This pancocojams post presents information about the American musical "Show Boat" with special attention to the song "Ol' Man River".
This post also showcases two examples of Paul Robeson singing "Ole Man River" and one example of William Warfield singing "Ole Man River".
Information about these two African American singers is also included in this post.
The content of this post is presented for historical, socio-cultural, and aesthetic purposes.
All copyrights remain with their owners.
Thanks to Paul Robeson and William Warfield for their life's legacies. Thanks also to all those who are quoted in this post and thanks to the publishers of these examples on YouTube.
EXCERPT FROM WIKIPEDIA ARTICLE ABOUT THE SONG "OLE MAN RIVER" IN "SHOWBOAT" PLAYS AND MOVIES
"Show Boat is a musical in two acts, with music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on Edna Ferber's best-selling novel of the same name. The musical follows the lives of the performers, stagehands and dock workers on the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River show boat, over 40 years from 1887 to 1927. Its themes include racial prejudice and tragic, enduring love. The musical contributed such classic songs as "Ol' Man River", "Make Believe", and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man".
The musical was first produced in 1927 by Florenz Ziegfeld. The premiere of Show Boat on Broadway was an important event in the history of American musical theatre. It "was a radical departure in musical storytelling, marrying spectacle with seriousness", compared with the trivial and unrealistic operettas, light musical comedies and "Follies"-type musical revues that defined Broadway in the 1890s and early 20th century.
Show Boat boldly portrayed racial issues and was the first racially integrated musical, in that both black and white performers appeared and sang on stage together. Ziegfeld’s Follies featured solo African American performers such as Bert Williams, but would not have included a black woman in the chorus. Show Boat was structured with two choruses – a black chorus and a white chorus. One commentator noted that "Hammerstein uses the African-American chorus as essentially a Greek chorus, providing clear commentary on the proceedings, whereas the white choruses sing of the not-quite-real." In Show Boat Jerome Kern used the AABA-chorus form exclusively in songs sung by African American characters (Ole Man River, Can't Help Lovin' dat Man), a form that later would be regarded as typical of 'white' popular music.
Show Boat was the first Broadway musical to seriously depict an interracial marriage, as in Ferber's original novel, and to feature a character of mixed race who was "passing" for white. (Although the musical comedy Whoopee! (1930), starring Eddie Cantor, supposedly depicted a romance between a mixed-blood Native American man and a white woman, the man turns out to be white.)
Language and stereotypes
The word "ni&&er" [Pancocojams editor's note: This abbreviated spelling for the pejorative term that is commonly called "the n word" is used in this post.]
The show has generated controversy for the subject matter of interracial marriage, the historical portrayal of blacks working as laborers and servants in the 19th-century South, and the use of the word ni&&ers in the lyrics (this is the first word in the opening chorus of the show). Originally the show opened with the black chorus onstage singing:
Ni&&ers all work on the Mississippi,
Ni&&ers all work while the white folks play.
Loadin' up boats wid de bales of cotton,
Gittin' no rest till de Judgement Day.
In subsequent productions, "ni&&ers" has been changed to "colored folk", to "darkies", and in one choice, "Here we all", as in "Here we all work on the Mississippi. Here we all work while the white folks play."
In the 1966 Lincoln Center production of the show, produced two years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, this section of the opening chorus was omitted rather than having words changed. The 1971 London revival used "Here we all work on the Mississippi". The 1988 CD for EMI restored the original 1927 lyric, while the Harold Prince revival chose "colored folk".
The Paper Mill Playhouse production, videotaped and telecast by PBS in 1989, used the word "ni&&er" when said by an unsympathetic character, but otherwise used the word "Negro".
Many critics believe that Kern and Hammerstein wrote the opening chorus to give a sympathetic voice to an oppressed people, and that they intended its use in an ironic way, as it had so often been used in a derogatory way. They wanted to alert the audience to the realities of racism:
'Show Boat begins with the singing of that most reprehensible word – ni&&er – yet this is no coon song... [it] immediately establishes race as one of the central themes of the play. This is a protest song, more ironic than angry perhaps, but a protest nonetheless. In the singers' hands, the word ni&&er has a sardonic tone... in the very opening, Hammerstein has established the gulf between the races, the privilege accorded the white folks and denied the black, and a flavor of the contempt built into the very language that whites used about African Americans. This is a very effective scene.... These are not caricature roles; they are wise, if uneducated, people capable of seeing and feeling more than some of the white folk around them.
The racial situations in the play provoke thoughts of how hard it must have been to be black in the South. In the dialogue, some of the blacks are called "ni&&ers" by the white characters in the story. (Contrary to what is sometimes thought, black slavery is not depicted in the play; U.S. slavery was abolished by 1865, and the story runs from the 1880s to the late 1920s.) At first, it is shocking to believe they are allowed to use a word that negative at all in a play... But in the context in which it is used, it is appropriate due to the impact it makes. It reinforces how much of a derogatory term "ni&&er" was then and still is today.
The word has not been used in any of the film versions of the musical. In the show, the Sheriff refers to Steve and Julie as having "ni&&er blood." In the 1936 and 1951 film versions, this was changed to "Negro blood". Likewise, the unsympathetic Pete calls Queenie a "ni&&er" in the stage version, but refers to her as "colored" in the 1936 film, and does not use either word in the 1951 film.
Those who consider Show Boat racially insensitive often note that the dialogue and lyrics of the black characters (especially the stevedore Joe and his wife Queenie) and choruses use various forms of African American Vernacular English. An example of this is shown in the following text:
Where yo' think you're goin'?
Don't yo' know dis show is startin' soon?
Jes' a few seats left yere!
It's light inside an' outside dere's no moon
What fo' you gals dressed up dicty?
Where's yo' all gwine?
Tell dose stingy men o' yourn
To step up here in line!
Whether or not such language is an accurate reflection of the vernacular of blacks in Mississippi at the time, the effect of its usage has offended some critics, who see it as perpetuating racial stereotypes. The character Queenie (who sings the above verses) in the original production was played not by an African American but by the Italian-American actress Tess Gardella in blackface (Gardella was perhaps best known for portraying Aunt Jemima in blackface). Attempts by non-black writers to imitate black language stereotypically in songs like "Ol' Man River" was alleged to be offensive, a claim that was repeated eight years later by critics of Porgy and Bess. But such critics sometimes acknowledged that Hammerstein's intentions were noble, since "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 Negro spiritual."
The theatre critics and veterans Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright believe that Show Boat was revolutionary, not only because it was a radical departure from the previous style of plotless revues, but because it was a show written by non-blacks that portrayed blacks sympathetically rather than condescendingly:
Instead of a line of chorus girls showing their legs in the opening number singing that they were happy, happy, happy, the curtain rose on black dock-hands lifting bales of cotton, and singing about the hardness of their lives. Here was a musical that showed poverty, suffering, bitterness, racial prejudice, a sexual relationship between black and white, a love story which ended unhappily – and of course show business. In "Ol' Man River" the black race was given an anthem to honor its misery that had the authority of an authentic spiritual.
Revisions and cancellations
Since the musical's 1927 premiere, Show Boat has both been condemned as a prejudiced show based on racial caricatures and championed as a breakthrough work that opened the door for public discourse in the arts about racism in America. Some productions (including one planned for June 2002 in Connecticut) have been cancelled because of objections.
Such cancellations have been criticized by supporters of the arts. After planned performances by an amateur opera company in Middlesbrough, England were "stopped because [they] would be 'distasteful' to ethnic minorities", a local newspaper declared that the actions were "surely taking political correctness too far". A British theatre writer was concerned that "the kind of censorship we've been talking about – for censorship it is – actually militates against a truly integrated society, for it emphasizes differences. It puts a wall around groups within society, dividing people by creating metaphorical ghettos, and prevents mutual understanding". Specifically, the cancellation was based on protests of plans to have all the black roles to be played in this production by white actors in blackface, as the company had no black members.
As attitudes toward race relations have changed, producers and directors have altered some content to make the musical more "politically correct": "Show Boat, more than many musicals, was subject to cuts and revisions within a handful of years after its first performance, all of which altered the dramatic balance of the play."
The 1993 Hal Prince revival, originating in Toronto, was deliberately staged to cast attention on racial disparities; throughout the production, African-American actors constantly cleaned up messes, appeared to move the sets (even when hydraulics actually moved them), and performed other menial tasks. After a New Year's Eve ball, all the streamers fell on the floor and African Americans immediately began sweeping them away. A montage in the second act showed time passing using the revolving door of the Palmer House in Chicago, with newspaper headlines being shown in quick succession, and snippets of slow motion to highlight a specific moment, accompanied by brief snippets of Ol' Man River. African-American dancers were seen performing a specific dance, and this would change to a scene showing white dancers performing the same dance. This was meant to illustrate how white performers "appropriated" the music and dancing styles of African Americans. Earlier productions of Show Boat, even the 1927 stage original and the 1936 film version, did not go this far in social commentary."
SHOWCASE VIDEOS OF PAUL ROBESON SINGING "OLE MAN RIVER"
Example #1: Ol' Man River (Show Boat, 1936), Paul Robeson
TheQuirkyCharacter, Published on Apr 25, 2013
Original version: Show Boat (1927)
Music: Jerome Kern
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Example #2: Paul Robeson - Old Man River
Joe Stead, Published on Apr 24, 2008
The words of Old Man River were (thankfully) to change many times since the original version was written by Hammerstein and Kerr. The first line "Ni&&ers* all work on the Mississippi etc" moved on to "Darkies all work..." and eventually through being "The old Man I'd like to be" it eventually became "The Old Man I don't like to be". Sidney Poitier explains other changes within the song.
*This word is fully spelled out in this summary statement.
Here's a comment exchange from that movie clip's discussion thread:
Keanu Paler, 2016
"Why did he change the lyrics?"
Shawn Jones, 2017
"Keanu Paler because he was an activist. He changed several lyrics. He changed the lyrics at the beginning to say he would NOT like to be like Ol Man River because, "What does he care if the world's got troubles, what does he care if the land ain't free". Then he changed, "Gets a little drunk and you lands in jail" to a more positive, "show a little GRIT and you lands in jail". Then he changed the end from a fearful, "I don't like livin' but scared of dyin'" to a more empowered, "But I keeps laughin' instead of crying, I must keep FIGHTING until I'm dying". The corrections change it from a song of hopelessness to a protest song."
sheuli peden, 2017
"Thank you Shawn Jones! Thanks to Paul Robeson for the wonderful and uplifting changes that he made for the lyrics"
Information about Paul Robeson
"Paul Leroy Robeson ... April 9, 1898 – January 23, 1976) was an American bass baritone singer and actor who became involved with the Civil Rights Movement. At Rutgers College, he was an American football player, and then had an international career in singing, as well as acting in theater and movies. He became politically involved in response to the Spanish Civil War, fascism, and social injustices. His advocacy of anti-imperialism, affiliation with communism, and criticism of the United States government caused him to be blacklisted during the McCarthy era."...
For more information about Paul Robeson, click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2017/11/2006-pbs-article-excerpt-about-singer.html for the pancocojams post entitled "2006 PBS Article Excerpt About Singer, Actor, Activist Paul Robeson (with selected comments)".
SHOWCASE VIDEO OF WILLIAM WARFIELD SINGING "OLE MAN RIVER"
Ol' Man River - William Warfield and MGM chorus(Showboat)
andrew67ist, Published on Mar 18, 2011
Show Boat is a 1951 Technicolor film based on the musical by Jerome Kern (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (script and lyrics) and the novel by Edna Ferber.
Filmed previously by Universal in 1936, the Kern-Hammerstein musical was remade in 1951 by MGM, this version starring Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, and Howard Keel, with Joe E. Brown, Marge Champion, Gower Champion, William Warfield, Robert Sterling, Agnes Moorehead and Leif Erickson. None of the members of the original Broadway cast of the show appeared in this version, and Helen Morgan (the original Julie), Jules Bledsoe (the original Joe), and Edna May Oliver (the original Parthy), had already died by the time of this film's release (both Morgan and Bledsoe died before they reached fifty).
The 1951 film version of Show Boat was adapted from the original 1927 stage musical by John Lee Mahin after Jack McGowan and George Wells had turned in two discarded screenplays, and was directed by George Sidney. Filmed in the typical MGM lavish style, this version is the most financially successful of the film adaptations of the play, and is one of MGM's most popular musicals, though arguably one of the studio's less inventive ones. The film, however, was arguably more cinematic than the 1936 version — the boat was seen winding its way down the river several times, and there were two scenes in which the boat was shown leaving the dock, while the 1936 film version was so faithful in following the stage play that the boat was seen moving only at the very beginning of the film.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Here are several comments from the discussion thread for this YouTube example (Numbers are assigned for referencing purposes only)
1. traylorvh, 2012
"This just reaches my soul. He sings with such beauty and feeling it is like he know the pain of that life. My parents were share croppers and picked cotton, there life was hard, but as my mother once told me at leaste they were allowed togo in the front doors in town, where their black neighbors were not. What shameful time in our history.Thank you for this wonderful post."
2. Warren Hamlet, 2014
"I have heard people criticize this version as being mawkish. Robeson used it as a protest song which it essentially is. However Warfield probably sang it as the director wanted it sung. Either way it's a memorable rendition. There is no doubting Warfield's great talent. Pity he didn't sing more opera."
3. Marvin King, 2016
"William Warfeild had a second tenor-baritone range, what a phenomenal talent. He definitely paved the way for Paul Robeson being 20 years his senior. Regardless of this great talent, it was very difficult as a black man to break into New York City Opera fame during his period. He later became a music coach, but never had the singing career he so deserved, born too soon."
4. newbei17, 2016
"William Warfield was an absolutely amazing talent, but you got the order backwards. Paul Robeson was born in 1898, and started singing and acting in 1923, at which time William was 3 years old, as he was born in 1920. The MGM Showboat this clip was from was a remake of the 1936 Showboat, which was a source of inspiration for William, who watched the 1936 film as a teenager.
At the time this was made, William was already a big public figure, and the producers actually rewrote the musical score of "Ol' Man River" just so that William, whose voice was a couple octaves too high for the original, could sing it. That in mind, they did a fantastic job, as the feeling of the piece stayed the same and fit very well with the new Showboat."
5. dovbearbarleib, 2016
"Warfield is more operatic. Robeson's voice is more down to earth."
6. ClaudiaB, 2016
"I love both versions. Both wonderful!"
7. Gizmologist1, 2017
"To me, William Warfield's rendition is 100% believable in character. I can feel how dead tired he is and this song comes right from his heart."
"The original lyrics would be considered intolerably racist today. Paul Robeson fought for them to be rewritten."
Here's some information about William Warfield
"William Caesar Warfield (22 January 1920 – 26 August 2002), was an American concert bass-baritone singer and actor. One of his earliest professional engagements was in Marc Blitzstein's Broadway opera, Regina. His breakthrough came when he gave his recital debut in New York's Town Hall in 1950. He went on to produce a highly acclaimed album of selections from Porgy and Bess with Leontyne Price in 1963.
Early life and career
Warfield was born in West Helena, Arkansas, the oldest of five sons of a Baptist minister. He grew up in Rochester, New York, where his father was called to serve as pastor of Mt. Vernon Church. He gave his recital debut in New York's Town Hall on 19 March 1950. He was quickly invited by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to tour Australia and give 35 concerts. In 1952, Warfield performed in Porgy and Bess during a tour of Europe sponsored by the U.S. State Department (he made six separate tours for the US Department of State, more than any other American solo artist.) In this production he played opposite the opera star Leontyne Price, whom he soon married, but the demands of two separate careers left them little time together. They divorced in 1972, but were featured together in a 1963 studio recording of excerpts from Porgy and Bess.
Warfield was also accomplished in acting and poetry recitation. He played the character De Lawd in a celebrated Hallmark Hall of Fame television production of The Green Pastures, a role he played twice on live TV (both versions survive as kinescopes). He appeared in two Hollywood films, including a star-making performance as Joe in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's 1951 Technicolor remake of Show Boat. His other film was an overlooked item called "Old Explorers", starring James Whitmore and José Ferrer. In a nod to "Show Boat", Warfield played a cameo role as a tugboat captain. Footage of Warfield in "Show Boat" has been included in several TV shows and/or films, notably That's Entertainment!. Warfield played his Show Boat role in two other productions of the musical – the 1966 Lincoln Center production, and a 1972 production in Vienna. He sang Ol' Man River in three different record albums of the show – the 1951 motion picture soundtrack album on MGM Records, a 1962 studio album featuring Barbara Cook and John Raitt on Columbia Masterworks, and the RCA Victor album made from the Lincoln Center production.
He made an appearance on The Colgate Comedy Hour and on a program called TV Recital Hall in 1951, the same year that he made his screen debut in Show Boat. He later appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955. In 1961, he appeared as a recital soloist on an episode of the Young People's Concerts, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. In March 1984 he was the winner of a Grammy in the "Spoken Word" category for his outstanding narration of Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait accompanied by the Eastman Philharmonia . And in the 1990s, he narrated a special jazz arrangement of music from "Show Boat", on the PRI program Riverwalk Jazz. In 1999 Warfield joined baritones Robert Sims and Benjamin Matthews in a trio by the name of "Three Generations". Managed by Arthur White, this ensemble toured the United States giving full concerts of African-American spirituals and folk songs until Warfield's death in 2002.
Many commentators, both black and non-black, view the show as an outdated and stereotypical commentary on race relations that portrays blacks in a negative or inferior position. Douglass K. Daniel of Kansas State University has commented that it is a "racially flawed story", and the African-Canadian writer M. Nourbese Philip claims
The affront at the heart of Show Boat is still very alive today. It begins with the book and its negative and one-dimensional images of Black people, and continues on through the colossal and deliberate omission of the Black experience, including the pain of a people traumatized by four centuries of attempted genocide and exploitation. Not to mention the appropriation of Black music for the profit of the very people who oppressed Blacks and Africans. All this continues to offend deeply. The ol' man river of racism continues to run through the history of these productions and is very much part of this (Toronto) production. It is part of the overwhelming need of white Americans and white Canadians to convince themselves of our inferiority – that our demands don't represent a challenge to them, their privilege and their superiority.
Supporters of the musical believe that the depictions of racism should be regarded not as stereotyping blacks but rather satirizing the common national attitudes that both held those stereotypes and reinforced them through discrimination. In the words of The New Yorker theatre critic John Lahr:
"Describing racism doesn't make Show Boat racist. The production is meticulous in honoring the influence of black culture not just in the making of the nation's wealth but, through music, in the making of its modern spirit.""...
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