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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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Sinatra’s Way

Sinatra’s Way

(p.124) 7 Sinatra’s Way
Who Should Sing Ol' Man River?

Todd Decker

Oxford University Press

This chapter considers popular music icon Frank Sinatra’s fifty years singing “Ol’ Man River.” He first sang the song in the early 1940s, when it was an unlikely addition to his repertoire of love ballads. In these years, “Ol’ Man River” functioned as a showpiece for Sinatra’s voice and a display of masculinity: some listeners didn’t think the tune worked for a crooner but Sinatra kept on singing it. Across his career, he framed the song as a “classic” or “great” piece of popular art. Sinatra took two approaches to “Ol’ Man River,” which can be characterized as the bombastic and the intimate. Central to both was a choice of phrasing that pulls the listener’s attention toward Sinatra’s technical ability to sustain a long musical line on a single breath. This idiosyncratic approach to the tune hints that Sinatra conceived of “Ol’ Man River” primarily as an opportunity for vocal display.

Keywords:   Frank Sinatra, The House I Live In, Till the Clouds Roll By, Paul Robeson, whiteness

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