He don' plant taters, he don't plant cotton
So, what does he do? Oh, and who is "he" anyway?
Well, first off we should clarify what you might have already figured out: "Ol' Man River" isn't so much a person as a symbol at the center of the song.
Ol' Man River really is just the Mississippi River, where the musical Show Boat takes place. Joe, the character singing the song, acts as though the river is someone he knows and uses the image of the river's peaceful, rolling existence as a contrast to his own life and that of other Black people. Ol' Man River, he suggests, is full of calm because he is not tasked with the hard work of planting potatoes and cotton for long, hard days.
The song's sadness about a life of toil is grounded in history. Many a sad song has been sung about the lifestyle of sharecropping that emerged for a large number of Blacks in the South after the abolition of slavery. Even though Blacks were legally free people, economic constraints frequently meant that they stayed in the South—sometimes on the very plantations where they had worked before—and worked the fields.
In addition to sharecropping, Black workers did the sort of work that Joe and the other Black characters in Show Boat do, such as loading goods on the docks and other manual labor.
Darkies work on de Mississippi
Darkies work while de white folks play
Most people would say that the phrase "darkies" is quite passé as a way to refer to African Americans or Black Americans.
We don't know of anyone who would go around calling people "darkies" these days, but when Paul Robeson sang Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics, he was working within a whole different framework. The line was originally changed from using "n-----s" (the word used in the 1927 Broadway play) to "darkies"(the word used in the 1936 film Show Boat).
After 1936, Robeson changed the language again to "colored folks" for all of his future performances. Apparently he also sometimes just skipped the verse altogether, finding it offensive to Black people. Today, the verse is sung as, "Here we all work on the Mississippi," with no explicit reference to race.
Let me go 'way from the Mississippi
Let me go 'way from de white man boss
A lot of people misunderstood this song, assuming it was written about antebellum times.
Despite talk of a white man boss, though, Show Boat takes place after the war, from around the 1880s until the 1920s. "Postbellum" might have been a nice word, but when it comes to race relations, we generally call this particular era the Jim Crow era.
"Jim Crow" refers to the strict system of legal and extralegal segregation enforced throughout the South and in parts of the North after the Civil War. The term "Jim Crow" comes from a character who performed in blackface in the early 19th century; the phrase became an offensive way of referring to Black men, and later it was adopted as the title for a whole era of racial degradation. Slavery was over, but African Americans often still had a "white man boss" and were still at constant risk of brutal violence and daily disrespect.
Show me dat stream called de River Jordan,
Dat's de ol' stream dat I long to cross.
Which river would you rather be baptized in: the Mississippi or the Jordan?
Disclaimer: You may not want to be baptized at all. Or maybe you already were. In any case, just say hypothetically you had to choose.
Well, a lot of Christians would probably opt for the Jordan River, the river where Jesus was reputedly baptized by John the—wait for it—Baptist. The Jordan River (or the River Jordan in British English) is also the site of several miracles in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament).
In the New Testament, Jesus also crosses over the river several times to minister to people. These lines compare the singer’s hard life as a worker on the Mississippi to a life of religious enlightenment he imagines escaping to. These days the Jordan River faces problems of pollution that have restricted its use as a site of baptisms. You can baptize a man to wash his sins away, but you can’t baptize a river to wash away its chemicals.