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Ol’ Man River

Ol’ Man River


by Paul Robeson


Influences on Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson was most deeply influenced by his father, a man who had escaped slavery and made a name for himself as a minister. According to the Paul Robeson Foundation, Robeson’s father “possessed a rich bass speaking voice and an air of surpassing dignity. He was a stern taskmaster and taught his son personal discipline, a love for learning, and a continuing quest for perfection. Paul's four older siblings, the rich African-American culture of his New Jersey relatives who had recently emigrated from the South, and the community life associated with his father’s church all influenced his childhood. He wrote in his autobiography Here I Stand, ‘The glory of my boyhood years was my father. I loved him like no one in all the world.... How proudly, as a boy, I walked at his side, my hand in his, as he moved among the people.’”

Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern may have had other models to go on, but they, like Robeson, were pioneers in their field. Hammerstein was influenced by the Vaudeville theater his father ran; Kern was influenced by his studies of classical piano as a youngster and by the Vaudevillian revues he saw as a kid.

Influenced by Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson died in 1976, leaving behind a legacy that is still unmatched in American history in terms of the scope of his skills and capabilities. Although his fame declined from about the 1950s on, his influence can be seen everywhere, from the rhetoric of the Black Power movement to his place on a 2004 U.S. postage stamp.

Oscar Hammerstein II died in 1960, after nearly four decades of writing musicals that changed the face of American theater (anyone heard of Oklahoma! or The Sound of Music?). Jerome Kern, who wrote the music for Show Boat, passed much earlier, in 1945. Together they wrote four other musical plays: Sweet Adeline, Music in the Air, Three Sisters, and Very Warm for May. Although none were as successful as Show Boat, the two names remain some of the biggest in Broadway and can probably be said to influence all American musical theater today.

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