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It's difficult to overstate how accomplished Paul Robeson was. By the time he reached 40, he'd established a reputation as a college and professional football star, lawyer, film and Broadway actor, concert singer, and powerful international political activist.
Have we mentioned that he won 14 varsity letters in different sports in college, including baseball, shot put, and javelin? And that he lived in England for 11 years supporting workers' rights and learning about anti-colonial politics? And that he wrote books and essays, and gave speeches alongside famous civil rights activists? And that he's been on postage stamps in five different countries?
Oh, and that he was a Black man living and working (as a lawyer, actor, singer, basketball coach, and professional football player, among other things) in the U.S. in a time when Blacks had to struggle for the most basic human rights?
Of all the gazillion things he did in his life, his performance in the musical Show Boat is one of the most famous (and good thing, too, as the role he played was quite literally written for him by Jerome Kern). In Robeson's gorgeous baritone, a number from the 1927 musical becomes a powerful historical sketch. "Ol' Man River" paints a picture of cruel racial discrimination, hard physical labor, and the hopelessness and despair that come with it all. This is the definitive version of a song that helped define American musical theater, as well as helped document an important phase of American history.
|Year||Show Boat premiered on Broadway in 1927, but Robeson didn't perform the song until 1928.|
|Writer(s)||Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II|
|Producer(s)||Universal Pictures (film producer)|
|Musician(s)||Paul Robeson (vocals), Men’s Chorus (vocals)|
|Learn to play|
|Album||Show Boat Musical Soundtrack (1936), Ol' Man River (Single)|
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.'" (Source)
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.
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.
Edna Ferber, Show Boat (1927)
The original musical was based off of a book described as a "classic southern love story set on a Mississippi River boat."
Joseph Dorinson and William Pencak, Paul Robeson: Essays on His Life and Legacy (2002)
This continued effort to revive Robeson's legacy includes essays on his childhood, his involvement in sports, his activism, and the political views and writings of his wife, Eslanda Robeson.
Paul Robeson, Here I Stand (1958)
This autobiography came at the tail of a key period in Robeson's tragic career: the period of his blacklisting and public denunciation, which began in earnest when none other than Jackie Robinson testified against him before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949.
Show Boat (1993 Toronto Revival Cast) (1994)
This is the soundtrack to the latest longstanding production of Show Boat, which originated in Toronto in the early 1990s. The soundtracks from Robeson's original stage or video productions are not available.
Paul Robeson, Ol’ Man River and Other Favorites, Recorded 1928–1939 (2000)
Paul Robeson lived in England for much of this recording period, but his performances were influential in the U.S. and all over the world. This re-released album includes 20 digitally remastered tracks from Robeson's recording history.
Paul Robeson, The Very Best of Paul Robeson (2009)
This release includes 45 tracks of great Paul Robeson recordings.
Robeson in Protest
Here, Robeson walks alongside Blacks and whites in a 1942 protest for the rights of Oakland dockworkers.
This is the book-cover image we probably see the most frequently.
Paul Robeson "Black Heritage" Postage Stamp
A long struggle finally won recognition for Robeson on a postage stamp.
Show Boat (1936)
Although other versions of Show Boat have become films—first in 1929, and also in 1951—this one is considered the most faithful to the original script, and the best. It features Paul Robeson as "Joe."
The Emperor Jones (1933)
This is one of Robeson's earlier film appearances. It was difficult to find roles that were acceptable for a Black man to play in 1930s, but his excessive talent got him work nonetheless.
Paul Robeson Foundation
To keep up with what Robeson's admirers are up to these days, check out his foundation's page.
Show Boat Overview
This background page on Show Boat gives a brief synopsis, plus some context and background on the show's importance in the context of American musical theater.
Peter Applebome, "From the Valley of Obscurity, Robeson’s Baritone Rings Out," The New York Times (1998)
This is a fascinating article about Robeson's legacy 100 years after his birth, which highlights the ways that Cold War politics put an almost full stop on Robeson's reputation. In 1998, there was a massive effort to bring back his memory, which seems to have had some effect today.
Scott Simon, "'Ol' Man River': An American Masterpiece," NPR (2003)
This little radio piece commemorates the 75th anniversary of "Ol' Man River" and highlights Robeson's association with the song.
"Ol' Man River" in Show Boat
Paul Robeson's performance greatly contributed to this film's success and its lasting status as a definitive version of Show Boat.
Paul Robeson, "Ol' Man River"
Of course, enjoy our song of the hour.
Frank Sinatra, "Ol' Man River" Live (1962)
Enjoy this version, too.
The Temptations, "Ol' Man River" Live (1966)
It just gets more and more interesting the realm of pop re-makes of "Ol' Man River." This one, done with a bit of Temptations-style five-part harmony, is actually really different and beautiful.