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When Show Boat premiered in 1927, many people thought that "Ol' Man River" was little more than a Black spiritual adapted for the musical.
It was kind of like how some people (cough, Ronald Reagan, cough) thought that "Edelweiss" from The Sound of Music was the Austrian national anthem. Both instances score major authenticity points for Oscar Hammerstein (and one scores a major "oops" for President Reagan).
As it turns out, "Ol' Man River" is a rewrite of the play's opening number, "Cotton Blossom" (the "Cotton Blossom" chorus is refrained partway through the song). The notes are slowed down and sung in an inverse order, but on the whole, the two songs are largely the same and can be solidly categorized as musical theater numbers, not traditional spirituals.
''I don't think it's an exaggeration to say [Paul Robeson] is the quintessential genius of American history,'' said Paul Von Blum, a professor of African-American Studies at UCLA. ''He is probably the most multifaceted talent in American history. You look at his career as a scholar, actor in film and theater, concert singer, athlete, advocate for his people, it's an amazing legacy. But the vast majority of students who take my course have never heard of him.'' (Source)
With that in mind, Blum was part of organizing a series of events commemorating Paul Robeson on the 100th anniversary of his birth (and 22 years after his death) in 1998.
Shmoop's history experts called Paul Robeson "one of the most talented Americans—of any race—of all time. Before going on to achieve worldwide notoriety as a singer, actor, civil rights spokesman, and radical political activist, Robeson played three seasons in the NFL in order to earn money to pay his way through Columbia University Law School."
Indeed. Tragically, though, Robeson's legacy was chipped away by his detractors in the virulent "red scare" era. During this period, dozens of artists, actors, writers and directors with connections to leftist politics were placed on blacklists and blocked from getting jobs or going on TV, including Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Richard Wright. Paul Robeson was one of the first and one of the most public, and the effect on him was devastating.
According to one of his friends, "Paul Robeson was the most persecuted, the most ostracized, the most condemned Black man in America, then or ever." This may or may not be an exaggeration, but what we know for sure is that his persecution as a possible communist put a total stop on his career as an actor and singer.
After his condemnation by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s, two of his concerts witnessed violent attacks on concertgoers. The FBI criticized him for speaking internationally about the conditions of Blacks, and his passport was revoked in 1950. He was repeatedly denounced in public, and in 1956 he was himself called before HUAC. Although he regained travel privileges in 1958, friends and family say his life was never the same.
Writing in 1958 about his political views, Robeson said, "I saw no reason why my convictions should change with the weather" (source). His fascinating memoir, Here I Stand, tells the story of his political development living in the U.S. and then Europe (his primary residence was in England from 1928 to 1939) and how he came to understand the struggles of not just Black Americans, but Blacks all over the world.
Although he had a brief "comeback" period between 1958 and 1961, Robeson's physical and mental health had seriously declined during the years of his blacklisting. He visited the Soviet Union in 1961, and it was there that he reputedly tried to end his own life. He returned to the U.S. in 1963 and lived out the rest of his days quietly, surrounded by family and without much public involvement.
He died in 1976, although according to Coretta Scott King, Robeson had already been "buried alive" by persecution. He was succeeded by his only son, Paul Robeson Jr., who has been a lifelong advocate for celebrating his father's legacy. Although Robeson may never have the status he deserves in our popular memory, his influence as an artist and activist endure to this day.
"With Show Boat a new art form emerged in the American musical theatre for the first time: the musical play as distinguished from musical comedy," reads one description of Show Boat. "Here was a rich, colorful, nostalgic chapter from the American past filled with humour, gentle pathos, tenderness and high drama. It bewitched the eye, ear and heart. It was a revelation; and it was a revolution." (Source)
Before Show Boat, American musicals had typically been comedies, accenting a generally light mood with musical and dance numbers and using flowery, poetic language. By creating a show with serious content and believable, three-dimensional characters, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II helped kick off a new phase in musical theater writing.
Writing for musical theater is a tricky art. The songs have to be light enough to be entertaining but serious enough to closely follow a plot. For Hammerstein to create lyrics that not only told a story but also placed the whole story in a historical setting with complex racial dynamics was no small task. "Ol' Man River" epitomizes this achievement.
"Hammerstein's is an unobtrusive craft, an artless art," wrote Mark Steyn for Slate. "'Ol' Man River' was the song in which he first found his lyrical voice, compressing the suffering, resignation, and anger of an entire race into 24 taut lines and doing it so naturally that it's no wonder folks assume the song's a N**** spiritual." (Source)
There are subtler factors than the lyrical topic that make "Ol' Man River" powerful. As Steyn points out, the song does not hit a proper rhyme until the 8th and 10th lines ("cotton" and "forgotten"), leaving the rest to musical flow and avoiding the cheesy, overstated feeling that too much rhyme can sometimes give a song. The song also makes use of a consistent and obvious central image, the river, to make subtler statements about the condition of the singer and his surroundings. The singer compares his condition to that of the river and determines that the river is more free and at peace than he will ever be.
The lyrics have undergone several changes to keep up with the times and make the song accessible to new audiences, but the essence has remained. "Ol' Man River" is also generally written out without the stereotypical "Black speech" style it was written in back then (and you'll notice that, for the most part, Paul Robeson didn't actually sing it that way anyhow). With those changes only strengthening it, the power of the songwriting remains for many people today.