This chapter examines Paul Robeson’s thirty-plus years of singing “Ol’ Man River.” His many live and studio recordings of the song are compared and his appearance in the 1936 film Show Boat is also examined. After World War II, Robeson began to aggressively change the lyrics in an effort to make “Ol’ Man River” fit his political and social commitments. His incremental changes to Hammerstein’s words are placed in the context of Robeson’s unfolding career, which moved decisively from performance to activism. Robeson’s remarks at a 1949 conference in Paris, and his subsequent concert tour to the Soviet Union, are both highlighted, as are his efforts to circumvent the confiscation of his passport by using technology to reach audiences beyond US borders. The use of Robeson’s revisions to “Ol’ Man River” by later singers and the survival of his vocal approach to the song are also discussed.
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