In response to the previous post, and in continuing honor of Jerome Kern's birthday, here are four versions (three video, one audio) of the remarkable song, "Ol' Man River," written with Oscar Hammerstein for the 1927 Broadway production of "Show Boat." It is a seminal song in American music for many reasons. For one thing, it was meant to be sung as a bass solo by the character Joe. For another, the song expresses - without caricature and with deep sympathy - the interior lives of the black characters in the play. It acts as a leitfmotif throughout "Show Boat," which, despite its "happy" ending, is perhaps one of the most melancholy pieces in 20th century American musical theater: the two major characters are a woman abandoned for five years by her gambler husband and a woman ruined by the exposure of her true racial identity, drawn against a backdrop of the racism of the deep South in the late 19th century.
Kern and Hammerstein knew what they were doing with the song, and they were very nervous about how it would go over. There is a story of both of them sneaking out of the theater during the premier, lurking in the lobby because they were too jumpy about the audience's response. (It was originally sung by Jules Bledsoe [right], although the song is most associated with Paul Robeson's performance in the 1936 movie version.) As the song ended, there was a deep, unnerving quiet. Kern and Hammerstein looked at each other in alarm and finally worked up enough courage to take a peek. The audience was sitting in stunned silence, many of them quietly weeping, too moved to applaud, too moved to move.
Paul Robeson (left) is actually known for two versions of the song - the version sung in the 1936 James Whale movie, and a later version which is in a way a defiant response to the song's sentiment of resignation. In earlier productions, the character of Joe is a comic figure, resonant of minstrelsy and typical stereotypes of the time. Robeson changed the lyric - slightly but in important ways - in later perfomances to reflect his commitment to civil rights and his own sense of personal dignity.
Interestingly, the lyric had already been changed in each major production, indicative of what was acceptable language during each era. In the 1927 version, the lyric went: "Niggers all work on de Mississippi/Niggers all work while de white folks play." In the 1936, this was changed to "darkies;" in the 1946 revival (and in the 1951 movie), it became "colored folks." Finally, in the 1946 movie, "Till the Clouds Roll By," a biopic of Kern's life, it morphed into "Here we all work on the Mississippi," sung by Frank Sinatra (above right) in a white tux against a white background, accompanied by a white orchestra and about a thousand white dancers all dressed in white. Apparently, no one got the irony.
Below are the three video versions. The first is the exquisite William Warfield (left) version from the 1951 movie, starring Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardener, Howard Keel, and Joe E. Brown. (The director George Sidney didn't seem to quite know what to do with the character of Joe. On the one hand, he gave "Ol' Man River" an incredibly beautiful, evocative, and moody setting in keeping with the sensibility of the song. On the other hand, Joe in the original is a figure of goofy stereotype. In the end, Sidney cut Joe as a character almost entirely from the movie.) The second is a 1994 performance at the White House by Aretha Franklin. And finally, a performance by Paul Robeson (commentary by Harry Belafonte), with his updated lyrics.