"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
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
AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema.
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
8 Further reading
9 External links
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
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
Bing Crosby subsequently described as the best version he'd ever
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
Paper Mill Playhouse version of
Show Boat, which was televised by PBS.
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
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
Paul Robeson's alterations to the song lyrics
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
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
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 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:
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!" 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
of Show Boat, these are Hammerstein's authentic lyrics for this
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
Lawrence Tibbett, in his performances of the song, did use the word
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.
Gordon MacRae's version of the song, as performed on The Railroad
Hour, changed the phrase white man boss to big man boss.
Parodies and references
A parody version was performed on
CBS Radio by
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 produced in 1996 a hit single
River Phoenix and his death, entitled "(He'll Never Be An) Ol'
At the 76th Academy Awards, host
Billy Crystal performed a parody of
the song, with the lyrics concerning the 2003 film
Mystic River and
its director Clint Eastwood.
Daffy Duck cartoon Wise Quackers, Daffy at one point
impersonates a black slave and utters the line "Tote dat barge, lift
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
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 ..."
"That Lucky Old Sun" – a country-western song addressing similar
themes and popularized by Frankie Laine
^ The Broadway League. "
Show Boat - IBDB: The official source for
^ 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.
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
^ 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 (TV Episode
^ "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 performs "Old Man River" (Robeson version) on
^ "OTR.Network Library (The Old Time Radio Network)".
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).
1927 lyrics to Ol' Man River
Show Boat (1926)
Show Boat (1929)
Show Boat (1936)
Show Boat (1951)
"Ol' Man River"
Help Lovin' Dat Man"
"After the Ball"
Show Boat (1927, musical)
Show Boat (1959 cast album)
Bing Crosby singles
"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)
"Three Little Words" (with Duke Ellington)
"I Surrender Dear" (with Gus Arnheim)
"Just a Gigolo"
"At Your Command"
"Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day)" (Bing's
"Waltzing in a Dream"
"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"
"I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You"
"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"
"Never in a Million Years"
"You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby"
"God Bless America"
Ciribiribin (They're So in Love)" (w/ Andrews Sisters)
"Deep in the Heart of Texas"
"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)
"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"
"Get Your Kicks On Route 66" (w/ Andrews Sisters)
"Night and Day"
"Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" (w/ Andrews Sisters)
"Now Is the Hour"
"Riders in the Sky"
"Some Enchanted Evening"
"Dear Hearts and Gentle People"
"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"
"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)
"That's What Life Is All About"
"Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy