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Willard White sings Paul Robeson superbly

Published:Monday | December 31, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Sir Willard White
Sir Willard White
Paul Robeson

Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer

It was probably the most powerful performance ever given of one of Jamaica's, and the world's, great songs.

Heard by a privileged audience at the Jamaica College auditorium on Friday night, the song, Bob Marley's Redemption Song, was sung by one of Jamaica's, and the world's, greatest singers, Sir Willard White. He was singing it in public for the very first time, he said.

As the last emotion-filled note faded away, the audience erupted in sustained cheers and applause. Every second of it was deserved and it is unlikely that a more evocative rendition of the song will ever be given by another singer.

White, a bass baritone opera singer who, as he grows older, is developing a pure bass voice, is an extraordinary performer. That's why he has received national honours from both his native Jamaica and the United Kingdom, where he now lives.

Many notable attendees

He showed all his artistry on Friday, the occasion being White's tribute in words and music to the great American singer-actor-social activist Paul Robeson. Proceeds of the Jamaica National-sponsored event will go to the Anglican diocese, specifically to St Luke's Church.

Among those bringing greetings was United States Ambassador to Jamaica Pamela Bridgewater, who called the evening "special", and informed the audience that Robeson had given a concert in Kingston. Some in the audience might well have been at that 1948 concert, she opined.

Others of note at the function, emcee Fae Ellington said, were White's former Excelsior High School drama teacher, and Dr Olive Lewin, the founder of the Jamaican Folk Singers, of which White was also a founding member.

The first performers to go on the stage of the huge, but only half-filled, auditorium were White's accompanying musicians. One was pianist and collaborator on the creation of the tribute, Neal Thornton, and the other was guitarist Richard Bolton.

Both men accompanied White masterfully and sensitively throughout the show. In addition, Thornton acted as White's co-narrator of the story of Robeson's life.

That story, interspersed with songs originally sung by Robeson, comprised the simple structure of the tribute.

Despite its simplicity, the tribute was touching - this because of the poignancy and importance of the tale as well as the sublime beauty of White's singing.

During an intermission chat with this reviewer, one envious professional musician, who also sings bass, said if he had a tenth of White's vocal control, he would be abroad earning a good living singing.

Another well-known bass baritone declared that the Robeson tribute was the best of the many performances by White that he had heard. These enthusiastic responses to the event were in line with the general opinion of the audience, which applauded every song.

The audience also laughed frequently, for though Robeson's life was packed with much pain and suffering, there were many periods of joy and success.

Accomplished patron

The son of a former slave who became a minister, Robeson was born in 1989, excelled in sports, singing, debating and academics at high school in New Jersey and went on to study at Rutgers University and then Columbia, where he earned a law degree.

He made 11 films, acted in a number of plays and travelled widely giving concerts, but too often encountered racism, at home and abroad.

His 45-year marriage ended with the death of his wife, Eslanda Cardozo Goode, whom he had met at Columbia.

"I believe that all men are created equal under God," said White, as he quoted Robeson to begin the two-hour-long tribute.

Dressed in full black, like his musicians, he spent most of the time behind a clear glass (or plastic) lectern on which his script lay.

His expressive, fluid gestures complemented his rich, commanding voice and both were used to narrate the Robeson story and to convincingly convey the varied messages of the many songs. They included spirituals, lullabies, folk songs and show tunes.

The first was a spiritual, Samson Was a Witness for the Lord. The second, Steal Away Home, was introduced by White as he expressed his pleasure at being back home in Jamaica.

White's introductions to his songs usually made similar tenuous links between the songs and aspects of Robeson's life. The weakness didn't seem to matter.

After telling an anecdote involving Robeson being reprimanded by his father for some mischief, White sang My Curly-headed Baby.

Then the spiritual I've Got a Home in That Rock was followed quickly by the lullaby Rocking Chair, presumably because of the homophonic link.

The jazzy A Woman is a Sometime Thing, which White assured the audience, to laughter, was written by a man, was followed by No, John. It produced even more laughter, being about a woman who will neither let an admirer go nor agree to marry him.

The song is a dialogue between the lovesick man and the coy lady, and White, alternating between a baritone and a falsetto register, sang both parts. To more laughter, he quipped, "At about that time men began to take women's No's for Yes."

After Thornton informed us that Robeson learnt to speak 30 languages and got a particularly good reception in Moscow, White sang, in Russian, The Song of the Volga Boatman. The lovely Irish Skye Boat Song followed.

Among White's post-intermission songs were the popular I Got Plenty o' Nutten from the Gershwin folk opera Porgy and Bess and the melancholy labour union ballad I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night about the martyr of the title.

White returned to musicals with the romantic Rodgers and Hammerstein song Some Enchanted Evening.

The evening almost ended with Robeson's signature song (and perhaps White's as well), Ole Man River, which earned the singer a standing ovation. But at the emcee's request for a Jamaican song, White obliged with the above-mentioned Marley anthem.

Still, the audience begged for more and White finally closed the wonderful programme with Nobody Knows De Trouble I've Seen. The end was on a high note, literally and figuratively.