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Intro

In a Nutshell:

It’s difficult to overstate how accomplished Paul Robeson was. By the time he reached 40, he had established a reputation as a college and professional football star, lawyer, film and Broadway actor, concert singer, and powerful international political activist. Have we mentioned that he won 14 varsity letters in different sports in college, including baseball, shot put, and javelin? And that he lived in England for 11 years supporting workers’ rights and learning about anti-colonial politics? And that he wrote books and essays, and gave speeches alongside famous Civil Rights activists? And that he has been on postage stamps in five different countries? Oh, and that he was a black man living and working (as a lawyer, actor, singer, basketball coach, and professional football player, among other things) in the U.S. in a time when blacks had to struggle for the most basic human rights?

Of all the gazillion things he did in his life, his performance in the musical Show Boat is one of the most famous (and good thing, too, as the role he played was quite literally written for him by Jerome Kern). In Robeson’s gorgeous baritone, a number from the 1927 musical becomes a powerful historical sketch. “Ol’ Man River” paints a picture of cruel racial discrimination, hard physical labor, and the hopelessness and despair that come with it all. This is the definitive version of a song that helped define American musical theater, as well as helped document an important phase of American history.

About the Song

ArtistPaul Robeson Musician(s)Paul Robeson (vocals), Men’s Chorus (vocals)
AlbumAppeared in the film Show Boat (1936) and as a single
YearShow Boat premiered on Broadway in 1927, but Robeson did not perform the song until 1928.
LabelEMI
Writer(s)Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II
Producer(s)Universal Pictures (film producer)
Learn to play: http://www.wikifonia.org/node/1548
Buy this song: Amazon iTunes
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Shmoop Connections

Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
Paul Robeson’s life spanned an incredible time period. He was born in the early Jim Crow era and died in the late Civil Rights era. He was at the peak of his career as an actor and concert singer during the Great Depression, which was no small feat on any level. And he is famous for a wide range of accomplishments, from his key role in the history of racial integration in football to his key role in bringing black spirituals to mainstream white audiences to his key role in mid-century American theatre to his key role in… well, you get the picture.

Although it is a somewhat stereotyped tune by white songwriters that self-consciously imitates “Negro spirituals,” “Ol’ Man River” still manages to capture the feeling of a bygone era, especially in the hands of Robeson, whose expansive life experience and personal history of fighting for equality made him a powerful voice for the song’s mournful lines.

On the Charts

Paul Robeson’s version of the classic song from Show Boat appeared in the 1936 film version. It was also released on several Robeson records, but it did not chart.

Paul Robeson was awarded a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in 1998, 100 years after his birth and 22 years after his death.
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