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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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The High Season on Television

The High Season on Television

(p.157) 9 The High Season on Television
Who Should Sing Ol' Man River?

Todd Decker

Oxford University Press

“Ol’ Man River” was frequently heard on television during the height of the civil rights era—from roughly 1957 to the end of the 1960s. This chapter considers eleven televised versions performed by singers Sam Cooke, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Cab Calloway, and Sammy Davis Jr. and a recitation of the lyric by actor Henry Fonda. Analysis of these performances includes both matters of musical style and visual presentation. Discussion of Garland’s two televised versions highlights how one female performer remade “Ol’ Man River” as a personal anthem. Sinatra’s and Davis’s late 1960s versions find these iconic performers altering small details in their respective approaches to the song, drawing attention away from or directly to the confrontational content of Hammerstein’s lyric at a time of heightened racial tension.

Keywords:   popular music on television, Sam Cooke, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Cab Calloway, Sammy Davis Jr., The Ed Sullivan Show

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