Broadway Blip: "Ol' Man River"
Perhaps one of the most poignant and powerful songs in the history of musical theatre is Jerome Kern’s and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River.” This swelling anthem contrasting the hard life of the African American with the unforgiving, undaunted flow of the Mississippi River is one of the best-known songs to come from the groundbreaking 1927 musical Show Boat. The song was introduced in the musical on December 27, 1927 by Jules Bledsoe who played the role of Joe a black dock worker aboard the entertainment vessel The Cotton Blossom. “Ol’ Man River” is Joe’s contemplation of the apathy the river (and, symbolically, mankind in general) feel for the plight of the black man. Soon, Joe is joined by all the other dock workers, and song swells into achingly-palpable lament. The song is one of the most-recorded of all Broadway songs, with Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Gordon MacRae, Sam Cooke, Sammy Davis Jr., Al Jolson, Ray Charles, Cher, Jim Croce, The Beach Boys, Aretha Franklin and William Warfield among the many artists who covered the song.
Fun Fact: Dorothy Hammerstein (Oscar’s wife), perturbed by a woman who didn’t acknowledge her husband’s hand in creating this song masterpiece, replied “I beg your pardon, my husband wrote “Ol’ Man River”, Jerome Kern wrote da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da.” Dorothy believed all the song’s power lay in Oscar’s words, but we all know that the song is only effective when those words are married to Kern’s lumbering melody evoking the relentless river. Still, the lyricist deserved his credit and Dorothy made sure her husband got it.