Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote “Ol’ Man River” for Show Boat, which is hailed as the first musical to abandon the themed revue in favor of a dramatic production with music woven into the story line. Show Boat delved into taboo topics “like interracial sex and unhappy marriages as it followed the exploits of a Mississippi river boat’s primarily white travelers and the black laborers who serviced it. LW
Like other songs written about blacks by whites, “Ol’ Man River” is a minstrel tune which used “a caricature of a black Southern dialect” LW built on stereotypical images of the day which viewed African-Americans as second-class citizens. Joe, the 1880s dock worker who sings the song, “complains against his position in the world, but ultimately he seems resigned to it.” OT The song uses the Mississippi River as “a metaphor for the white man’s indifference: ‘What does he care if the world’s got troubles?/ What does he care if the land ain’t free?’” TM
Paul Robeson became “internationally renowned for both his singing and his Shakespearian acting,” OT thanks to his role as Joe in Show Boat for the London production, the 1929 Broadway revival, and “James Whale’s definitive 1936 film version.” TM Robeson was “a Rutgers football star and Columbia-educated lawyer whose charismatic presence would have propelled him to the top of any entertainment medium not hobbled by racism.” TM
As such, it should be no surprise that Robeson did not sing “River” “according to the established minstrel-show archetype.” OT Instead, his “delivery is massive, booming and operatic, animated by a barely suppressed anger.” OT “If there is a single message that can be abstracted from Robeson’s performance…it is surely that this is not the way the world should be.” OT
While Robeson has become most identified with the song, he was not the first to chart with it nor was his the most successful version. The Paul Whiteman Orchestra charted a couple months earlier with a version which was a #1 hit featuring Bing Crosby on vocals. Al Jolson went to #4 with a version which charted a few weeks earlier than Robeson’s. The same week Robeson charted saw the Revelers hit with their #10 version. In 1934, Luis Russell charted with a version which went to #19. PM It should also be noted that Jules Beldsoe first introduced the song and sang it in the 1929 film version of Show Boat. William Warfield sang it for the 1951 film version. JA
JA David A. Jasen. (2002). A Century of American Popular Music: 2000 Best-Loved and Remembered Songs (1899-1999). Routledge: Taylor & Francis, Inc. Page 150.
LW Alan Lewens (2001). Popular Song – Soundtrack of the Century. Billboard Books: New York, NY. Page 62.