Much of the interpretive scholarship on Paul Robeson has tended to focus on his art as it relates to politics, an imperative related no doubt as much to the social turn in the humanities as to the singer’s own activist credentials. This article shifts the focus to art matters with the goal of gaining additional perspective on Robeson’s early singing career in the 1920s by examining the contemporary practices of concert singing. The analysis focuses on three domains of practice pertaining to singing spirituals at concerts: the programming of spirituals in recital; arranging them for performance; and their vocal performance. I include a study of how Robeson’s concert practice is indebted to that of the tenor Roland Hayes, proposing that a close listening to Hayes’s singing sheds new light on the assessment of Robeson’s early concert career and representations of the singer as racial subject.
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