Ol' Man River

Ol' Man River
"Ol' Man River"
Music by Jerome Kern
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Written 1927
Recorded by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, others
Performed by Paul Robeson, Jules Bledsoe, others

"Ol' Man River" (music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) is a song in the 1927[1] musical Show Boat that expresses the African American hardship and struggles of the time with the endless, uncaring flow of the Mississippi River; it is sung from the point-of-view of a dock worker on a showboat,[2][3] and is the most famous song from the show. Meant to be performed in a slow tempo, it is sung completely once by the black dock worker "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 no. 1 hit recording of the song in 1928 sung 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 Paul Robeson on vocals and sung in a dance tempo, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2006.


Various versions

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 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, Sam Cooke, Al Jolson, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Django Reinhardt, Ray Charles, Jim Croce, Jimmy Ricks and the Ravens, The Beach Boys, The Jeff Beck Group, Muslim Magomayev[4] and Aretha Franklin. 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.

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),[5] and P.L. Brown sang it in the 1989 Paper Mill Playhouse version of Show Boat, which was televised by PBS.[6]

The song also has versions in the Indian languages Hindi[7], Bengali, and Assamese[8] sung by Bhupen Hazarika[9], who met Robeson while studying at Columbia University. The Assamese song is called "Bistirno Parore"; the Bengali version is Bistirno Dupare.[citation needed] The Hindi composition is known as "Ganga Behti Ho Kyon." Instead of the Mississippi, the song is dedicated to the Brahmaputra river in the Assamese version and the Ganges river in the Bengali and Hindi versions.[citation needed] Another excellent Bengali choral version, arranged by Ruma Guha Thakurta, is performed regularly in concerts by Calcutta Youth Choir.[citation needed]

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 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 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.[2] (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".[10]

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:

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. Al Jolson sang a version starting with "lots of folks work on the Mississippi." Also, the phrase "feared of dyin' " (rather than "skeered" of dying) has been sung in some recordings,[3] 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..." It has been noted that this line was possibly Hammerstein's original lyric, and could have been changed because of the racial dynamics of pre-Civil Rights America.
  • 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!"[11] Late in Scene 7 of Act II, 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". According to the 1988 EMI album of Show Boat, these are Hammerstein's authentic lyrics for this reprise.

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.[12]

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.[13]

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.
  • 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.
  • Jimmy Velvit recorded a version titled "Old Man River Boogie" for his 1995 CD Jimmy Velvit - The Original (Collectables Records COL-5530).
  • 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 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".
  • In the Futurama episode "Fear of a Bot Planet", 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".[specify]
  • 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".
  • During Michael Jordan's brief return to professional basketball playing for the Washington Wizards, the political satire group The Capitol Steps released a parody called "Old Man Wizard".
  • In 1998, the political satire group The Capitol Steps released a parody about Bill Clinton called "Old Man Zipper".
  • In Olaf Stapledon's 1932 novel Last Men in London, the narrator, a human descendant from two billion years in the future, and his mate, sing a rough duet of "Ol' Man River" to better understand the minds of 20th Century humans.
  • In Leonard Bernstein's musical West Side Story, the character of Anybodys remarks "Whatta bunch of ol' man rivers; they don't know nothin', and they don't say nothin'."
  • In The Honeymooners lost episode "Christmas Party", which first aired December 19, 1953, Frances Langford asks Ed Norton if there is a song that he would like her to sing to which he replies "How about that number that was always good for you, Ol' Man River."
  • In Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan, reporters ask locals in Arrow Catcher, Mississippi if they would be willing to play "Old Man River," and they reply that "they couldn't recollect ever having heard that song."
  • In episode 43 of the Australian tv drama series Prisoner (aka Prisoner:Cell Block H), when Officer Jim Fletcher orders the women to work in the prison laundry, top dog "Queen" Bea Smith sings the lines; "tote that barge, lift that bail" to the tune of Ol' Man River
  • The movie Joe Versus the Volcano released in 1990 features the Ray Charles version. The song is introduced after the lead character, Joe Banks (played by Tom Hanks), hears from his doctor that he is terminally ill.


  1. ^ http://www.ibdb.com/production.php?id=10538
  2. ^ a b Amazon.com: Broadway: The American Musical: Books: Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon
  3. ^ a b "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.
  4. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgIL0auB5xA/
  5. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078526/
  6. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0201928/
  7. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzWa6yuLX2A
  8. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OcO6hIcN1A0
  9. ^ http://www.bhupenhazarika.com/wordpress/?p=13
  10. ^ http://www.amazon.com/dp/0822215152
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WLtCPRjqb0
  13. ^ http://www.otr.net/
  14. ^ 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

  • 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).

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  • Ol’ Man River — ist der Titel des bekanntesten Liedes aus dem Musical Show Boat. Es wurde von Jerome David Kern (Musik) und Oscar Hammerstein II (Text) im Jahr 1927 verfasst. Der Showstopper wurde stilübergreifend gecovert und entwickelte sich zum Jazzstandard… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Ol' Man River — Ol’ Man River [Ol Man River] a song about the ↑Mississippi River from the musical play Show Boat. The best known performance of it was by Paul Robeson, who joined the show after it moved to London in 1928. It is sung by the character Joe and is a …   Useful english dictionary

  • Old Man River — may refer to: Mississippi River, U.S. Ol Man River , a song from the musical Show Boat Old Man River (I ve Come to Talk Again) , a song by Reba McEntire from Unlimited Old Man River (musician) See also Oldman River, Alberta, Canada Neill… …   Wikipedia

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  • Ol' Man River — est une chanson écrite par Oscar Hammerstein II, sur une musique de Jerome Kern, datant de 1927. Elle est le thème de la comédie musicale Show Boat[1], qui parle de la triste histoire et de la lutte des travailleurs afro américains, du point de… …   Wikipédia en Français

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  • Ol’ Man River — a song about the Mississippi River from the musical play Show Boat. The best known performance of it was by Paul Robeson, who joined the show after it moved to London in 1928. It is sung by the character Joe and is a sad song about the hard life… …   Universalium

  • Old Man River — ☆ Old Man River name for MISSISSIPPI (the river) …   English World dictionary

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