which were recorded several times.

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Inside Cover of Souvenir Programme

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Letter to Paul Robeson from
 Blackburn Musical Society.

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Letter from Paul Robeson 
to Blackburn Musical Society.

Thanks to Blackburn Music Society for allowing us to show the two letters.​

​        Story by Janet Burke

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