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Paul Robeson, “Ol’ Man River,” And “Jazz Impressions of Showboat”

On December 27, 1927, the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical Show Boat made its Broadway debut at the Ziegfield Theater.

Paul RobesonOn December 27, 1927, the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical Show Boat made its Broadway debut at the Ziegfield Theater. Show Boat, based on Edna Ferber’s novel, was one of the first musicals that wasn’t just a loose revue of unrelated songs; the songs in Show Boat actually helped establish characters and storylines. It also gave us songs like “Can’t Help Lovin Dat Man,” “Why Do I Love You,” “Bill,” and “Ol’ Man River.” The musical depicts life on the Mississippi, with a large cast of both white and African-American characters, and the song “Ol’ Man River,” which seeks to capture both the suffering of black laborers and the eternal spirit of the Mississippi, representative of life itself—became Show Boat’s showstopper.

Robeson Ol Man RiverThe part of Joe, who sings “Ol’ Man River,” had originally been written for the African-American actor and singer Paul Robeson when the musical debuted on Broadway, but he was unable to take part in the show until it went to London. His rendition of “Ol’ Man River” was such a smash that the song became identified with him for the rest of his life, and another reason why he was recruited to play the part of Joe again in the 1936 movie version. Robeson Ol' Man RiverHis performance of “Ol’ Man River” there is perhaps one of the most powerful segregation-era scenes in Hollywood history, delivered with passion and dignity against a backdrop of cinematic images suggesting both 1930s proletarian art and the Biblical suffering of slaves in Egypt, as other African-American laborers gather round him and join in his singing of the song. The shot of Robeson clutching the bars of a jail cell in a pose of angry crucifixion, children (apparently) on the floor behind him, is just one of several moments to signify that what we are seeing, and hearing, is an early civil-rights anthem:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_5qON6LY1c

How on earth did that make it past the censors in 1936? Distribution in the South was always a concern when it came to scenes that might prove racially troublesome (in the movie, an integrated performance of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” follows shortly after “Ol’ Man River”… another headscratcher by mid-1930s American segregationist standards). Robeson himself would often take liberties with the song’s lyrics in later performances, enhancing the spirit of resistance and resilience that he found within them.

Tonight on Afterglow, a weekly WFIU program that I host devoted to jazz, ballads and American popular song, we’ll feature some jazz and vocal interpretations of the music from Show Boat, Kenny Dorham Show Boatincluding performers such as Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Bing Crosby with Lee Wiley, Paul Motian, Art Pepper, Duke Ellington, and Kenny Dorham (who recorded an entire album of Kern-Hammerstein Show Boat compositions)… also a couple of tracks from Barry Galbraith and Jimmy Raney’s “guitar-choir” treatment of the score. The program airs at 10:05 p.m. EST; you can listen to it live, or wait until Monday, when it will be posted in the Afterglow archives. (I’ll post the program on this site as well.) For more about the song “Ol’ Man River,” see Will Friedwald’s illuminating chapter in his book Stardust Melodies.

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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