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Who Should Sing Ol' Man River?The Lives of an American Song$
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Todd Decker

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780199389186

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199389186.001.0001

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Ol’ Man Metaphor

Ol’ Man Metaphor

(p.102) 6 Ol’ Man Metaphor
Who Should Sing Ol' Man River?

Todd Decker

Oxford University Press

This chapter considers white male singers, mostly from the operatic stage, who recorded and performed “Ol’ Man River.” The song was a popular choice for such singers in the middle decades of the twentieth century, a time when white singers could put on this song about the black experience without fear of criticism. What black listeners did object to was such singers’ use of derogatory words such as “darkies” and “niggers.” Black newspapers protested these word choices publicly; several white singers and music industry executives responded positively to their requests for revisions. The white male singers of “Ol’ Man River” took a remarkably consistent approach to the song, demonstrated by close comparison of performance choices captured on recordings. By the 1990s, the space for white male singers to perform “Ol’ Man River” had shrunk appreciably, as this sort of metaphorical performance of blackness became generally unacceptable.

Keywords:   opera and race, blackface, Robert Merrill, Al Jolson, Metropolitan Opera, concept albums, Gordon MacRae, Sherrill Milnes

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