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"Ol' Man River" (music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) is a song in the 1927 musical Show Boat, that contrasts African American hardship and struggles of the time with the endless, uncaring flow of the Mississippi River, from the view of a dock worker on a showboat.

It is the most famous song from the show. It is sung complete, once, by the dock worker "Joe" who travels with the boat, and is re-sung three times more 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 major-key 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). To some , Ol' Man River is symbolically an American version of the famous Russian folksong The Song of the Volga Boatmen. Both songs tell the story of those who live and work on a river.

Various versions

The song was first performed in the original stage production of Show Boat on December 27, 1927 by Julius Bledsoe, who also sang it in the part-talkie 1929 film. However, the most famous rendition of it, one that is still noted today, was sung by Paul Robeson in James Whale's 1936 film version of Show Boat (Robeson had first performed the song in the 1928 London production of the show and in the 1932 Broadway revival, and had even recorded it with Paul Whiteman's orchestra back in 1928). Many musicians and musical groups have covered the song, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Al Jolson, Ray Charles, Jim Croce, and The Beach Boys and it is considered an Americanmarker classic. William Warfield sang it in the 1951 film version of Show Boat, another rendition which became very famous. (It became his signature song, and he performed it several times on television.) Famous bass singer of The Temptations, Melvin Franklin was known to sing this at most concerts, and it eventually became his signature song, as well. Judy Garland, one of the few female singers to attempt the song, sang a powerful rendition of it on her television show in 1963, and also recorded it.

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 Playhousemarker version of Show Boat, which was televised by PBS.

The song also has versions in the Indian languages Hindi, Bengali and Assamese sung by Bhupen Hazarika, who met Robeson while studying at Columbia University. The Assamese song is called Bistirno Parore, the Bengali version is Bistirno Dupare. The Hindi composition is known as "Ganga Behti Ho Kyon." Instead of the Mississippi, the song is dedicated to the Brahmaputramarker river in the Assamese version and the Gangesmarker river in the Bengali and Hindi versions. Another excellent Bengali choral version is performed regularly on their concerts by Calcutta Youth Choir arranged by Ruma Guha Thakurta.

Second generation melody

From the show's song "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.

The year was 1927, and few predicted the second-generation song would become so popular in the Roaring Twenties, which had lighter upbeat songs, such as "Yes, We Have No Bananas" (1923).

Paul Robeson's alterations to the song lyrics

Beginning in 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. (In addition to the 1928 and 1932 stage productions, he appeared in a Los Angelesmarker stage revival in 1940). And except for the change in the lyrics 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 1951 film version of Show Boat, as well as the 1962 studio recording and the 1966 Lincoln Centermarker revival of the show, William Warfield sang only the introductory verse and the lyrics to the main section of the song, but omitted the rest, 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 line to Here we all work on de Mississippi. Also, the phrase "feared of dyin' " (rather than "skeered" of dying) has been sung in some recordings, notably Lawrence Tibbett's 1930's version, Gordon MacRae's 1950's 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 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.

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.

Frank Sinatra famously changed the "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 on) the grammar and appropriateness of the song's lyrics.

  • In an episode of the TV situation comedy Maude, the housekeeper Florida (played by Esther Rolle) sings "Darkies all work while de white folks play" as she does housework. Her politically correct and liberal employer Maude (Beatrice Arthur) scolds her and says that the words have changed, to which Florida sings "Coloured folks work on the Mississippi". Maude explains that the proper new lyrics to the song are "Here we all work on the Mississippi, here we all work while the straw boss plays." Florida replies that those may be the new lyrics, but the only problem is that "y'all still playing and we're still working".

  • In The Jackson Five cartoon episode "Rasho-Jackson", all five brothers depict Jackie Jackson as a whip-wielding tyrant yelling "Tote that barge, lift that bale!". Jackie sees himself saying the same thing, but in a genteel, British accent.

  • A popular, up-tempo British ballad of 1933, "Old Father Thames," mirrored some of the strains of "Ol' Man River" but celebrated stoicism over despair and resignation: Old Father Thames keeps rolling along, / Down to the mighty sea. / What does he know? What does he care? / Nothing for you or me.... (Words and music by Raymond Wallace & "Betsy O'Hogan" [Lawrence Wright]).

  • In the 1947 film version of James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Danny Kaye, during one of Mitty's fantasies, performs a number called "Fashions by Anatol", which contains the parodistic (and somewhat irrelevant) line "Tote dat barge! Lift dat veil!", referring of course, to a woman's veil. The film also contains a reference to Show Boat's Gaylord Ravenal, by including a Mississippi riverboat sequence in which Mitty (Kaye) imagines himself as riverboat gambler Gaylord Mitty.

  • In a politically incorrect Daffy Duck cartoon, Daffy suddenly appears as an old black slave, and in dialect, speaks the line "Tote dat barge! Lift dat bale!".

  • In a Snagglepuss cartoon, Snagglepuss also says the line for no real reason (but not in dialect).

  • Singer Patti LuPone sang this song in her concert Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda stating "There were only two things standing between me and this role".

  • During an episode of Futurama, Bender complains about the amount of work he has to do, saying "Yes Miss Leela, no Miss Leela, tote that space barge, lift that space pail."

  • In an episode of The Golden Girls, it is revealed that Dorothy (Bea Arthur) sang this song in high school. When prompted, she delivers the famous half-octave drop on the line, "Get a little drunk, and you land in jail".

  • Tunis born and usually German language Singer Roberto Blanco sang it on the 70th anniversary of his birthday live on TV.

  • On an episode of Martin entitled "Dead Men Don't Flush", the cast sings Ol' Man River around the supposedly dead plumber's body as he sits on the couch.

  • Mad Magazine published a parody about Hollywood movie stars and MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer who went to great lengths to "collect more stars than the heavens".

  • On an episode on the second season of the BBC sitcom Grace & Favour, Miss Brahms (Wendy Richard) and Mr. Humphries (John Inman) sing a version of the song while planting potatoes, featuring the lyrics "Planting taters/Bake my bottom/And poor old Rumbold/Is soon forgotten/He just keeps plantin'/He just keeps plantin' along".


  2. Broadway: The American Musical: Books: Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon
  3. "Lesson: Ol’ Man River" (school lesson for Mississippi River), Michael E. Marrapodi, New Covenant Christian School, Ashland, Massachusetts, 2006, webpage: MassGeo-River: shows phrase "feared of dyin' " (rather than "skeered" of dying) as sung in earlier recordings.
  7. From Rolling Stone, March 23, 2006: "One day, his girlfriend, Michelle Williams, wrote a song title -- "Old Man River" -- on his forearm. Ledger got a tattoo artist to run the needles over her words, the way a shopkeeper will frame his first dollar. The song comes from a sad musical, and contains this key advice: "He must know somethin', but he don't say nothin'."

External links

Further reading

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