Singing the colorline: “Ol’ Man River” and the politics of race

Who Should Sing “Ol’ Man River”? The Lives of an American Song

By Todd Decker

Oxford University Press, 2015

 One of the most entertaining moments I’ve heard on a recording is when Sarah Vaughan briefly breaks into laughter singing Ira Gershwin’s  lyric, “I’d give the world to be/Among the folks in D-I-X-I-E/Though my mammy’s waiting for me…” on her version of “Swanee” on 1982’s Gershwin Live! Vaughan, an African-American woman who was born in New Jersey in 1924, could not be further removed from the lyric’s ridiculously nostalgic lyrics. Vaughan, singing a live “songbook” album, surely included it for reportorial thoroughness rather than any deep personal relation. Though “Swanee” is a “classic” by virtue of being the Gershwins’ first hit, and being popularized by actor-singer Al Jolson in blackface in 1919, it was painfully anachronistic in 1982 and sounds even more so today. Rather changing the lyrics Vaughan signifies on the song, gently recognizing the irony of her singing this ode to a mythic South, and the moment passes.

 I thought of this moment reading about the myriad ways black singers have approached the standard “Ol Man River” in musicologist Todd Decker’s Who Should Sing Ol’ Man River? Black singers have spent generations trying to cross over and appeal to broad audiences, and detaching themselves from race is often the condition for gaining acceptance. “Ol’ Man River” is the rare song to refuse this at every turn. When you sing it you inherit its baggage based on what you keep and what you exclude.


                                                               Copyright  ©  2015 Oxford University Press. 

                                                               Copyright © 2015 Oxford University Press. 

“River” was originally written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein for the pioneering musical Showboat. They wanted Paul Robeson to sing it originally but musical theater actor Jules Bledsoe premiered it on Broadway in 1927.  Robeson’s 1932 recording on Brunswick is considered definitive, and he immortalized it in the 1936 film version; interestingly, he almost never sang it as written originally. “River”’s lyrics depict the laments of black laborers to capture the black struggle to survive against white racial oppression. Lyrically, it is infamous for an opening verse that included the phrase, “Niggers all work on de Mississippi/Niggers all work while de white folks play” which was changed later to “darkies” then “colored folk” by Hammerstein. At a certain point in the mid-1940s most white singers who included the verse sang, “Here we all work” and similar variations. The song is also famous for using dialect in its lyrics (i.e. “somethin’” instead of “something”), and for depicting what many listeners read as a condescending portrait of “noble suffering.”

 Musically its indelible melody and harmonically advanced structure has made it a musical showcase for vocalists who solidified it as a standard.  Decker describes how it is “built along an AABA pattern but Kern shaped the melody of each A phrase differently, slowly expanding the range of the song to peak at the end of the thirty-two bars. The song practically—indeed, physically—demands a big finish” (30). Hammerstein authorized multiple lyric changes over time, and the song’s structure has accommodated an astonishing range of changes, such as spoken passages and radical tempo changes. The song continually evokes the question of what makes a song “classic,” and for whom? Black singers seem to have responded to its soaring music, but also to have assumed some ownership of how blacks are understood in the lyric. White singers also seem drawn to the music, but the lyric’s appeal seems far more ambiguous. There is a spectrum of interpretive approaches that offer answers to these questions.

 I’m uncertain when I first heard the iconic standard “Ol Man River,” but it was probably when I was a kid and most likely on TV.  Like many American standards from the 1920s its evocative melody and potent themes pervade American pop and seem as old as music itself. Simultaneously, as a casual listener of various versions of this song over the decades, and as an African-American, it has always seemed dated formally and tonally.  Songs by composers like Stephen Foster, and other minstrel era writers, and songs with references to “mammies” (i.e. “Swanee”) and “darkies” (i.e. “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South”) are obviously outdated and yet still embarrass me and many black people in the present.  It’s hard to believe millions of listeners enjoyed this kind of material without wincing collectively.

When examining “Ol’ Man River”'s lyrics it’s hard not to ask: What the hell did its white authors know about the subjectivity of black laborers?   Of course the same question applies to other songwriters. For example, what did Harold Arlen really know about rainbows? What did the band Toto know about the continent of Africa? One potential answer is the artistic imperative toward metaphor, but also the desire to empathize and connect as much as humanly possible. The adaptation of “Summertime” (whose lyrics feature “mammy” but has frequently been altered to “mommy”) is another example of the empathic relational attempt. What is always at stake is Decker’s core point: “A song such as this can never be a ‘classic’: it’s too wrapped up in history to achieve any supposed universal expression—if indeed any piece of music can make such a claim (I don’t believe any can).” (25). As such he challenges readers to place the song, and others of its ilk, in a context rather than excusing the song on aesthetic grounds. He clearly appreciates the song’s advanced harmonics and its noble intention, but neither absolves the song from scrutiny.

 Decker’s provocatively titled book effectively tells the storied tale of the song’s formal origins and adaptations, especially during the “high season” of recordings and TV performances from 1958-the early 1970s. Central to his argument is the song’s rotational utility for multiple singers in multiple eras. For example, the black musical theater actor Bledsoe on (not Robeson) originated it on Broadway.

 Robeson rarely-to-never sang the full lyrics as written, and consciously adapted the songs to the political times. Two 1928 versions include a version recorded with the Paul Whiteman orchestra that shifts from the slow verse to a dance tempo, and the cast album version. These were followed by the lusher and more self-consciously serious 1932 version. But Robeson pushed the song in 1937 at a political rally in London altering “I’m tired of livin and feared of dyin’” to “I must keep struggling until I’m dyin.’” (39). These modifications paralleled Robeson’s outspoken objections to celebrity and the kinds of roles blacks were offered at the time. At a 1947 concert in Manhattan he altered his alteration to “I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’” and altered the verse on a 1947 version recorded for Columbia Records to distance himself from the song. This was followed by a more overt shift in a 1949 Tchaikovsky Hall concert he sang “You show a little grit/And you land in jail” rather than “Git a little drunk/And you land in jail” (42). Robeson continued modifying the song treating it as a folk song rather than a merely pretty star vehicle. His final performance of it came in 1958 years after he had been blacklisted.

 Comparatively, many instrumentalists ignored the seemingly “heavy” lyrics altogether, and several instrumental and vocal renditions (i.e. Bing Crosby’s 1928 version) treated the song as either a rhythm tune for dancing or as easy listening mood music. Classical singers and crooners were more ambitious, adapting the song to showcase their virtuosity and by association affirm their manliness. Though Decker analyzes a few white female singers he cites their renditions (i.e. Judy Garland) more for extending their public personae than making a political point about hard labor or the plight of working people, the two most common interpretive approaches employed by white interpreters.

 Black singers have tended to do more with the song for understandable reasons. Many sang it seriously and imbued its character with dignity, rather than wallowing in the lyric’s implicit “noble suffering” persona. Another common approach was a subversive angle, ranging from Robeson’s politically themed versions to Duke Ellington and Al Hibbler’s exaggerated 1951 absurdist rendition to Lou Rawls’s swinging 1963 soul version. The idea of blacks as nobly suffering in the mythic South countered the burgeoning political sensibility of blacks, especially urban blacks who spent much of the 20th century defining their own culture in their own voice, simultaneously rejecting external constructions.

 Decker’s nine chapter inquiry, which includes chapters dedicated to Robeson’s approaches, rhythmic versions, easy listening versions, TV performances, and others, effectively contrasts the ways musicians in pop, opera, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and jazz have adapted and interpreted the song’s nuances. The author is a skilled musical and lyrical critic, and even when one disagrees with his readings, I appreciated the irresistible conversation he offered. There are so few contemporary songs that have anything at stake politically or emotionally that it’s genuinely surprising when a song warrants book-length coverage.

 The book’s title question is perhaps too big to answer but its provocations get at the inescapable force of race in popular music.  American blackness is so dense with history that Blacks predictably navigate race more carefully than any racial group. A politically fraught song like “Ol’ Man River” is bound to inspire complex responses.

 Some of the more notable renditions of the song, dense with political inflections include Robeson, Hibbler, Rawls, as well as  Ray Charles’s brilliant 1963 version cited by Decker as his favorite, Sammy Davis Jr’s 1969 TV rendition on The Hollywood Palace, and Aretha Franklin’s live 1994 TV version sung at the Clinton White House featuring an intro about her foremothers and forefathers  Each of these is an important touchstone of a racialized political moment.

 Whereas many white singers approach the song in a de-racialized, detached manner more focused on the song as a “classic” than its racial commentary black singers could not detach so easily.  Tellingly, many of the most significant black performers of the century (i.e. Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday) never performed or recorded the song. This is an area Decker could explore even further. The economic and social aspirations of black entertainers are inseparable from the larger reality that Americans more readily accepted blacks when politics, commentary, and other conscious acknowledgements of race were hidden. Respectability always looms in the background for black public figures. On the flipside, singing the song straight as a literal commentary happened even it if was probably impolitic within many black communities. Decker notes many oddly “backwards” versions of the song ranging from Bledsoe’s overly dramatic 1931 rendition to the Temptations’ 1969 TV special’s medley of “The Best Things in Life are Free/Swanee/ /Old Folks at Home/Ol’ Man River.”

 Decker avoids reducing the book to a simple racial polemic by legitimately probing how a white singer can take such a fraught text and make it meaningful. For many white singers it seems to function as a technical exercise for dramatic and vocal chops, and for others a blandly “nostalgic” tune evocative of the antebellum south. On instrumental versions, that yoke the song with tunes like “Dixie,” Decker notes how such readings negate the song’s intended meaning. More thoughtful renditions tacitly acknowledge race but struggle to make sense. For example, Sinatra goes from singing the song as though he is black in the 1940s to removing references to race in an attempt to make the song universal via a 1967 version substituting “here we all work while the rich folk play” (161).

 Decker wisely notes the folly of this: a white singer erasing the racial premise of the song is unearned privilege that misses the point of the song which is that specific people have had specific struggles in a racialized context.  This universalizing approach conveniently shifts the tune away from social divides toward something that makes the song easier for the singer to relate to and for audiences to “enjoy” guilt free.  No matter how skillfully a singer navigates the song Decker interrogates the implications of certain lyric changes such as “here we all work” which collapses all workers under one banner.

 The best examples of Decker’s critical prowess are his readings of Sinatra’s interpretations.  He shows how Sinatra changed the “darkies” lyric after Black press protests regarding his 1943 radio performance to “here we all work.” Though this was progressive there was still the thorny issue of how Sinatra positioned himself in the song. He avoided overdramatizing the part where the white boss shouts orders, but kept the lines where the protagonist sings “white folks play” and “white man boss” interpolating himself as one of the oppressed. This is an interesting gesture, but to this listener it’s ludicrous. In 1967, as the Black Power movement began altering the Civil Rights climate he took these lines out. For Decker, Sinatra’s primary contribution was musical, not lyrical—notably his ability to sing some of its bigger passages subtly, which instantly differentiated it from operatic renditions and theatrical versions. This grounded the song emotionally, and served the dual purpose of positioning Sinatra as a serious vocalist with skilled breath control and interpretive acumen, not just a crooner.

 The lingering critical question is how we can tell if a white singer’s rendition is intended as a show of solidarity (necessitating certain lyric changes to avoid silliness) or a convenient form of denial, masked as “universal” when racial references are removed; or if it’s always a mix of both?

 The individual renditions tell their own story, and while Decker shares his takes the questions themselves provide the reader with opportunities to evaluate these questions critically. As such Decker’s study is not just an appraisal or critique, but a genuine conversation about the art of interpretation. Taste, judgment, and context are as important as chops and intentions.  Decker praises Charles’s version which juxtaposes the cooing sounds of a white choir with Charles’s intense readings of the lyrics, including a repeated refrain of “I want you to know …” as a preface to several lyrics, three time. For Decker, “‘Ol’ Man River’ is given voice by a powerful black man using the powerful expressive tools of soul music while the song’s white audience not only listens but responds—as it turns out, uncomprehendingly” (203). He reads this call-and-response structure as an intentional comment from Charles about race notably, “black and white have lived side by side in the soundscapes of popular music history and the landscape of the nation” (203).  Even if you challenge this reading he taps into an undeniable power in Charles’s choice. Charles is saying something and it’s not polemical or apolitical but something closer to the recognizable truthfulness at the heart of soul music.