"Ol' Man River" (music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) is a show tune from the 1927 musical Show Boat that contrasts the struggles and hardships of 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, 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 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 on vocals and Bix Beiderbecke on cornet. A second version, by Paul Whiteman with bass singer 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, and in 2004, Robeson's version finished at #24 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema.
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 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. The song became an American classic, and was performed by many musicians and musical groups, including 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 and Jerry Reed, The Jeff Beck Group, Muslim Magomayev, Aretha Franklin, Jane Siberry and Al Hirt. 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 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 subsequently described as the best version he'd ever heard.
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), and P.L. Brown sang it in the 1989 Paper Mill Playhouse version of Show Boat, which was televised by PBS.
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 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.
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. (In addition to the 1928 and 1932 stage productions as well as the 1936 film version, he appeared in a 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".
In the 1951 film version of Show Boat, as well as the 1962 studio recording and the 1966 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:
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 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, 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:
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.
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 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 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.