Friday, July 07, 2006

In today's excerpt, the song "Ol' Man River" from the groundbreaking 1927 American musical Show Boat. The song's words were written by Oscar Hammerstein II, later of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame, and the music was written by the Jerome Kern, the equally famous Broadway and popular music composer of such songs as "All the Things You Are" and "The Way You Look Tonight":

 "Although Show Boat is a musical epic with many storylines, the most important character of all wasn't even onstage. 'Ol' Man River' was one of the last songs written for the score. It's been said that Hammerstein needed the number to cover the set change and borrowed a snatch of Kern's opening 'Cotton Blossom' number and slowed down the tempo. But in an interview later in his life, he revealed a deeper motive:

 " 'The motive for writing 'Ol' Man River' was not even a song writing motive. It was anxiety about the story itself. Edna Ferber's novel, which...was a sprawling kind of novel...didn't have the tightness that a play requires...I decided to write a river theme, which would hold the play together. I put the song into the throat of a character who is a rugged and untutored philosopher...Possibly there's a protest.'

 "The song was not without controversy. The second verse appears as the first lyric of the show, heard the moment the curtain rises on a group of black stevedores on a Natchez levee: 'Niggers all work on de Mississippi.' Over the years, the lyric has been altered to..."Darkies all work..." (and) "Colored folk work..." (and) "Here we all work..." (and) in some productions it has been omitted altogether. In using the word nigger, Hammerstein, one of musical theater's most liberal souls, embroiled his song, and the show, in one of the most emotionally charged cultural arguments of the twentieth century.

 "When Kern played the song to the still-skeptical Ferber in 1927, tears came to her eyes...'This was a great song' "

 Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon, Broadway, The American Musical, Bulfinch, 2004, p. 118



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