The Jerome Kern (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics) musical, Show Boat, opened on this day in 1927 at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City. It was inspired by the novel of the same name written by Edna Ferber in 1926.
Show Boat ran for 572 performances; Hollywood filmed its first version in 1929, its second in 1936, and its third in 1951.
Show Boat featured ground-breaking subject matter on interracial marriage, mulattos who “pass” as whites, drunkenness, gambling addiction, abandonment, and the cruelties of social ostracization.
In the 1936 version, Paul Robeson plays the dock worker Joe, who sings “Ol Man River.” The ad campaign described Joe as the “lazy, easy-going husband” of the showboat’s cook (played by Hattie McDaniel). Robeson’s friends berated him for playing to the black stereotype as “yet another shiftless moron” but there was no gainsaying that his voice was magical.
After his work on the movie and the show in London, Robeson began to change some of the lyrics to reflect a stronger image. The film itself had changed the word “Nigger” in the song to “Darky.”
Robeson’s own 1938 changes in the lyrics of the song are as follows:
Instead of “Dere’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi, / Dat’s de ol’ man that I’d like to be…”, Robeson sang “There’s an ol’ man called the Mississippi, / That’s the ol’ man I don’t like to be”…”
Instead of “Tote that barge! / Lift that bale! / Git a little drunk, / An’ you land in jail…”, Robeson sang “Tote that barge and lift dat bale!/ You show a little grit and / You lands in jail…”
Instead of “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’; / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An skeered of dyin’, / But Ol’ Man River, / He jes’ keeps rolling along!” , Robeson sang “But I keeps laffin’/ Instead of cryin’ / I must keep fightin’; / Until I’m dyin’, / And Ol’ Man River, / He’ll just keep rollin’ along!”
Below, the incomparable singing of Paul Robeson in Ol’ Man River in the 1936 movie. And if you want to see why he is my most admired hero, check my book review of his biography here.