(via Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein II – “Ol’ Man River”)

Year: 1927

Album: Show Boat musical soundtrack

Show Boat is one of those watershed works of art in which a “before/after” line was created. The collaboration between Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Florenz Ziegfeld adapting Edna Ferber’s novel for Broadway marked the moment when the American musical, before an exclusive showcase for trivial comedy, became a legitimate marriage of spectacle and drama. This is when the serious musical play was born.

Show Boat covers the 1880s through the 1920s following a floating theater called the Cotton Blossom that travels along the Mississippi River. Characters, black and white (this was one of the first musicals to be racially integrated), live and work alongside each other in a once-booming industry. They love, hate, and hurt each other. They grew over right before the audience. They watch America change.

Its most famous song, “Ol’ Man River,” has rightfully earned its place as an American standard. The character Joe sings of the Mississippi River as a merciless force of nature and a metaphor of the white man’s endless cruelty or indifference towards other races (“He don’t say nothin’, he must know somethin’ / Old Man River, he just keeps rollin’ along”). Joe sings with spite, yet the grand orchestration transforms his slow words into a gospel-like prayer that finds hope and faith in an unyielding force, both natural and man-made.

Above is Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River” as Joe in the 1936 film adaption, with a screenplay also by Hammerstein II. The character of Joe for the Broadway production was originally written for Robeson, but he was unavailable at the time and Jules Bledsoe filled the role. In addition to the film, Robeson would play Joe in the 1928 London premiere and two revivals on Broadway and in Los Angeles.