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Ol’ Man River

Song: Ol’ man River

Songwriters: Jerome Kern (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics)

Singer: Paul Robeson (most famously, but many others, including a fine version by Frank Sinatra)

When I undertook this project, to try to gain a deeper understanding of one hundred great songs, Ol’ Man River was one of the first songs on my list.

While, on the face of it, Ol’ Man River is a song about slavery, I think the songs great appeal lies in the universality of its theme. In the words of Oscar Wilde:

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

Written originally for the musical Showboat, Ol’ Man River draws heavily on the spiritual tradition. The great Mississippi river is used as a symbol for the eternal, and for time itself, that “jes’ keeps rollin’ along”, while poor mortals “sweat and strain” and will be “soon forgotten”. In a wonderfully example of anthropomorphism, the “Ol’ Man” is characterised as a wise, meditating sage, particularly in the brilliant couplet:

He mus’ know sumpin’,
He don’t say nothin.

By contrast, our poor, suffering narrator must deal with trials of an altogether more worldly nature.

Git a little drunk,
An’ you lands in jail!

In keeping with the spiritual, folk song character of the song, the main melody of Ol’man River employs the five-note pentatonic scale (but not the introduction and middle eight, which are themselves not devices generally found in folk song). Rythmically, this section is also very simple, with every line re-using the rhythmic motif of the line “Ol’ man River”.

In the first two verses, the melody of “Ol’ man River” takes the shape of a great many melodies, rising to a high-point around two-thirds of the way through (on the line “But don’t say nothin’”).

This pattern is broken in the final verse, which rises steadily through almost two octaves to a climactic finish. This effect is fully supported by the lyrics, which build up in emotional intensity to match the music (or probably vice versa). First, the stage is set for this final emotional crescendo, with the words “you lands in jail” in a slow dive to the bottom of the bass register – now that’s what I call hitting rock bottom!)

Then, from a low, sumissive “Ah gits weary”, we build up to the melodramatic “Ah’m tired o’ livin’, And skeered o’ dyin’”.

This big finish is typical of songs which are written for the stage, whether for operatic arias or would-be showstoppers from the musicals: build up a good head of emotional steam, end on a high, and hopefully the audience will bring the house down. It certainly worked for Paul Robeson.


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