Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Old Man River

SONG Old Man River

WRITTEN BY Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern

PERFORMED BY Paul Robeson, William Warfield, The Temptations, many others

APPEARS ON Songs of Free Men (Robeson, 1997), Show Boat: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1951, remastered 1995); In A Mellow Mood (1967, The Temptations)

NOTE "Old Man River" was a standard part of Robeson's repertoire and appears on many of his albums. It also became William Warfield's signature song.

Show Boat's 1927 premiere announced the advent of a new kind of musical. For the first time, characters developed and matured. Show Boat used popular music to treat serious thematic concerns, exploring issues of domestic desertion, miscegenation, and racism, the last in the musical's signature number, "Old Man River."

But it was 1927, and the inadvertent racist tone of Hammerstein's original lyrics worked at cross purposes to the theme of oppression; the lyrics were recast through the years to eliminate Hammerstein's minstrelsy conception of southern black dialect. The opening line, for example, morphed from "Niggers all work" to "Darkies all work" to "Colored folk all work" to "Here we all work." Singer Paul Robeson, a genuinely protean character and one of the most fascinating figures of his age, took the lead in rewriting the lyrics, refining them so that the faux dialect did not detract from the considerable power of the melody or the meaning of theme.

"Old Man River" has an almost Marxist sensibility: An anonymous ("...them that plants 'em is soon forgotten...") black workingman oppressed by the inscrutable and relentless force of racism is stuck in a backbreaking dead-end job. He lives only for getting drunk on the weekend and because he fears the alternative of death. His days are robotic, mindless, and never ending: "Don't look up and don't look down...tote that barge, lift that bale." In the end, there is simply weariness and endless effort, while the uncaring "Old Man River just keeps rolling along."

Here we all work 'long the Mississippi
Here we all work while the white folk play
Gettin' no rest from the dawn 'til sunset
Gettin' no rest 'til the Judgment Day

Don't look up and don't look down
You don't dast make the white boss frown
Bend your knees and bow your head
And pull that boat until you're dead

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 old stream that I long to cross

Old Man River, that Old Man River
He must know somethin', but he don't say nothin'
He keeps on rollin', he just keeps rollin' along

He don't plant taters, he don't plant cotton
And them that plants 'em is soon forgotten
But Old Man River, he just keeps rollin' along

You and me, we sweat and strain
Bodies all achin' and wracked with pain
Tote that barge, lift that bale
You get a little drunk and you lands in jail

I gets weary and sick of tryin'
I'm tired of livin' and scared of dyin'
But Old Man River, he just keeps rollin' along

Paul Robeson sang "Old Man River" in the 1936 film of Show Boat. The first two verses are moved after the chorus. The montage in the middle of the production emphasizes the theme of racism, including an unforgettable and prophetic shot of an agonized Robeson behind the bars of an overcrowded jail cell:

William Warfield sang "Old Man River" in the 1951 film of Show Boat, eliminated the first two verses, a bowdlerization that greatly diminished the song's main theme.  Here, Warfield sings over a montage of photographs of Paul Robeson:

The Temptations, with the initial verses intact. However, "white" has been changed to "rich":

Kenneth Anderson, sings first the first three verses as written, with the "Here we all work" introduction:


  1. Thanks for assembling these clips in one place to compare and experience.

  2. thank you so much!

  3. This song was written for the musical Show Boat with the original classical music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein’s II. ? Jules Bledsoe first performed the song in the original stage production. Paul Robeson first performed it in the 1936 film version of Show Boat. Starting in 1938 Paul Robeson sang it with some changes in the lyrics that he made. In 1983 Keith Wint Composed a backing track and Dennis Brown sang Ole Man River with new words to represent the modern day struggle of the black man after slavery urging the Negro man to come away from the Mississippi, which represents Babylon. It has finally found its natural path and once again the slave master claimed the royalties as his own More available at www.chartsounds.net http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGVR2qb1U6g

  4. The words are what they are. History is not open to modification.

    1. The original words are what they are. The revised words are what they are. All the revisions are what they are -- and all are part of history. No one is suggesting that history was modified, but clearly the lyrics were -- several times. If you happen to prefer the original lyrics, one would suspect that racist motives might enter into the picture.

    2. I disagree. The original words are painful to ears of all colors today but to remove them diminishes yesterday's African Americans. I read those words today and, insofar as possible for a white man, feel the pain. We need to know what transpired then just as we need to know what happened in Germany, Poland or even during Biblical times. Knowing what groups of people did to other groups of people is one way of keeping it from happening again.


  6. Truly sums up the period of slavery and the hopelessness they felt.