March 14, 2007

"Ol' Man River"

Ol' Man River

"Ol' Man River" (music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) is a song in the 1927 musical Show Boat (based on a 1926 novel of the same name by Edna Ferber, considered to be the first true American "musical play") that tells the story of African American hardship and struggles of the time. It is the most famous song in the show (Wikipedia entry).

Paul Robeson performing "Ol' Man River" in 1936 film version of Show Boat (find more screencaps here)

The most famous version of the song was sung by Paul Robeson in the 1936 film version of Show Boat (Robeson had performed the song several times before this film though, even recording it with Paul Whiteman's orchestra back in 1928). Many musicians and musical groups have covered the song, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Ray Charles, and it is considered an American classic (Wikipedia entry).

Here are the original lyrics; can you say "stereotype" (what else would you expect from two white Jewish guys from New York City)? :

Dere's an ol' man called de Mississippi,
Dat's de ol' man dat I'd like to be,
What does he care if de world's got troubles?
What does he care if de land ain't free?

Ol' Man River,
Dat Ol' Man River,
He mus' know sumpin',
But don' say nothin';
He jes' keeps rollin',
He keeps on rollin' along.

He don't plant taters,
He don't plant cotton,
An' dem dat plants 'em
Is soon forgotten,
But Ol' Man River,
He jes' keeps rollin' along.

You an' me, we sweat an' strain,
Body all achin' and racked with pain.
"Tote dat barge! Lift dat bale!"
Git a little drunk,
An' you lands in jail!

Ah gits weary,
An' sick o' tryin',
Ah'm tired o' livin',
And skeered o' dyin',
But Ol' Man River,
He jes' keeps rollin' along!


It could have been worse. There was a song called "That's Why Darkies Were Born" (also sung by Robeson).

What is interesting is how Robeson changed many of the most pathetic, near racist representations of "slave speak" to more "standard" grammar. Here are some examples (Wikipedia entry):

1. 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"..."

2. 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..."

3. 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.


Sinatra nearing his peak popularity- you can almost literally tell by the height of his hair. It's as if his head is about to explode, brimming over with ego as it was.

Frank Sinatra wisely changed the "Niggers all work on de Mississippi..." to "Here we all work on the Mississippi..." in his version of the song. Here he is in a colorized (seems rather pointless here) version of the finale from the 1946 Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By. The description from its YouTube page sums it up pretty well: "The finale to the so-so PUBLIC DOMAIN movie Till The Clouds Roll By features Frank Sinatra singing this classic, and instantly dwarfs everything that came before it." And even though his performance is lip synced, this is an excellent example of Sinatra's frequently used technique of connecting the end of one word, at the finish of a line, to the start of the next (think "My Way," "Fools Rush In," etc.). The pure athleticism of his singing here, alone, is impressive:


No offense, but were people really frothing at the mouth in anticipation of a Jerome Kern biopic??? Honestly. People must have been starved for entertainment back in the '40s. I guess it didn't hurt that the biggest star in the world at the time, Frank Sinatra, makes a small appearance at the very end. But still. Can you imagine something like this being made today?

The low G he hits on his Reprise version of "Ol' Man River" (from The Concert Sinatra) is one of the lowest, recorded notes Sinatra ever hit, the lowest being on his 1969 recording of "Wave," hitting an Eb.

Incidentally, one of the highest notes he hit was on his December 3, 1944, Columbia recording of "Ol' Man River," where he reaches a high E.

How about Deano's swingin' version (thanks to Blognor Regis for pointing it out!)? Leave it to Dean Martin to deflate all the hot air out of something heavy:


  • Here's a great NPR piece about the history of "Ol' Man River" I came across whilst researching this topic.
  • 4 comments:

    Blognor Regis said...

    Great post.

    Have you seen Dean Martin's rendition? It's, erm, toe tapping.

    Chris said...

    Thanks, blognor regis. I've seen it now!

    SamuraiFrog said...

    What I like about Sinatra is that in the earlier parts of his career he seemed to have a real sincerity. When he sings "I'm tired of living and scared of dying," you can really feel it. Not bad at all.

    Robeson and Sinatra, two of the greats.

    Chris said...

    That's the thing about Sinatra - he could make any song (including one about the Southern black slave experience) sound like it was about him.