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If we could take a field trip to 1927 to see the first Broadway performance of Show Boat, we might be a little bit disturbed. Show Boat is all about racism, but it has a funny way of showing it: The opening number in the original show begins with the line "N-----s all work on de Mississippi," sung by a chorus of Black dockworkers (the line has since been changed to "Here we all work on the Mississippi").
Show Boat, one of the most influential of all American musicals, is focused on the story of a few white members of a troupe on a Mississippi River showboat (a boat that travels around giving performances at docks). The Black performers in the musical are all dockworkers. The main character, Julie, is a mixed-race member of the theater troupe; she passes for white, but her marriage to a white man causes a big controversy on the boat due to laws against miscegenation in the Jim Crow South. The "one drop" rule meant that anyone who was even a tiny, tiny part Black was out of bounds for marriage with a white person.
But we digress. The point is, Show Boat takes place in a racially oppressive environment and confronts those issues. Kind of. The character whose role most highlights the racial divide of the times is Joe, one of the dockworkers, who acts as an observer of the action on and off the boat and uses the mournful song "Ol' Man River" to comment on race relations.
Still, sometimes it's hard to tell if the character of Joe reinforces racial stereotypes or transcends them. In any case, the simple yet profound sound of "Ol' Man River" has led it to become one of the most legendary musical theater songs in American history.
Despite its popularity, "Ol' Man River" was initially written as an aside, not a centerpiece. Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern needed a way to conclude the first scene of Show Boat, and "Ol' Man River" was structured as a mournful echo of the opening number, "Cotton Blossom." Joe became an important framing character in the show, and the writers imagined the part being played by the well-known Black actor, singer, and football player Paul Robeson. Who better than this force of nature to embody Joe's powerful role as observer and commentator?
Robeson was busy with other projects for the 1927 debut of Show Boat, but in 1928, he joined Show Boat in London and performed as Joe to rave reviews. He recorded "Ol' Man River" that year, and he later performed in the 1936 film adaptation of Show Boat, which remains the definitive version of the show.
In 1929, a version of the tune recorded by Bing Crosby became a #1 hit. Two things are weird there. One being it's about the most upbeat version of the song ever. Who knew the line "Body's achin, racked with pain" could sound so pleasant? Two being Crosby is a white pop singer. The results are awkward, in retrospect, although apparently in 1929, it was hunky-dory.
Since then, the song has been recorded by all kinds of people, including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Judy Garland (maybe the prizewinner for most awkward person to cover "Ol' Man River").
Robeson was an amazing choice for the part of Joe, and despite all the versions on the market, "Ol' Man River" is still generally thought of as his signature song. What made Robeson so ideal for the part? We're glad you asked. Oh, you didn't ask? Well, we'll tell you anyway.
We really can't say too much about what a remarkable figure Paul Robeson was. Robeson was born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, the child of a runaway-slave-turned-minister and an Black Quaker abolitionist from a prominent Pennsylvania family.
Young Paul was one of only two Black students in his high school, and he the third Black student ever admitted to Rutgers University, where he made a name for himself in college football as one of the first players on an integrated team (not to mention a star athlete—he won 14 varsity letters throughout his college career and even went on to play football professionally). He was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honors society, accepted into Rutgers's Cap and Skull society, and became his class valedictorian. Naturally, it made sense from there to go to law school at Columbia University and then become a concert singer and actor.
In addition to his Show Boat fame, Robeson gained notoriety for his portrayal of Othello on Broadway. Not only was he the first Black American to perform as Othello (an African character, mind you, though the role had always been played by whites), but his version made for the longest-running Shakespeare play in Broadway history. All this happened at a time when racial segregation and discrimination was so intense in the South and North that "Robeson was routinely forced to use freight elevators and denied entrance to hotels and restaurants" (source). Through it all, Robeson was an increasingly outspoken advocate against discrimination.
When he worked on Show Boat, Robeson was at his peak as a performer. Brooks Atkinson, who reviewed Show Boat for The New York Times in 1932, said, "Mr. Robeson has a touch of genius. It is not merely his voice, which is one of the richest organs on the stage. It is his understanding that gives 'Old Man River' an epic lift." (Source)
"His understanding" must have referred to Robeson's experience and empathy as a Black man concerned with justice. "Ol' Man River" can be interpreted as a passive, accepting song, but its sadness can also be heard as a protest. Joe is quiet, but he's also fed up with the conditions he lives in.
"The river doesn't have to face oppression, so why should we?" the character of Joe seems to demand.
In real life, Robeson lived out the same question, sometimes to his own detriment. In the 1940s, he was blacklisted for his possible associations with communism, and he was the target of FBI and CIA probes throughout the '40s and '50s. After having his passport finally restored after having been revoked for nearly a decade, he traveled to the Soviet Union in 1961, where he attempted suicide and was hospitalized.
He didn't return to the U.S. until 1963, and he lived a life of relative obscurity until his death in 1976. In the 1990s, an effort to get Robeson on a postage stamp was unsuccessful, but in the early 2000s, more than ten years clear of the Cold War with the former Soviet Union, the U.S. finally gave him his place on a stamp. Still, despite his unmatched talent in many arenas (how many lawyers do you know who have played pro football and acted on Broadway?), his possible links to communism and other strains of the radical make him a controversial figure to this day.
Despite all of Robeson's other accomplishments, though, "Ol' Man River" is his trademark. The song might sound dated to some these days, not to mention quite dramatic and distinctly musical theater-ish, but Robeson's 1936 performance in the Show Boat film can still be moving. The song's mournful strength translates across the decades to communicate the indignity and confinement of life for Black people in the Jim Crow era.
Although the lyrics have had to go through several changes to keep the song up-to-date, the message is the same: this particular misery is unjust and undeserved.
"What does he care if the world's got troubles? What does he care if the land ain't free?" wonders the character of Joe. The lines imply, of course, that the old dockworker and his fellow humans do care about the world's troubles. Hammerstein and Kern could not have chosen a better person to deliver this descriptive demand for change than the legendary Paul Robeson, a renaissance man and equal rights advocate of unsurpassed power and ability.