Jerome Kern

Ol' Man River, song (from "Show Boat")

    Description by Timothy Dickey

    American musical theater came of age with the 1927 production of Show Boat. In a striking departure from the earlier traditions of musical comedies and splashy but superficial revues, Show Boat dared to stage realistic, human characters in often disappointing circumstances: failed marriages, prejudice, the passing of time. More importantly, and even more daring, was the show's portrayal of the harsh life faced by Southern blacks. The very opening chorus establishes the racial themes, by contrasting the white socialites' excitement over the arrival of the steamboat "Cotton Blossom" to the drudgery of the black shoreworkers' duties loading bales of cotton. Both the musical and the novel by Edna Ferber on which it is based also confront the issue of miscegenation in the challenges faced by one of the main characters when her mulatto heritage is revealed. Jerome Kern and the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II underscored the musical's racial themes by closing the entire show with a reprise of the first act's leitmotif, the song "Ol' Man River."

    "Ol' Man River," thus treated as the show's unifying theme, is a melody first sung by one of the African-American dockworkers. The young daughter of Cap'n Andy has met a charming young man, and asked the Negro named Joe where she can find her friend Julie. Joe responds that she would be better to ask the "ol' river," because "he knows all about everything." Leaning on a bale of cotton, Joe then sings this song, Kern's replica of an African-American work song. Joe's aria moves forward with a rhythm relentless as the river's flow, or the weary feet of those who must "tote that barge and lift that bale." Yet the river, he sings, continues its rolling when those who plant are forgotten, and those who "sweat and strain" have long become sick of trying to live. The full chorus of Negro workers joins in the song, singing that they'd all like to escape "de white man boss," and cross that River Jordan. The flow of the Mississippi becomes the flow of time toward death and new life in the musical Show Boat, and it closes the play 50 years later in the characters' lives.

    "Ol' Man River" became a showpiece for the many fine baritones who have sung it: Paul Robeson made it famous in the 1927 Ziegfeld production and the first film (1936), and William Warfield re-introduced America to "Ol' Man River" in the 1951 MGM film.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Verve 002480402
    2016 Decca 4812585
    2016 Sony Classical / Sony Music Distribution 88875032272
    2016 Sony Classical 88985304202
    2015 Verve
    2015 Verve 4812050
    2015 Alto 1305
    2014 King's College Choir KGS 006
    2014 Decca B002065402
    2014 Decca
    2014 Erato 2564631289
    2013 Clay Pasternack / Wh Sound Studio 7267
    2013 C Major Entertainment / Major 713208
    2013 C Major Entertainment / Major 713304
    2012 EMI / EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099932737523
    2012 Decca / Decca Broadway 001648802
    2012 ABC Classics 4806016
    2012 Guild Light Music GLCD 5188
    2011 ABC Classics ABC 4805513
    2011 Altissimo ALT 61032
    2011 Haenssler 98623
    2011 Dooload. De / Zebralution
    2011 Somerset Entertainment 53243
    2010 Silva Screen 1013282SC
    2010 Frémeaux & Associés FA 457
    2010 Amabilis Singers
    2010 Angel Records 50999648000820
    2010 Philips
    2009 EMI Classics 64218
    2009 Philips
    2008 Decca 4800535
    2008 Flare 268
    2008 EMI Classics 217448
    2008 Pianafiddle 4071
    2008 Albany Music Distribution 1011
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099921558
    2008 EMI Music Distribution 216121
    2007 Nimbus 7939/40
    2007 Rev-Ola Records CRREV 208
    2006 Deja Vu 20
    2006 Shout! Factory 39764
    2006 Bongiovanni 25532
    2006 Rhino 73192
    2005 Vocalion 4323
    2005 Doremi Records 71145
    2004 Universal Classics & Jazz
    2004 Cloud 9 Records / RCA 74321938532
    2004 Carmen 5030
    2003 Gvc GVC 2004
    2002 LML Music 202
    2002 Preiser Records 89557
    2002 Decca 470513
    2002 Preiser Records 89945
    2002 Angel Records 724353633622
    2001 Soundline SLB 4007
    2001 Decca 467904
    2001 Pearl 132
    2001 ASV / ASV/Living Era CDAJS 244
    2001 NYC Labor Chorus / Orchard 801536
    2000 EMI Music Distribution 54914
    2000 Golden Music / Music Products GO 3820
    1999 Pearl 60
    1999 Cala Records 110
    1999 Pearl 9173
    1998 Pavane 7400
    1997 Delos 3224
    1997 Sony Classical 63223
    1997 Angel Records 56465
    1997 Delos 5500
    1997 Prism Leisure Corporation (UK) / Prism Leisure / Prism Platinum PLATCD 119
    1996 Madacy Distribution / Madacy 725
    1996 Sony Classical 62365
    1996 Turner Classic Movies Music / Rhino 72463
    1996 Turner Classic Movies Music / Rhino 72463
    1996 Memoir Classics 501
    1996 Avid 519
    1995 RCA Victor / RCA 68305
    1995 Pickwick 4161
    1994 RCA 09026625472
    1993 Vanguard 6015
    1993 Pearl 9356
    1992 ASV/Living Era / Living Era CDAJA 5027
    1992 Nimbus 7838
    1990 Vanguard VCD-72020
    1989 Reader's Digest Music 120
    ASV 5112
    Measure for Measure
    Disques Dom DOM 1242
    ABC Classics 4763439
    Milan 35642
    RCA 62547
    Classic CD 931397
    Intersound 8303
    CBS Records 40092
    Sony Music Distribution 47018
    Memoir Classics 415
    Dynamic Nostalgia DYN 3588
    Revelation Records 70004
    Telarc Distribution 83337
    Legato Classics 199
    Happy Days/Conifer 183
    Philips / Polygram 426058
    The Radio Years 14
    Biographies in Music 710
    Legato Classics 710
    CBS Records 2220
    RCA 61182
    Pearl 9105
    Pickwick 4142
    Pickwick PWKS4142
    Somerset Entertainment 46216
    Philips 468139
    Javelin 203