Ol’ Man River – 1927

“Ol’ Man River” (music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) is a song in the 1927 musical Show Boat that contrasts the struggles and hardships of African Americans with the endless, uncaring flow of the Mississippi River; it is sung from the point of view of a black stevedore on a showboat, and is the most famous song from the show. Meant to be performed in a slow tempo, it is sung complete once in the musical’s lengthy first scene by the stevedore “Joe” who travels with the boat, and, in the stage version, is heard four more times in brief reprises. Joe serves as a sort of musical one-man Greek chorus, and the song, when reprised, comments on the action, as if saying, “This has happened, but the river keeps rolling on anyway.”

The song is notable for several aspects: the lyrical pentatonic-scale melody, the subjects of toil and social class, metaphor to the Mississippi, and as a bass solo (rare in musicals, solos for baritones or tenors being more common).

Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra had a hit recording of the song in 1928 sung in a much faster tempo than Kern and Hammerstein intended, and featuring Bing Crosby on vocals and Bix Beiderbecke on cornet. A second version, by Paul Whiteman with bass singer Paul Robeson on vocals and sung in a dance tempo, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2006. Also, in 2004, Robeson’s version finished at #24 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema.

Other versions

The song was first performed in the original stage production of Show Boat on December 27, 1927, by Jules Bledsoe, who also sang it in the part-talkie 1929 film, although that film version had little to do with the stage musical. Bledsoe also recorded the song years later. However, the most famous rendition of it, one that is still noted today, was sung by Paul Robeson in James Whale’s classic 1936 film version of Show Boat. (Robeson had performed the song before in the 1928 London production of the show and in the 1932 Broadway revival.) The first known recording of the song was by ‘Kenn’ Sisson and His Orchestra, recorded on December 27, 1927, with Irving Kaufman on vocals. The song became an American classic, and was performed by many musicians and musical groups, including Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, Bix Beiderbecke, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Harry James, Gordon MacRae, Robert Merrill, Sam Cooke, Sammy Davis, Jr., Al Jolson, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Cilla Black, Melanie, Django Reinhardt, Ray Charles, Cher, Jim Croce, Jimmy Ricks and the Ravens, The Beach Boys, Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, The Jeff Beck Group, Muslim Magomayev, Aretha Franklin, and Al Hirt. William Warfield sang it in the 1951 Technicolor film version of Show Boat in another rendition that became very famous. (It became his signature song, and he performed it several times on television and in several stage revivals of Show Boat.) Melvin Franklin, the famous bass singer of The Temptations, performed it at most concerts, eventually making it his signature song. Judy Garland, one of the few female singers to attempt the song, sang a powerful rendition on her television show in 1963, followed by a studio recording. Indian Singer, Bhupen Hazarika had also sung a version in Hindi and his native Assamese called “O Ganga tu behti hai kyon”.

Cilla Black released a jazz version of the song on her first album in 1965 Cilla which Bing Crosby subsequently described as the best version he’d ever heard.

Among less well-known singers who have performed the song on television, bass-baritone Dan Travis, Jr. sang it in the made-for-television biopic Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women (1978), and P.L. Brown sang it in the 1989 Paper Mill Playhouse version of Show Boat, which was televised by PBS