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The Story of a Musical

Ol’ Man River is a song written in 1927 for a musical: Show Boat. The music was composed by Jerome Kern. Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyrics and it is based on a novel by Edna Ferber.

Wikipedia has a wealth of information on this subject, but among various facts, I would like to emphasize that when Edna Ferber was “gathering material about a disappearing American entertainment venue, the river showboat,” the talented Edna found a “treasure trove of show-boat material, human, touching, true.”  She spent several weeks on the James Adams Floating Palace Theater in Bath, North Carolina, United States, researching her novel. (Wikipedia)

Edna Ferber, Wollcott, Kern & Hammerstein

Jerome Kern loved the novel and asked Alexander Woollcott (January 19, 1887 – January 23, 1943) of the New Yorker and a member of the Algonquin Round Table, New York wits of the day, to introduce him to Edna Ferber.

At first, Edna resisted.  She was afraid her Show Boat would be turned into a “girlie” show.  These were the roaring and frilly twenties.  But Kern explained that Oscar Hammerstein would write the lyrics, which meant this was going to be a carefully crafted Broadway show based on her book.  She ended up agreeing and her name was on the necessary and very fine poster: adapted from Edna Ferber…  She had won a Pulitzer prize for her novel So Big (1924).

A Sturdy Perennial

Performances of Show Boat dot the entire twentieth century and had a celebrated revival in 1994.  It has been a sturdy perennial and it is a tribute to Kern and Hammerstein to have written a song that has allowed Paul Robeson to express the hardship of African-Americans.

Since Kern and Hammerstein, several versions of the song have been performed.  So I listened very carefully and believe the lyrics I am providing, with the help of Wikipedia, match Robeson’s rendition.  However, I could not understand some of the words.

Paul Robeson’s Lyrics

Ther’s an ol’ man
Called the Mississippi
That’s the ol’ 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 [is not] free.
Ol’ man river
Dat [That] ol’ man river
He mus’ know sumpin’ [must know something]
But don’t say nuthin’ [doesn’t say nothing]
He jes’ [just] keeps rollin’ [rolling]
He keeps on rollin’ along.
Spoken over the song:
And you get[s] a littl’ drunk
And you land[s] in jail
Then you show a little grit [courage]
And you land in jail
He don’ [doesn’t] plant taters/tators [potatoes]
He don’ [doesn’t] plant cotton
An’ dem dat plants’ em [And those who plant them]
Is [Are] soon forgotten
But ol’ man river
He jes [just] keep on rollin’ along. 
You an’ [and] me, we sweat an’ strain
Body all achin’ an’ racket wid pain [Body all aching and wracked with pain]
Tote dat [that] barge
And lift dat bale
You show a little grit [courage]
An’ you land[s] in jail. 
But I keeps laffin’ [laughing]
Instead of crying
I must keep fightin’ [fighting]
Until I’m dyin’ [dying]
And ol’ man river
He’ll just keep rollin’ along.
Micheline Walker©
August 16th, 2012