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"Ol' Man River" (music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) is a show tune from the 1927[1] musical Show Boat
Show Boat
that contrasts the struggles and hardships of African Americans
African Americans
with the endless, uncaring flow of the Mississippi River. It is sung from the point of view of a black stevedore on a showboat,[2][3] and is the most famous song from the show. The song is meant to be performed in a slow tempo, it is sung complete once in the musical's lengthy first scene by the stevedore "Joe" who travels with the boat, and, in the stage version, is heard four more times in brief reprises. Joe serves as a sort of musical one-man Greek chorus, and the song, when reprised, comments on the action, as if saying, "This has happened, but the river keeps rolling on anyway." The song is notable for several aspects: the lyrical pentatonic-scale melody, the subjects of toil and social class, metaphor to the Mississippi, and as a bass solo (rare in musicals, solos for baritones or tenors being more common). Paul Whiteman
Paul Whiteman
and His Orchestra had a hit recording of the song in 1928, in a much faster tempo than Kern and Hammerstein intended, and featuring Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby
on vocals and Bix Beiderbecke
Bix Beiderbecke
on cornet.[4] A second version, by Paul Whiteman
Paul Whiteman
with bass singer Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson
on vocals and sung in a dance tempo, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2006. The song is considered one of the greatest of all time,[citation needed] and in 2004, Robeson's version finished at #24 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema.

Contents

1 Various versions 2 Notable recordings 3 Turning an upbeat-sounding melody into a tragic one 4 Paul Robeson's alterations to the song lyrics 5 Parodies and references 6 See also 7 References 8 Further reading 9 External links

Various versions[edit] The song was first performed in the original stage production of Show Boat on December 27, 1927, by Jules Bledsoe, who also sang it in the part-talkie 1929 film, although that film version had little to do with the stage musical. Bledsoe also recorded the song years later. However, the most famous rendition of it, one that is still noted today, was sung by Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson
in James Whale's classic 1936 film version of Show Boat. (Robeson had performed the song before in the 1928 London production of the show and in the 1932 Broadway revival.) The first known recording of the song was by 'Kenn' Sisson and His Orchestra, recorded on December 27, 1927, with Irving Kaufman on vocals.[5] The song became an American classic, and was performed by many musicians and musical groups, including Paul Whiteman
Paul Whiteman
and His Orchestra, Bix Beiderbecke, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Harry James, Gordon MacRae, Robert Merrill, Sam Cooke, Roy Hamilton, Sammy Davis, Jr., Al Jolson, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Cilla Black, Melanie, Django Reinhardt, Ray Charles, Cher, Jim Croce, Jimmy Ricks and the Ravens, The Beach Boys, Chet Atkins
Chet Atkins
and Jerry Reed, The Jeff Beck Group, Muslim Magomayev,[6] Aretha Franklin, Jane Siberry
Jane Siberry
and Al Hirt.[7] William Warfield
William Warfield
sang it in the 1951 Technicolor film version of Show Boat in another rendition that became very famous. (It became his signature song, and he performed it several times on television and in several stage revivals of Show Boat.) Melvin Franklin, the famous bass singer of The Temptations, performed it at most concerts, eventually making it his signature song. Judy Garland, one of the few female singers to attempt the song, sang a powerful rendition on her television show in 1963, followed by a studio recording. Indian Singer, Bhupen Hazarika
Bhupen Hazarika
had also sung a version in Hindi and his native Assamese called "O Ganga tu behti hai kyon". Cilla Black released a jazz version of the song on her first album in 1965 Cilla which Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby
subsequently described as the best version he'd ever heard.[citation needed] Among less well-known singers who have performed the song on television, bass-baritone Dan Travis, Jr. sang it in the made-for-television biopic Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women (1978),[8] and P.L. Brown sang it in the 1989 Paper Mill Playhouse
Paper Mill Playhouse
version of Show Boat, which was televised by PBS.[9] Notable recordings[edit]

Wilfred Glenn's vocal chorus with Don Voorhees and His Orchestra, recorded in June 1928 (10" Columbia Graphophone, Cat no. 4901, side B) Gene Ammons Jazz version backed by Richard Wyands piano, Doug Watkins bass, and J. C. heard drums recorded on the Prestige album Jug in 1961

Turning an upbeat-sounding melody into a tragic one[edit] From the show's opening number "Cotton Blossom", the notes in the phrase "Cotton Blossom, Cotton Blossom" are the same notes as those in the phrase "Ol' Man River, dat Ol' Man River," but inverted. However, "Cotton Blossom" was written first, and "Ol' Man River" was written only after Kern and Hammerstein realized they needed a song to end the first scene in the show. Hammerstein decided to use the idea of the Mississippi River
Mississippi River
as a basis for the song, and told Kern to use the melody that the stevedores sang in "Cotton Blossom" but invert some of it, and slow down the tempo. This inversion gave "Ol' Man River" a tragic quality. Paul Robeson's alterations to the song lyrics[edit] Beginning about 1938, and continuing on to the end of his career, Paul Robeson changed a few of the lyrics of "Ol' Man River" when singing it at recitals, though never in actual stage performances of Show Boat, and not in the 1936 film version.[2] (In addition to the 1928 and 1932 stage productions as well as the 1936 film version, he appeared in a Los Angeles
Los Angeles
stage revival in 1940). Except for the change of the word "niggers" to "darkies," the lyrics of the song as Robeson performed it in the 1936 film version of the show remain exactly as Oscar Hammerstein II originally wrote them in 1927. However, after 1938, Robeson would record the song only with the lyrics that he used in his post-1936 concert recitals. In the 1978 one-man play Paul Robeson, by Phillip Hayes Dean, there is a (perhaps fictitious) reference to the change in the lyrics - an unseen interviewer asks Robeson (played by James Earl Jones) about the original lyrics, and he responds "No, I don't sing it that way anymore".[10] In the 1951 film version of Show Boat, as well as the 1962 studio recording and the 1966 Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center
revival of the show, William Warfield sang only the introductory verse and the lyrics to the main section of the song, and omitted what could be considered a controversial section, in contrast to both Jules Bledsoe (who sang it in the prologue to the 1929 film version) and Robeson (who sang the whole song in the 1936 film). The section that Warfield omitted begins:

Niggers all work on de Mississippi, Niggers all work while de white folks play...

In the 1936 film, the word "niggers" was changed to "darkies". Ever since the 1946 revival, the term has been changed to "colored folks", although there have been revivals that change the lines to Here we all work on de Mississippi,/ Here we all work while de white folks play. Al Jolson
Al Jolson
sang a version starting with "lots of folks work on the Mississippi." Also, the phrase "feared of dyin' " (rather than "skeered of dyin' ") has been sung in some recordings,[3] notably Lawrence Tibbett's 1930s version, Gordon MacRae's 1950s version (first heard on The Railroad Hour), and Frank Sinatra's 1946 performance, first heard in the film Till the Clouds Roll By. Robeson's own 1938 changes in the lyrics of the song are as follows:

Instead of "Dere's an ol' man called de Mississippi, / Dat's de ol' man that I'd like to be...", Robeson sang "There's an ol' man called the Mississippi, / That's the ol' man I don't like to be"..." Instead of "Tote that barge! / Lift that bale! / Git a little drunk, / An' you land in jail...", Robeson sang "Tote that barge and lift dat bale!/ You show a little grit / And you lands in jail.." Instead of "Ah gits weary / An' sick of tryin'; / Ah'm tired of livin' / An skeered of dyin', / But Ol' Man River, / He jes' keeps rolling along!", Robeson sang "But I keeps laffin'/ Instead of cryin' / I must keep fightin'; / Until I'm dyin', / And Ol' Man River, / He'll just keep rollin' along!"[11] In Scene 7 of Act II of the show, Joe does sing this verse, but rather than singing "I must keep fightin' until I'm dyin", sings "I must keep livin' until I'm dyin,/ But Ol' Man River,/ He jes' keeps rollin' along!" According to the 1988 EMI
EMI
album of Show Boat, these are Hammerstein's authentic lyrics for this reprise.

In recitals and in several of his many recordings of the song, Robeson also omitted the controversial section "Niggers all work on de Mississippi...", etc., with its middle portion "Don't look up/ An' don't look down/ You don't dast make / De white boss frown", etc., as well as its concluding "Lemme go ' way from de Mississippi/ Lemme go ' way from de white man boss, etc." . However, Robeson did include a portion of these lyrics in the 1932 4-record 78 rpm album of selections from Show Boat. Robeson's own changes to the lyrics were sung by him, and by no other singer, although a clip exists of William Warfield, singing voice nearly gone, in one of his last appearances before his death, singing the song with the changes that Robeson incorporated into it.[12] The changes in Robeson's concert renditions of the song shift the portrayal of Joe away from a resigned and sad character who is susceptible to the forces of his world, to one who is timelessly empowered and able to persevere through even the most trying circumstances. Lawrence Tibbett, in his performances of the song, did use the word "niggers". Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra
famously changed "Niggers all work on de Mississippi..." to "Here we all work on the Mississippi..." in a version of the song that he recorded post-1946. His 1946 performance of it omitted this section altogether. The Temptations
The Temptations
changed any references to the "white man boss" to "rich man boss", as well as "Here we all work while the white boys play" to "Here we all work while the rich boys play". In 1988, EMI/ Angel Records issued a 3-CD set of the complete score of Show Boat, starring Frederica Von Stade, Jerry Hadley, Teresa Stratas, and Bruce Hubbard, conducted by John McGlinn. On this album, the original 1927 lyrics of Ol' Man River were heard for the first time on a hi-fi stereo recording. Gordon MacRae's version of the song, as performed on The Railroad Hour, changed the phrase white man boss to big man boss.[13] Parodies and references[edit]

A parody version was performed on CBS Radio
CBS Radio
by Stan Freberg
Stan Freberg
and Daws Butler in 1957, entitled "Elderly Man River." The parody lampooned what would today be termed "political correctness" by featuring a prudish censor from the "Citizen's Radio Board" who repeatedly interrupts Freberg's performance of the song to criticize (and insist on changes to) the grammar and appropriateness of the song's lyrics. The Australian oddball pop group TISM
TISM
produced in 1996 a hit single about River Phoenix
River Phoenix
and his death, entitled "(He'll Never Be An) Ol' Man River". At the 76th Academy Awards, host Billy Crystal
Billy Crystal
performed a parody of the song, with the lyrics concerning the 2003 film Mystic River
Mystic River
and its director Clint Eastwood. In the Daffy Duck
Daffy Duck
cartoon Wise Quackers, Daffy at one point impersonates a black slave and utters the line "Tote dat barge, lift dat bale!" In the musical play and film West Side Story, the character Anybodys refers to the Jets, who are keeping Tony's whereabouts a secret after he has killed a man, as "a bunch of Ol' Man Rivers. They must know somethin' but don't say nothin'". In the episode "Simpsons Tall Tales" on the television show The Simpsons, Doctor Hibbert sings a version of "Ol' Man River" in the part with Tom Sawyer
Tom Sawyer
and Huckleberry Finn. In the episode "Fear of a Bot Planet" on the television show Futurama, after being asked to move a heavy box by the mutant captain Leela, the robot Bender responds, "Yes Miss Leela. Tote that space barge. Lift that space bale." In the episode "Henny Penny — Straight, No Chaser" on the television show The Golden Girls, Dorothy mentions having performed in a high school production of Show Boat, to which Sophia encourages her to reprise a small verse of Ol' Man River. Dorothy obliges by singing "Git a little drunk, / An' you land in jail ..."

See also[edit]

"That Lucky Old Sun" – a country-western song addressing similar themes and popularized by Frankie Laine

References[edit]

^ The Broadway League. " Show Boat
Show Boat
- IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information".  ^ a b "Broadway: The American Musical: Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon: 9780821229057: Amazon.com: Books".  ^ a b "Lesson: Ol’ Man River" (school lesson for Mississippi River), Michael E. Marrapodi, New Covenant Christian School, Ashland, Massachusetts, 2006, webpage: MassGeo-River Archived 2007-12-31 at the Wayback Machine.: shows phrase "feared of dyin' " (rather than "skeered" of dying) as sung in earlier recordings. ^ "A Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby
Discography". BING magazine. International Club Crosby. Retrieved April 30, 2017.  ^ Jerome Kern. "Cover versions of Ol' Man River by "Kenn" Sisson and His Orchestra - SecondHandSongs".  ^ MUSLIM MAGOMAEV "Old Man River" from the musical "Show Boat" on YouTube ^ Al Hirt, Our Man in New Orleans Retrieved April 10, 2013. ^ DOUG DEUSS (SHADO57) (21 May 1978). "Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women (TV Movie 1978)". IMDb.  ^ jj-87 (28 June 1999). ""Great Performances" Show Boat
Show Boat
(TV Episode 1989)". IMDb.  ^ "Paul Robeson.: Phillip Hayes Dean, Phillip Hayes Dean: 9780822215158: Amazon.com: Books".  ^ Sarah Lennox (2011). "Reading Transnationally: the GDR and American Black Writers" in Elaine Kelly, Amy Wlodarski (eds.), Art Outside the Lines: New Perspectives on GDR Art Culture. Editions Rodopi. ISBN 978-90-420-3341-2. p.124 ^ William Warfield
William Warfield
performs "Old Man River" (Robeson version) on YouTube ^ "OTR.Network Library (The Old Time Radio Network)". 

Further reading[edit]

The chapter "Ol' Man River" in the book Stardust Melodies: The Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs by Will Friedwald (New York: Pantheon Books, 2002).

External links[edit]

1927 lyrics to Ol' Man River

v t e

Edna Ferber's Show Boat
Show Boat
(1926)

Characters

Julie Dozier Gaylord Ravenal

Film

Show Boat
Show Boat
(1929) Show Boat
Show Boat
(1936) Show Boat
Show Boat
(1951)

Music

"Make Believe" "Ol' Man River" "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" "Bill" "After the Ball"

Other

Show Boat
Show Boat
(1927, musical) Show Boat
Show Boat
(1959 cast album)

v t e

Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby
singles

Discography

1920s

"My Blue Heaven" (with Paul Whiteman) "Ol' Man River" (with Paul Whiteman) "Mississippi Mud" (with Paul Whiteman) "Silent Night, Holy Night" (with Paul Whiteman) "Makin' Whoopee" (with Paul Whiteman) "Let's Do It" (with Dorsey Brothers) "Louise"

1930s

"Three Little Words" (with Duke Ellington) "I Surrender Dear" (with Gus Arnheim) "Just a Gigolo" "At Your Command" "Stardust" "Goodnight, Sweetheart" "Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day)" (Bing's Theme Song) "Waltzing in a Dream" "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You" "Temptation" "Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?" "June in January" "Love Is Just Around the Corner" "I Wished on the Moon" "It Ain't Necessarily So" "Pennies from Heaven" "Silent Night" "Adeste Fideles" "Sweet Leilani" "Blue Hawaii" "Never in a Million Years" "My Reverie" "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby" "God Bless America" " Ciribiribin (They're So in Love)" (w/ Andrews Sisters)

1940s

"Tumbling Tumbleweeds" "Only Forever" "Deep in the Heart of Texas" "Easter Parade" "White Christmas" "Moonlight Becomes You" "Sunday, Monday, or Always" "People Will Say We're in Love" "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" "Pistol Packin' Mama" (w/ Andrews Sisters) "I'll Be Home for Christmas" "Jingle Bells" (w/ Andrews Sisters) "I Love You" "I'll Be Seeing You" "Swinging on a Star" "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby" (w/ Andrews Sisters) "Amor" "Don't Fence Me In" (w/ Andrews Sisters) "You Belong to My Heart" "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" "If I Loved You" "It's Been a Long, Long Time" (w/ Les Paul Trio) "I Can't Begin to Tell You" "The Bells of St. Mary's" "McNamara's Band" "Get Your Kicks On Route 66" (w/ Andrews Sisters) "Night and Day" "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" (w/ Andrews Sisters) "Ballerina" "Now Is the Hour" "But Beautiful" "Careless Hands" "Riders in the Sky" "Some Enchanted Evening" "Dear Hearts and Gentle People" "Mule Train"

1950s

"Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?" (w/ Andrews Sisters) "Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy" "Play a Simple Melody" (w/ Gary Crosby) "La Vie en rose" "All My Love" "Beyond the Reef" "Harbor Lights" "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" "A Marshmallow World" "Sparrow in the Treetop" (w/ Andrews Sisters) "Gone Fishin'" (w/ Louis Armstrong) "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" (w/ Jane Wyman) "The Isle of Innisfree" "Zing a Little Zong" (w/ Jane Wyman) "Silver Bells" (w/ Carol Richards) "Down by the Riverside" (w/ Gary Crosby) "Young at Heart" "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep" "Stranger in Paradise" "In a Little Spanish Town" (w/ Buddy Cole Trio) "True Love" (w/ Grace Kelly) "Now You Has Jazz" (w/ Louis Armstrong) "Well, Did You Evah!" (w/ Frank Sinatra)

1970s

"That's What Life Is All About" "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy

.