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KEVIN DIXON: When Torquay let Robeson sing

By This is SouthDevon  |  Posted: November 23, 2012

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Today the Pavilion at Torquay hosts its last major public event to celebrate its 100th birthday.

Here, local historian Dr Kevin Dixon celebrates a famous chapter in the much-loved building's history.

Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an African-American concert singer, recording artist, athlete and actor who became known for his radicalism and activism in the US civil rights movement. Due to his commitment to political causes, he was blacklisted during the Cold War, kept under heavy surveillance by both the FBI and the CIA and publicly condemned for his beliefs.

Though vilified at the time, James Earl Jones, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte have cited Robeson’s film roles as being the first to display dignity for black actors and pride in African heritage.

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Paul made several visits to Torquay. In May 1929 he sang at the Pavilion, a concert covered by the Torquay Directory:

"Mr Robeson’s programme consisted of Negro spirituals – strange entertainment for an afternoon in May. More than a beautiful voice and consummate artistry were required to keep two thousand people absorbedly interested for two hours: An arresting personality was necessary. This the hero of ‘Show Boat’ and ‘Porgy’ certainly possesses… Who could resist the singer’s smile? And at all times there was respectful attention, mingled at first with curiosity, warming to friendliness and then to rapturous admiration.

"The spirituals themselves are a strange phenomenon, strange as hibiscus blooms would be in a Devon garden. They are the songs of a subject race in an alien land…"

Paul returned in August 1938:

"Wildly enthusiastic scenes marked the visit of the famous Negro actor singer. By about 8 o’clock, a quarter of an hour before the commencement of the concert at the Pavilion, a crowd of around 500 had gathered, adding to Torquay’s already difficult traffic problems.

"When he reached the Pavilion Mr Robeson was met with tremendous cheering, and women surged forward in an attempt to gain a better view of the famous Negro."

Here’s Paul with ‘Ol’ Man River’:

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