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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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Some Questions for “Ol’ Man River”

Some Questions for “Ol’ Man River”

(p.2) (p.3) 1 Some Questions for “Ol’ Man River”
Who Should Sing Ol' Man River?

Todd Decker

Oxford University Press

This chapter begins by comparing the lyrics of “Ol’ Man River” with African American poet Langston Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” After citing the origins of “Ol’ Man River” in the Broadway musical Show Boat, the book turns toward its central topic: examining how numerous performers in many different musical styles used “Ol’ Man River” for their own purposes. The song’s expressive flexibility—functioning as dance music, as fodder for comedy and satire, as quasi-operatic aria, and as soulful anthem—is introduced. Many singers have felt compelled to alter the lyrics to “Ol’ Man River.” This chapter considers the original text and points toward the most frequently changed lines. Controversies about whether the song should be performed at all are also discussed and the importance of hearing the voices and opinions of African American performers and listeners across the history of the song is emphasized.

Keywords:   Ol’ Man River, Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerome Kern, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, popular song, Show Boat, racial content, popular music

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