044: Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

Posted by jeff on Mar 25, 2018 in Other, Song Of the week

Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

Slaves in Mea Shearim

Well, Passover is just around the corner, and She Who Must Be Obeyed is busy polishing the wine cups and sterilizing the corkscrew. She’s given me a few minutes off from helping for good behavior (actually, for gross incompetence), so I’ll try to squeeze in a few appropriate words on the music of the season.


I can’t complain about the spring cleaning tasks. Well, I can, but I shouldn’t. Not when I think back to my forefathers, and the travails they underwent at the hands of Ol’ Pharoah. I know just how bad they had it, thanks to the moving description of those hardships by our soul brethren, the African-Americans who created the spirituals. Slaves were forced to go to church and sit on benches, to quell any ecstatic impulses they might still have from their native African worship. Shackled spiritually as well as physically, they were resourceful enough to create a lasting body of music which jumbled up their old religion and music with the new ones their European masters were imposing on them, resulting in songs of faith which expressed all the suffering and indignity they were living, albeit couched in thinly veiled Bible stories.

Paul Robeson’s (1898-1976) is a remarkable story by any standards. His mother died when he was six, so he was raised by his father, an escaped slave who graduated college and served as minister of a Presbytarian church in Princeton, NJ until his politics got him fired. Robeson was the only black at Rutgers University, class valedictorian, and All-American football player. He put himself through Columbia law school by playing professional football and basketball. In his spare time, he starred in a play which played in New York and London.

Slaves in America

He married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, a descendent of slaves and Sephardic Jews, a graduate of Columbia in chemistry. She passed on medical school to manage her husband’s business affairs. His other affairs she also learned to manage to live with, as they practiced an ‘open marriage’ until her death in 1965.

After Robeson quit his NY law firm (because a secretary refused to take dictation from a black man), his interests turned to the stage. He was the first to bring spirituals to the concert stage, starred in a play by Eugene O’Neil and was cast to star in the movie version of Porgy and Bess (till he argued politics with the director). In 1930 he went to London to play Othello (because no American stage company would employ him–although later, from 1943-45, his Othello became the longest running Shakespeare production on Broadway to this day).

He also sang ‘Ol’ Man River‘ in the immensely popular Broadway musical and movie “Showboat”. It was written for him by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein (neither of whom were particularly black, but both of whom had slavery hard-wired in their cultural heritage). The song has become one of the definitive expressions of black suffering. Robeson later changed the lyrics to transform the song from a lament to an expression of defiance.

Paul Robeson

In the 1930s and 1940s he was a star, performing spirituals in concerts throughout the world. But he also became radicalized politically, actively supported causes as wide-ranging as labor unions, the fight of the Republicans against Franco, the plight of Jewish refugees from Hitler, Welsh coal miners, the independence of African countries from colonial rule, the civil rights of blacks in the US, the integration of blacks into professional sports, (gee, just typing the list is getting me tired), and most notably empathy with the Soviet Union. Testifying before HUAC regarding his pro-Stalinist proclamations, he said: “You are responsible, and your forebears, for sixty million to one hundred million black people dying in the slave ships and on the plantations, and don’t ask me about [Stalin], please.”

His passport was revoked for a number of years, and when it was restored in 1958 he traveled to Moscow to accept the Stalin Peace Prize. His later years included self-imposed exile to the Soviet Union, mental and physical health problems caused at least in part by constant surveillance. He attempted suicide, was probably slipped LSD by the KGB, underwent shock treatment in East Germany, was hounded by the FBI (he reportedly owns the largest file in their archives), and finally retired to his sister’s house in Philadelphia. Whew. And that’s leaving out a lot.

L to R: Desdemona, Othello

But we stray. The Wife is calling me back into the kitchen. So let’s put on the soundtrack of our festival of freedom, and get back to work. I’m not quite clear how Yoshke slipped into the last line of the song. If you sing it at the table seder night, I suggest you improvise some other lyrics.

When Israel was in Egypt’s land (let my people go)
Oppressed so hard they could not stand.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land;
Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.

The Lord told Moses what to do,
To lead the children of Israel through.

They journeyed on at his command,
And came at length to Canaan’s land.

Oh, let us all from bondage flee,
And let us all in Christ be free.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

039: Blind Willie Johnson, ‘Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time’
058: Dave Frishberg, ‘Van Lingle Mungo’
102: Netanela, ‘Shir HaYona’ (Matti Caspi)

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030: The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir (Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares) – ‘Pilentze Pee’

Posted by jeff on Mar 5, 2015 in A Cappella, Other, Song Of the week

After the last 2 SoTWs, ‘Tracks of My Tears’ and “Over the Rainbow’, E.Y. wrote “What’s wrong with you, a normal song yet again?” Well, that’s an implicit challenge I can’t left unanswered, a musical gauntlet thrown at my feet.

So here you go, E.Y. and all you other unwitting readers: The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir. Seriously. I realize that may sound a bit, um, obscure, but they were a big hit in San Francisco in the 1980s, they won a Grammy in 1989 and recorded with Kate Bush. And I’ve been listening to them steadily since I discovered them a couple of years ago. C’mon, bear with me a bit.
The group has a murky history obfuscated by a muddy discography. From what we can gather, the group was formed in 1951 (right on, Bulgaria!), started recording in 1957, were discovered by a Swiss ethnomusicologist in 1975, and after Perestroika they hit the big time.

Their discography is even more obscure. In 1986, The Bulgarian State Television and Radio Female Vocal Choir released a CD best known as “Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares”, the name by which they’re most commonly known. In 1992, the choir divided into two: the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir and a collective which now records and performs as “Angelite – The Bulgarian Voices”.

Read more…

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039: Blind Willie Johnson, ‘Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time’

Posted by jeff on Nov 20, 2014 in Other, Song Of the week

I’m not a big fan of authentic blues, and certainly less of an expert. The closest to a real bluesman I listen to is Bo Diddley, and even I don’t confuse him and the real thing. The only really authentic gent I listen to on my own volition is Robert Johnson, who actually is a lot of fun. But this week we’re going to introduce you to Blind Willie Johnson, his music, and his strange, sad life. And even if his music isn’t your cup of moonshine, I’ll betcha the story won’t leave you unmoved.

This is the only known photograph of him, and it seems there’s not a single confirmable fact about Willie’s life. But this is what I’ve pieced together.

He was born near Brenham, Texas, which is outside of Temple, Texas (which is outside of Waco, Texas) somewhere around 1902. His mother died when he was just a li’l ‘un, and his pappy remarried.

When he was about seven, his father was altercating on his stepmother for stepping out with another man. She in response threw lye into Willie’s face (either by accident or on purpose, depending on the account you’re reading).

All the accounts I’ve found say that Willie told his father he wanted to be a preacher and then built himself a guitar out of a cigar box. I’m not quite clear just what the connection is there, but apparently there is one.

His father would often leave him on street corners to sing for money, where his powerful voice left an indelible impression on passers-by. I guess that’s where he developed his chops. Mean streets, Brenham.



Willie was ‘married’ once or twice (not quite clear to me what constituted marriage in those parts), maybe to Willie B Harris and/or maybe to Angline Robinson. One of them is the lady singing with him on many of the 30 songs he recorded.

He was dirt poor throughout his poor, short life, preaching and singing in the streets of Beaumont, Texas (that’s outside of Lake Charles LA, Port Arthur, and Galveston). A real outsider, that Blind Willie.

In 1945, the house of prayer he preached from and lived in burned to the ground. So destitute he had nowhere to go, he lived in the burned ruins of his home, sleeping on a rain-soaked bed. After two weeks, he caught pneumonia and died (although the death certificate credited malarial fever and syphilis for contributing to the effort).

There are reports that his grave has recently been located, but I couldn’t find any confirmation of that.

Blind Willie is considered to be one of the great slide guitarists of his time. According to some reports, he used his knife for a slide rather than the customary bottleneck. He used an open tuning in D, sliding that knife and plucking a bass line with his thumb. Most of his songs had ostensibly religious themes (like ‘Can’t Nobody Hide from God‘), but they clearly owed as much to country blues. He often doubles the melody he’s singing on the guitar, and he uses octaves a lot–on the guitar, singing, the second voice.

The Blues

The Blues

He recorded four or five times, between 1927 and 1930, a total of 30 songs. My favorite song, and his best known one, is from the first session, December 3, 1927. It’s called ‘Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground’. It’s got no words, but I think you’ll agree it doesn’t need any. It’s about as harrowing and eloquent as can be just as is.

It’s been recorded by everyone who’s anyone in the blues. But my favorite cover is by the avant garde group, the Kronos String Quartet.

Our Song of The Week is from the same session, Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time’. Ain’t that the Lord’s truth!

Why’d we pick this one? So that we could dedicate this week’s SoTW to our loving wife, who knows just as well as Blind Willie Johnson, albeit from a different vantage point, just how dear a mother’s love can be.

Well, well, well, ah
A motherless children have a hard time
Motherless children have a hard time, mother’s dead
They’ll not have anywhere to go, wanderin’ around from door to door
Have a hard time
Nobody on earth can take a mother’s place when, when mother is dead, Lord
Nobody on earth takes mother’s place when, mother’s dead
Nobody on earth takes mother’s place,
when you were startin’, paved the way
Nobody treats you like mother will when
Your wife or husband may be good to you, when mother is dead, Lord
They’ll be good to you, mother’s dead
A wife or a husband may be good to you,
but, better than nothing has proved untrue
Nobody treats you like mother will when, when mother is dead, Lord
Lord, Lord, Lord
Yeah, well, ah
Well, some people say that sister will do, when mother is dead
That sister will do when mother’s dead
Some people say that sister will do,
but, as soon as she’s married, she turn her back on you
Nobody treats you like mother will
And father will do the best he can, when mother is dead, Lord
Well, the best he can when mother is dead
Father will do the best he can,
so many things a father can’t understand
Nobody treats you like mother will
A motherless children have a hard time, when mother is dead, Lord
Motherless children have a hard time, mother’s dead
They’ll not have anywhere to go,
Wanderin’ around from door to door
Have a hard time

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051: The Ross Sisters, ‘Solid Potato Salad’

Posted by jeff on May 26, 2010 in Other, Song Of the week, Vocalists

The Ross Sisters, ‘Solid Potato Salad’
Well, isn’t life strange?

Here, I spent the whole morning writing SoTW, thoughtful and insightful, informed and informative, witty and wise, all for your reading and listening edification.

And then this email came in with a YouTube link that’s been viewed at the time of writing by 6,263,870 people, probably within the last 24 hours [since changed–JM]. So this week I’m just a link-mover. I’ll be original next week.

Well, it is music, this clip. 1944, second-rate Andrews Sisters style. Three wholesome sisters, tight clothes, tight smiles, tight harmonies. What my parents really went for, back in The(ir) Day.

The Ross Sisters went by the names of Aggie, Elmira and Maggie, but their real Christian names were Veda Victoria, Dixie Jewel and Betsy Ann. From Colorado City, Roscoe and Loraine, Texas, respectively and I’m sure respectfully. Rosses, all of them.

The farmer said to his spud, your skin looks slightly pallid…
This clip is from the MGM Technicolor film ‘Broadway Rhythm’, WWII. So here they are, ladies and gentlemen, the wunnerful Ross Sisters singing and, um, performing the song ‘Solid Potato Salad’. You gotta stay for the second minute of the clip to get the point.

It’s so off-the-wall that 23,000 people have watched a clip of a the jaw-dropping reactions of some kids watching the misses Ross. [Thanks, Scott.]

Solid potato salad, that’s solid salad, Jack!
Solid potato salad, boy, take a plate, fill it up, bring it right back!
Solid potato salad, and let’s have no “yak-yak!”.
Solid potato salad, boy, take a plate, fill it up, bring it right back!

 The farmer said to the spud, “You’re skin looks slighty pallid,
So I’ll dig you later, bud, for some solid – poatao salad!”.

Solid potato salad, it’s a groovie, movie salad, Jack.
Solid potato salad, boy, ta-too-da, bring it right back.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

105: The Boswell Sisters, ‘Crazy People’

083: Ezio Pinza, ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ (“South Pacific”)

057: Anita O’Day, ‘Tea for Two




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