ol’ man river -- 10/6/23

Today's selection -- from Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical by Laurie Winer. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein wrote one of the greatest songs ever performed on Broadway: “Ol’ Man River” for the musical Show Boat. It was originally written for the legendary singer Paul Robeson:
"Not surprisingly, Hammerstein and Kern each believed it had been his idea to write 'Ol' Man River.' The Mississippi River is ever present in the novel. By the time she is eight [protagonist] Magnolia 'had fallen into and been fished out of every river in the Mississippi Basin from the Gulf of Mexico to Min­nesota.' The Hawks family lives on the river, drinks its water, and eats its catfish. Andy loses his life in it.

"Hammerstein biographer Hugh Fordin reports that, initially, Kern did not see how a river song would be intrinsic to the story and resisted writ­ing it, just as Hammerstein would later resist writing the title number for Oklahoma! -- emblematic songs are not, in fact, relevant to creators' pri­mary concerns, which revolve around plot and character. Fordin says that Hammerstein studied Kern's score and suggested taking some of the banjo music from 'Cotton Blossom' and slowing it down to a dirge. This was the springboard from which Kem started on the song, which they assigned to Joe, thereby promoting an intriguing but minor character and evolving the work's thinking on race.

"Kern told friends that he formulated the melody to 'Ol' Man River' after hearing Robeson's speaking voice -- 'those organ-like tones' -- in a 1926 play called Black Boy. It was one of the first songs Kem and Hammer­stein completed for Show Boat. Critic Alexander Woollcott recalled getting a 'frantic' call from Kern in late 1926 asking for Paul Robeson's phone number. That same day Kem took his new song and drove uptown to Har­lem, where he played the number on Robeson's piano. Paul sang while his wife, Essie, listened. Kern couldn't wait for Hammerstein to hear Robeson's rendition; he asked the singer to drive back downtown with him. Unfortunately, Woollcott's story ends with Paul and Essie haggling over cab fare for Paul's return trip. There's no record of Hammerstein hearing Robeson that day.

"Because of the delayed opening -- Ziegfeld christened his gorgeous new theater in February 1927 with the more conventional Rio Rita -- Robeson did not take the role of Joe immediately, as he was booked for an interna­tional concert tour that fall. In fact, while the cast of Show Boat rehearsed in October, Robeson was singing spirituals at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, where five hundred hopeful concertgoers were turned away. At the show's finale, the audience (which included novelist James Joyce) refused to let the singer leave the stage; he gave a full hour of encores.

"According to Robert Russell Bennett, who saw an early draft of 'Ol' Man River,' 'It was thirty-two not wholly convincing measures that sounded to me like they wanted to be wanted. In the first place, it starts with two harmonically powerful and self-reliant bars and then comes to a mud pud­dle and doesn't know where to put its feet for the next two.' Bennett only warmed to the song when he heard Hammerstein's lyric, telling Kern, 'Gee, that's a great song!' Kern responded sharply, 'You didn't say that when I gave it to you before.' Bennett writes. 'He knew as well as I did that it wasn't a song at all until Oscar came in with the words. Reading them for the first time I was convinced that he was sent here to be a poet.' 

"Early in the show, Joe sings the song as he sits on the dock, looking into the water and meditating on what he sees as its equanimity in the face of all the turmoil on shore:

Dere's an ol' man called de Mississippi
Dat's de ol' man dat I'd like to be
What does he care if de world's got troubles
What does he care if de land ain't free?

"Kern's melody uses the pentatonic scale, with five instead of seven dif­ferent notes per octave. The composer did the same for another, if lesser, song of uplift, 'Look for the Silver Lining' from Sally. In fact, many spiritu­als are written using this more constrictive scale. Hammerstein kept Joe's words simple, employing repetition and little rhyming, guessing that the audience would listen more deeply when they understood they were not waiting for the next rhyme. Rhyme bestows sense, the feeling of completing a puzzle; Joe is grappling with a reality beyond sense, beyond articulated meaning. In the chorus, Hammerstein allows himself only near rhyme:

"Ol' man river,
dat ol' man river
He mus' know sumpin,'
but don't say nuthin'
He jes' keeps rollin'
He keeps on rollin' along.

"Joe projects onto the river some of his own characteristics, primarily an endurance full of grace and mystery. As the sole Black man among the play's major characters, he has access to varieties of human experience not available to the others. He knows more than he wants to know and, like the river, is unable to express his knowledge -- not due to his own limitations, but because his experience is inexpressible, literally unspeakable. Still, he owns it; it is a part of him. Whatever comfort or strength he might acquire in this communion with the river is translated through the mournful surge of the melody, which goes where the lyrics cannot (and do not try).

"'Ol' Man River' brought out in both Kern and Hammerstein a quality neither had yet exhibited, and one they would not summon again. The song stands apart from other anthems of endurance Hammerstein would write with Richard Rodgers for white characters, like 'You'll Never Walk Alone' and its weaker cousin, 'Climb Ev'ry Mountain.'  Unlike those songs, 'Ol' Man River' offers no promise of relief except death, no other side of the storm where the 'sweet silver song of a lark' awaits, and no assurance that if you keep hope in your heart you will again be made whole. Joe sings:

Let me go 'way from the Mississippi
Let me go 'way from the white man boss
Show me that stream called the river Jordan
That's the ol' stream that I long to cross.

"Part prayer, part soliloquy, 'Ol' Man River' acknowledges suffering that remains out of frame. In writing it, Kern and Hammerstein offered a deep bow to the Negro spirituals that Paul Robeson spent years showcasing, songs in which the biblical river Jordan serves as the crossing from slavery to freedom and from life to death. With this song, Kern and Hammerstein played a central role in opening American popular music to any subject under the sun.
"Robeson first played Joe in the 1928 London production, and New York finally saw him in the spring of 1932 in the first of the show's many revivals. Ferber thought it too soon to bring back the show but went to see it none­theless, mostly so she could catch Robeson's version of 'Ol' Man River.' She captured her experience in a letter to Woollcott: 'I have never seen an ovation like that given any figure of the stage, the concert hall, or the opera. It was completely spontaneous, whole-hearted, and thrilling .... That audience stood up and howled. They applauded and shouted and stamped .... The show stopped. He sang it again. The show stopped. They called him back again and again. Other actors came out and made motions and their lips moved, but the bravos of the audience drowned all other sounds.' 

"Robeson would be forever linked to the song; it was what audiences always wanted to hear him sing. By the time of the 1936 movie version, though, Robeson's portrayal already seemed out of date; leading African American writers did not approve. Marcus Garvey's magazine wrote that Robeson was using his 'genius to appear in pictures and plays that tend to dishonor, mimic, discredit and abuse the cultural attainment of the Black Race.' After seeing the film, dancer Bill Robinson ribbed Robeson's wife, Essie, in a letter: 'Tell Paul that we saw Show Boat twice; just to hear him sing and to get the new way of shelling peas.' Robeson left the country soon after, spending four years mostly in Europe and the Soviet Union, where he felt less racial animosity. 'Here I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life,' he said.

"When he returned home Robeson began to alter the lyric in perfor­mance, changing 'I'm tired of living and scared of dying' to 'I must keep fighting until I'm dying.' Hammerstein was not pleased. His original line says as much about the human condition as is possible in eight words, and Robeson's replacement did not. The lyricist issued a statement in 1949, say­ing, 'As the author of these words, I have no intention of changing them or permitting anyone else to change them. I further suggest that Paul write his own songs and leave mine alone.' 

"Indeed, Hammerstein's lyric has resounded through the years. In his book Who Should Sing 'Ol' Man River'? Todd Decker documents how often it was recorded during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. And in a 2015 New Yorker essay about songwriter and performer Sam Cooke, David Cant­well also drew a connection between 'Ol' Man River' and the great protest songs of the '60s. Cooke recorded the song on his debut album in 1958, six years before he wrote 'A Change Is Gonna Come,' with its Hammerstein­ian lyric 'It's been too hard livin', but I'm afraid to die.'"

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Laurie Winer


Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical


Yale University Press


Copyright 2023 by Laure Winer


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