From Time magazine, "All-TIME 100 Songs --Our critics pick the most extraordinary English-language popular recordings since the beginning of TIME magazine in 1923. Here are 100 (unranked) songs of enduring beauty, power and inventiveness. 1920's -- ‘Ol’ Man River’" written by Richard Corliss on October 24, 2011:
The first great Broadway drama to integrate its story with its music, Show Boat spawned a steamboat full of hits, including “Make Believe,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Why Do I Love You?” But its enduring anthem was this plaint, sung by a former slave, about the mindless ol’ Mississippi River. Jerome Kern, who practically invented the 20th century pop ballad, provided the churning, majestic melody to Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics. Hammerstein, whose later Broadway collaboration with Richard Rodgers would produce America’s midcentury secular liturgy in hymns like “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” often said, “I can’t write a song without hope in it.” “Ol’ Man River” gave the lie to that statement. Essentially the prison dirge of a people whose only crime was their skin color, it turned the Mississippi into a metaphor for the white man’s indifference: “What does he care if the world’s got troubles?/ What does he care if the land ain’t free?”
Jules Bledsoe introduced “Ol’ Man River,” but in a 1929 Broadway revival and in James Whale’s definitive 1936 film version, the song found its ideal singer: Paul Robeson, a Rutgers football star and Columbia-educated lawyer whose charismatic presence would have propelled him to the top of any entertainment medium not hobbled by racism. In Robeson’s powerful bass-baritone voice you can hear not just mourning for the black underclass but also a brilliant man’s anger at being deprived of his fair measure of roles. In the ’50s, blacklisted for his Communist Party membership — and for being so damned uppity — Robeson would alter the words of Hammerstein’s final verse from the despairing “Ah gits weary/ an’ sick of tryin’/ Ah’m tired of livin’/ an’ scared of dyin’ ” to the defiant, hopeful “But I keeps laffin’/ instead of cryin’/ I must keep fightin’/ until I’m dyin.’ “ (TIME magazine)
[Read more: http://entertainment.time.com/2011/10/24/the-all-time-100-songs/slide/ol-man-river-paul-robeson/#ol-man-river-paul-robeson#ixzz1oOyGA5Iy]
Ol’ Man River, by Oscar Hammerstein, as sung by Paul Robeson, 1928:
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?
You an' me, we sweat an' strain,
Body all achin' an racked wid pain,
Tote dat barge!
Lif' dat bale!
You gits a little drunk,
An' you lands in jail.
Ah gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’,
But Ol’ Man River
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.
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.
"Show Boat" was a testament to the courage of composer Jerome Kern, lyricist and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, and producer Florenz Ziegfeld. In an era of "willful nonsense," they attempted a complicated musical narrative epic with challenging themes and many storylines. It was the first time that serious black and white characters held the stage together as equals. Cap'n Andy's show boat, the COTTON BLOSSOM, travels up and down the Mississippi for decades, folding in its wake his brittle wife and glowing daughter, Magnolia, and her doomed romance with a gambler husband, along with a troupe of complicated supporting characters. Among them is Julie, a performer on the boat whose mulatto roots are revealed; because marrying a white man is against the law, she is forced to leave the COTTON BLOSSOM and spirals downward in an alcoholic fog. Her story intertwines with the romance of Magnolia and her ne'er-do-well husband as they are separated and united over several decades. Yet the most important character of all wasn't even on stage. "Ol' Man River" was a serious song, about the destiny of the mighty Mississippi and the people it encompasses.
When it docked at the stunning new Ziegfeld Theater, the show gave audiences the same values Ziegfeld had offered for two decades: a huge cast, comic songs and dances, black actors performing with white actors, breathtaking design, soaring music, overwhelming spectacle, all burnished to a golden sheen. But this time, it had a story, an American story, a story with heart. "Show Boat" was an out-and-out hit, running 572 performances and proved so beloved by audiences and so lucrative for Ziegfeld that he revived it as early as 1932. It has been revived half a dozen times since and filmed three times. (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/broadway/musicals/showboat.html)