VARIOUS ARTISTS / Old Man River Mixtape
Never say never is what the wise ones instruct us when we are young and full of our own ideas about what is right, what is wrong, and what we will or won’t never, ever do under any circumstances. Here I am featuring a song from a 1927 Broadway musical called Showboat. The setting is aboard a Mississippi riverboat with a tale of miscegenation (the then declaimed horror of race mixing), and the hard life of Negro dockworkers. Actually, from my perspective, the story line is worse than I’ve described but that is not the main issue at the moment. Right now my focus is on the major song from the production, a song that has become not only a staple of popular American music but also the vehicle for a variety of artists who used the lyrics to make a statement. Chief among the plethora of recording artists was the giant of stage, screen, athletics, scholarship, and civil rights, Mr. Paul Robeson who was actually the second person to record the song. Murray Horwitz, director of the American Film Institute Silver Theater and Cultural Center, asserts that “Old Man River” was actually written with Robeson in mind, as by the mid-twenties Paul Robeson was a stage sensation as a result of Robeson’s star turn in Eugene O’Neil’s Emperor Jones (1924). When Showboat debuted in 1927 Robeson was not in the cast and the first popular recording was with the then socalled King of jazz, Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra that included cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, and featured popular vocalist Bing Crosby. Trivia note, 1927 was also year of the first major Hollywood produced musical “talkie”: The Jazz Singer featuring Al Jolson performing in blackface. Showboat was based on a 1926 novel by Edna Ferber. The Broadway production featured music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Robeson first performed the song in a 1928 production of Showboat in London, England. Our Mixtape includes the 1928 Paul Whiteman and Paul Robeson collaboration. Earlier in the year, Whiteman produced an up-tempo, foxtrot version featuring Crosby that was a major hit but did not have the lasting value nor widespread influence as did the Robeson feature. Originally, the song’s lyrics were to include the word “niggers” but that was changed to “darkies” for the 1936 film version of Showboat. By 1938 Robeson was featuring the song in concerts and solo performances but with altered lyrics that reflected Robeson progressive politics. Robeson, who was a linguist who wrote and spoke over eleven languages, was very conscious of the effect words could have. Here are three stanzas that Robeson changed as transcribed by Marc Norton on Norton website:
Ol’ Man River, as sung by Paul Robeson, in later years: There's an old man called the Mississippi, That's the old man I don’t like to be. What does he care if the world's got troubles? What does he care if the land ain't free? You and me, we sweat and strain, Body all achin’ and racked with pain, Tote that barge! And lift that bale! You show a little grit and you lands in jail. But I keeps laughin’ Instead of cryin’ I must keep fightin’ Until I’m dyin’ And Old Man River He’ll just keep rollin’ along.No more getting drunk and going to jail, rather we are now jailed for showing “a little grit.” Indicative of the times, Oscar Hammerstein was not pleased with Robeson’s changes. Marc Norton quotes Hammerstein anger at Robeson who made the song an international classic: ““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.” By the fifties the US federal government had rescinded Robeson passport and routinely kept him under FBI surveillance. Robeson never backed down. Indeed, in 1956 when he was called before Congress by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Paul Robeson turned the tables on his accusers with a bold statement that even today would be almost unthinkable.
ROBESON: You are the un-Americans and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves. CHAIRMAN: Just a minute, the hearing is now adjourned. ROBESON: I should think it would be. CHAIRMAN: I have endured all of this that I can. ROBESON: Can I read my statement? CHAIRMAN: No, you cannot read it. The meeting is adjourned. ROBESON: I think it should be and you should adjourn this forever.Paul Robeson was a beautiful man of deep and broad-ranging talents, but most of all he was a principled and proud man who fought injustice regardless of the cost exacted because of his convictions. Thanks in major part to Paul Robeson who catapulted the song far, far beyond Broadway entertainment, “Old Man River” is one of the most famous and internationally celebrated songs produced in the United States. Originally designed as a feature for Joe, who was the lead deckhand, “Old Man River” is generally associated in the public mind with a statement by black workers in America. Many of us either have forgotten or never knew the deep politics that surround this famous song. We here at BoL will never forget. We will always remember the conscious contributions of Paul Robeson and the many others who followed in his famous footsteps. —Kalamu ya Salaam Old Man River Mixtape Playlist 01 Golden Gate Quartet Vol. 2 – Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet 02 The Duke's Men: Small Groups, Volume 2 – Cootie Williams & His Rug Cutters 03 Savoy Jazz Super - EP – The Ravens 04 The Best Of 1920-1930 – Paul Whiteman featuring Paul Robeson 05 Todo Sentimento – Selma Reis 06 Nascimento – Milton Nascimento 07 Black and Blue / Tobacco Road – Lou Rawls 08 Nightingale – George Adams 09 Laughing On The Outside – Aretha Franklin 10 Bashin' - Jimmy Smith 11 Girl Talk – Ernie Andrews 12 I'm Glad There Is You – Gloria Lynne 13 One Night In London – The Temptations 14 Quiet Now – Tutu Puoane 15 PiaNOLA Live – Henry Butler
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