Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II | "Ol' Man River" (from Showboat) My Favorite Musical Theater Songs

“Ol' Man River”

Composers: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Jules Bledscoe, 1927 (original Broadway performer)
Composers: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Paul Robeson, 1928 (with Paul Whiteman and his orchestra)
Composers: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Paul Robeson, 1936 (film version)
Composers: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: William Warfield, 1951 (film version)
Composers: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Frank Sinatra, 1946

In what many see as the first great American musical—certainly one of the first “serious” Broadway musicals—Florenz Ziegfeld moved away from revue and light entertainments, producing Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s remarkably rich score of Show Boat at his Ziegfeld theater in 1927. Purportedly, Ziegfeld did not like one of the work’s major songs, “Ol’ Man River;” given some of the kitsch productions (I’ve included Frank Sinatra’s version here 
just as an example of such), one might comprehend his doubts.
      Yet, in Jules Bledscoe’s performance, who sang Joe in the original production, we can hear his well-enunciated anger at the white community who treats him so abysmally while working on the river that “just keeps rollin’ along.” His version may not vocally be the best, but it’s certainly of the best expressed and is a true denunciation of the slavery all around him.
     Paul Robeson’s 1936 film rendition is perhaps the best known, with small changes to the original text (“darkies” instead of ”niggers,” etc.). His version, particularly in his 1928 recording is much faster than Bledscoe’s, and, at times, he oddly seems more interested in the river itself than the bigotry of which the song so severely condemns. It is, of course, a work of comparison, describing the puny meanness of the human race against the endless flowing of the mighty Mississippi, the only peaceful aspect in Joe’s troubled life.

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

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

Human beings are another thing:

You an' me, we sweat an' strain
Body all achin' an' wracked wid pain,
Tote dat barge! Lif' dat bale!
Git 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 rolling' along

     Warfield’s singing in the 1951 film version is a darker, bass setting of the same song.
     Hammerstein reveals himself in this early work as a far deeper lyricist than his later musicals—although in every work he has one or two songs with far more political context (think, for example of “Poor Judd Is Dead” in Oklahoma!, South Pacific’s “You Have to Be Carefully Taught” or the spectacular narrative retelling of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in The King and I). But it remains difficult, even now, to accommodate the idea of the same lyricist who writes “Git a little drunk an’ you lands in jail,” or “Ah’m tired of livin’ an’ skeered of dyin,’with the fabulous metaphor of “the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye.” And when one also realizes just how important Hammerstein was in Stephen Sondheim’s career, it gets even a bit stranger. Hammerstein seems far more home in the “Make Believe” reality, than in the gritty world of slavery and miscegenation; but there he is, way back in 1927, long before he had anything to do with Richard Rodgers, working with the highly romantic composer Jerome Kern.

Los Angeles, September 19, 2017  

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